Siem Reap airport – a quiet reflection

Siem Reap airport - a quiet reflection

For me, any stay in Siem Reap is far too short, and by the time I get to the airport I’m in a reflective mood just thinking about the things I have achieved or not achieved during my stay. I like this airport, and I always end up buying two or three books from Monument bookstore and find myself chatting to strangers and sharing stories. Stepping into the airport is like stepping into a privileged world. Unless you work here, or you are a business traveller, then as a Cambodian you may have zero experience of being in an airport.

I recall the first time that Savong flew from Siem Reap to the Phnom Penh. He had a business meeting and, I think, was quite excited by the prospect of experiencing air travel. When he arrived in the capital, I phoned him and asked what the experience was like. He was upbeat; excited. Behind him I could hear the clamour of taxis at Phnom Penh airport. I have the impression that he had just gone through a rite of passage; the step between being a 20th century Cambodian, and entering the 21st century world. But at that stage he was still quite naive about air travel, and when I asked him if he had a window seat, his answer was memorable. “Yes brother,” he said, ” but the window didn’t open.”

Since that day, now several years ago, sponsors have flown Savong to Singapore, to Austria, as well is to South Korea, and I am glad that he has had the opportunity to see his NGO from these foreign perspectives.

We love to complain about the travails of air travel, and moan about airports in general. But when I sit in the quiet of Siem Reap International, I think about the privilege and freedom that we enjoy.

A story about the cultural differences between Westerners and Cambodians  click here.

Let’s not forget the costs of poverty – and the pressure it puts on young people

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I have been in two minds about writing this particular post. I’m uneasy about portraying individual children as poster examples of poverty or hardship, and don’t mean to tread on the privacy and interior life of these individuals. On the other hand there is a role for photojournalism to share stories about the human condition and to provoke action from those who read the stories and see the photos. So I hope you’ll forgive the story. I’m not going to name or identify the girl in the photo except to say that she lives in Cambodia and that she is 15 years old.

Her life has been unimaginably hard. When she was an infant, she was more or less abandoned by her mother who has alcohol problems of her own. For this girl, the only family she knew was her grandmother who raised her, cared for her and gave her the love that every child deserves. They lived in the house you see pictured above. Last week the grandmother died, leaving this 15-year-old girl virtually alone in the world.

Well not quite. At the funeral a few members of the extended family showed up, and so did the mother – still with her severe alcohol problems. She offered to take up care of the girl, but it was pretty obvious to Savong, who visited the family, that the mother neither has the resources or the reliability required to raise a teenage daughter.

The girl has a sponsor, and he has offered to underwrite whatever it costs to ensure that the girl receives a good education. She is a good student. Savong has openly offered her a place to stay with other high school students, and to provide the food shelter and funding to ensure that she fulfils her potential.

But if you were this 15-year-old girl, what would you do? if you had nobody else in this world other than the mother who abandoned you, and now she was back in your life, would you now turn your back on her or would you choose to live with her and see if things work out?

These are the horrible dilemmas faced by impoverished children. Rather than growing up in a world that is for them safe, caring, and geared to providing support; this girl has grown up in a world where support has been a scarce commodity at best. For most children in the situation, there is no government agency stepping in to help here. There is no extended family with the capacity to take the girl in to be cared for.

In this girl’s case, it is only luck – the luck that an NGO happens to work within her village – that has provided the girl with the option and choice she now faces even as she suffers the grief of having lost the one close person in her life.

Savong is not pressuring this girl. She knows she is welcome to stay with him; just as he knows that she has every motivation in the world to see if she can work things out with her mother. What an emotional dilemma.

Working in Cambodia often blinds people like me to what I call the romance of poverty. We are beguiled by the elegant simplicity of rural lives, and warmed by the egalitarian welcome we receive when we are invited into the homes of those we hope to assist. But occasionally, stories like the one about this girl remind us that poverty takes young people to the edge of an abyss. There is no romance about that. You can see the reality of poverty etched on her grief stricken face.

The sad story of Savong’s older brother. Click here.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

 

New Year – 2009, an emotional memory

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The photo above is Savong’s father, and when I took this photo in April 2009 he was leading a New Year’s ceremony out of the SOC in Bakong. The day was scorching hot as they are in April in Cambodia, with temperatures hitting the late 30s or possibly 40°. I was not the only volunteer there, but us Westerners were dying in the heat.

New year is one of the big two celebrations in the Cambodian calendar, and the countryside was filled with the sound of loudspeakers, music and chanting as well as the sound of children gleefully playing. Bakong is a village with maybe 600 families, and I think everybody that day was celebrating the beginning of the brand new year.

At the SOC, apart from us volunteers, were the children who lived at the orphanage as well as the staff, who included Savong’s older brother’s Savet, monks from the local Bakong monastery as well is  two senior friends of Savong’s father.  One was a man who spoke French, and another was a woman who had become a nun dressed in white, and with lips bright red from betel chewing. I learned later that this woman and Savong’s father had together collected the bones and skulls from the killing fields of Siem Reap: the remains of family and friends. What a deeply tragic and moving task this must have been. If on the way to Angkor Wat you stop off at a monastery called Wat Thmei, then you will see the stupa in which these bones are held. The land for that monastery was donated by Savong’s father.

So the ceremony began. The monks chanted, and accepted offerings from the children: gift baskets that included food, cans of Coca-Cola and (somewhat incongruously,) packets with toothpaste and toothbrushes.

I was asked to take part in the ceremony, and my role was to lightly splash holy water on the assembled guests. I felt somewhat awkward because this was a Buddhist ceremony and I had no idea what I should be doing. My holy actions were accompanied by polite laughter.

At this point the microphone was handed over to the elderly woman: the nun. What followed was the most remarkable vocal performance I have ever heard in my life. I love the power of song, and I love the strength that comes from a lone voice without accompaniment. If I ever go to heaven then I long to meet vocalists such as Dinah Washington who could add so much soul and depth into any song she sang. Dinah Washington would walk into the studio during her heyday and announce to all and sundry, “never fear, the Queen is here!”

But I’m afraid that Dinah Washington would have to step aside for this elderly Cambodian woman. The singing began as a low murmur. I was kneeling right next to her, and while I could not understand the Khmer language, I was right there to hear the deep almost guttural emanations of her voice. She did not sing from her mouth or from her throat; this woman sang from her heart. It was an incredibly emotional song, and as I looked around the monks and the assembled guests to the ceremony I saw absolutely everybody deep in tears. Standing to one side, my friend Savong was sobbing. Savong’s own father, a man who was seen the deepest tragedies in life, was weeping uncontrollably. I too was sniffing and tearful, yet I had no certain idea what this woman was singing about: her music transcended culture, and crossed barriers of language.

Somehow, I had the feeling that this woman was singing of motherhood, and of loss. After the ceremony I sidled up to Savong and asked: “Brother, what was the song she was singing?”

Savong was still upset, his eyes were red from the crying, and he said to me: “brother, that was a sad song about what it feels to be a mother who gives birth to children only to watch them die in times of war.”

It was a remarkable experience, and I owe that woman the deepest appreciation for sharing from the depths of her own life experience. It was a moment in which I felt connected not just to Cambodia, but to the tragedy that lingers near the surface for older people who remember, no doubt in stark clarity, the horrors of the Pol Pot era.

For me, and more especially for Savong, the daily marks another element of tragedy as well. I mentioned that Savong’s older brother Savet was working there, and this was the first occasion I had ever met him. He was older than Savong, and a very reserved character who kept largely to self. I learned later on that Savet had left home at age 7 to fend for itself during the worst years of poverty faced by the family. At times he was reduced to eating bark from trees. Later in 2009 Savet died of cancer, and I cannot help but think that he, too, was a victim of Cambodia’s recent past. His death affected Savong greatly, and I often feel that the memory of Savet is never too far away from Savong’s consciousness.

This is what Cambodia does to you. You begin a day full of cheer and celebration, and here it is five years later and I am still ruminating on the experience of hearing the woman sing from her soul.

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A rainy day in the April heat of Cambodia. An old school photo.

A rainy day in the April heat of Cambodia. An old school photo.

I was going through some 2011 photos today and found this rainy day shot of Buntheourn. He is now an auto-mechanic but at the time, two and half years ago was still at high school.

Buntheourn has always been modest, helpful – everyone’s idea of the perfect son. Today he is on the brink of being an independent adult, but he remains much loved by the younger children at Savong’s children’s home: the SOC. It made me very happy to speak to him briefly on Christmas day and to learn that he was going to the big party out there.

That brief conversation made me realise how supporters and sponsors of the SOC students will forever have a bond with adult citizens of Cambodia: people we come to know first as students, and then to form bonds as adults, even simple bonds through Skype or Facebook.

Merry Christmas at Savong’s children’s home, Cambodia

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Christmas day.  What does it mean to the children of Cambodia?  In Siem Reap, the tourist base for two million tourists to go and explore Angkor Wat each year, the big hotels have put up well-lit Christmas trees and locals are standing in family groups, having their photos taken. There’s an excitement, and Cambodia (which celebrates three New Years – Western, Chinese and Khmer) is not above borrowing festivals from other countries.

At the SOC today there is going to be a Christmas party for the 51 children in our care, as well as children from the Happy Sunshine Home and older students from Siem Reap. They love parties!  Savong told me there will be games, plenty of food and music.

Even though much support for Savong’s organisation comes from overseas, we try to keep religion out of our influence – we want to encourage the local culture – but in this case Christmas was not thrust upon these children; the idea for the party came locally. Christmas is in the air just as surely as Hip Hop is on Cambodian radio.

Today marks a good day to think about these children. Messages of love, of hope, of respect are surely universal.

For more about our project click here.  And a picture from the Christmas day party – right here.

Savong and the giant mystery chicken

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I pictured a giant fibre-glass chicken. What would it be used for? Did it have religious significance?

I make weekly calls to Savong in Cambodia, and this way we catch up with news and he tells me what’s happening with his school and children’s home. Over the years our communication has got a lot deeper thanks to Savong’s increasing familiarity with English.  But one day, three years ago, he totally floored me.

“Brother,” he said, “we need some money.  At the children’s home we need to build a big chicken.”

“A chicken?” I pictured some fibreglass model.

“A big new chicken. It needs to be big.”

“How big? How much money do we need?”

“Oh very big – we will need $2,000. The old chicken is too small, we need to build a new one.”

I wracked my brains. I know roosters are a powerful symbol in Cambodia – the bank we use ACLEDA uses the symbol of a rooster – but really, $2,000 for…what exactly?  I was dubious. Was this to play some part of a religious ceremony?

“Two thousand dollars…” I began.

“Oh sorry brother,” said Savong. “I meant kitchen. We need a new kitchen.”

Problem solved!  We were able to get the money right away.  You know, in nine years I think this is the only case ever when Savong and I have been lost in translation. We have our differences perhaps, and our different cultural perspectives, but that is the only time when things just didn’t make sense.

More about Savong who it the director of the NGO: Click here.