One of the things I have learned about the world since coming to Cambodia, is that there must be millions of people whose lives could be transformed by something as simple as a wheelchair, but who instead are confined to a tiny space by their inability to walk. I have met a surprising number of people trapped in this way, usually without a diagnosis or access to any meaningful care. The fact that an NGO might exist who can supply a free wheelchair is not necessarily of any benefit in many parts of the poor world. In a place like Cambodia for example, services are not easily publicised; people’s capacity to access transportation to attend services is limited by their poverty; and they are often very hesitant to attend services where they have to deal with educated, confident and often intimidating professionals.
Today I had the privilege of arriving at a client’s home with the wheelchair he had been waiting on for a month since we sourced it for him, but which he has needed for almost two years when he first became house-bound due to his paralysis of unknown cause. He was sitting in the doorway of his tiny rental room eating a small plate of plain rice when we arrived. He only noticed me when I spoke “Salam Alaikum”. He looked up and replied “Alaikum Salam”, before averting his eyes to the tuk tuk driver behind me who was pushing his new wheelchair. His face transformed to a bright smile! We assisted him into the chair and he disappeared down the alleyway at lightning speed. Some days are really worth getting out of bed for, and today was one of them.
The concept of “transportation” took on new meaning for me in 2013 when I first came to Cambodia. Firstly, the scenes of people traveling on the roads were mind boggling. Secondly our program included a client assessment with social workers to determine whether transportation support was indicated. This involved offering less than $5 to those who otherwise could not afford to attend their appointments. Who could not afford $5 in a single month?, was my thought when I heard this discussed for the first time. As it turns out, many millions cannot!
Yesterday as we visited our various clients around this particular slum area, my colleague informed the poorest of them, who often have no food, that “a foreigner” has been seen at a particular Phnom Penh market, choosing 6 people per day and offering them a meal. If they go to this particular market, they could get chosen and receive a meal. One older lady with missing front teeth and visible malnutrition replied that she didn’t know this market? She then said “I have lived in Phnom Penh my whole life but I don’t know where anything is. I heard that the riverside is a really nice area to visit but I have no ability to go there”. The area she refers to is literally 1km (as the crow flies) across the river from where we were standing. But she would have to travel about 5km to reach it, as it’s across the shore. Similarly, most Cambodians dream of visiting Angkor Wat, the legacy their ancestors built which is a cause of much pride. Yet most Cambodians have never been there. A young French man turned up for dinner with some friends recently and they asked him, what did you see at Angkor Wat? He replied “a lot of stone”, to the bemusement of the Khmer people at the table. I have learned about Angkor Wat, that it is visited en masse by people from afar with plenty of money, for whom it has little meaning except tourism value; while those who live nearby, for whom it holds great significance, can only dream to visit it.
The capacity to travel matters far more than those of us who never have to think about it, realise. There is a reason that in Cambodia you see people traveling in all manner of dangerous forms. A few weeks ago this particular mini van caught my attention from my seat on a large bus as they were leaving a roadside stop and driving out onto a busy highway. If I was paying $4.75 for my safe seat, what were these passengers paying and what was their income, that $4.75 was not an option? These are questions that I continue to spend hours wondering about everyday.