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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This guy needs love and attenton

This guy needs love and attenton

Within any group of children there will be one or two who want extra love and attention. This young man is one of the kids at SOC who most wants one-on-one time.  Sometimes he feels overshadowed by the older boys – one path to his development will be to find a skill or talent that he is especially good at: something that helps build is self-esteem.

Alex – farewell for now

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Alex Brkljacic is an Australian volunteer who has never been afraid of rolling her sleeves up and getting stuck in. Alas, her bowl didn’t quite make it – but she is an indelible part of the SOC story.

Alex Brkljacic is the model volunteer, and has been pure gold for the last five months in Cambodia.  Don’t ask how to pronounce that surname, it involves consonants mixed liberally with phlegm, so it is no wonder that everyone just calls her Alex. Visitors, staff members in Savong’s organisation and the kids – the children of the SOC who adore Alex for her patience, her engagement, her humour and energy. She is their big sister.

Alex first came to Cambodia a few years back with a Melbourne family, the Palti clan, who arrived in a blizzard of activity and helped really energise the whole project. Their influence is felt to this day, and among other things the Palti family instituted the first day trips and longer for the SOC children – taking them on excursions that have marked their shared stories. Kulen Mountains, a great water fall swimming spot, and further afield.

Alex, who was a teenager at the time, was seduced by Cambodia. She has since returned multiple times. On her recent stay Alex has primarily served as a volunteer co-ordinator for the SOC, though that’s a rather drab title for the sheer value she has given the organisation. Co-ordinator, communicator, facilitator – she has been a kind of social glue who has bonded dozens of visitors with the NGO.

I only met legendary Alex for the first time just a month ago and was struck by her sharp observations, her quiet ‘let’s nudge this forward’ way of operating and her real humility. I have to say this (and this is hard for a Kiwi) but Alex personifies everything that’s great about Australians – the bigness of their hearts, their optimism, their egalitarian outlook and their generous helping of energy.

She is adored by the children, and it is fitting that on her last weekend in Siem Reap (she’s taking a short break in Thailand,) Alex shared her Sunday with the SOC students on a journey to Kulen Mountains. It is a great ritual: the drive, the hike to see the Buddha, the picnic and then the swim in those deliciously cool waterfalls – and this journey was punctuated by a flat tyre on the way home and a long wait in the heat. It was a feast for the tiger mosquitoes.

Alex’s blog remains cheerful as ever. She’s going to be missed for sure, but the Melbourne Cup bookies are already taking bets about how soon she’ll be back.  Alex is studying for a psychology degree – she has a wise head on her shoulders – but Cambodia keeps calling.  Alex is in no unnecessary hurry to finish uni and join the rat race. Not yet.

Follow her blog. LOVE IN CAMBODIA

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A visit from a Hong Kong family

One day while at the SOC Alex (on the left) and I had the pleasure of meeting a delightful Hong Kong family who had kindly chosen to visit and make a donation to the children’s home.

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It was hot that day, so we took shelter in the office – fan powered by a solar unit on the roof – and we discussed a lot of things. I guess its true that when strangers from other nations meet, we quickly find common points of interest. We talked about China and its differences with Hong Kong, and about different forms of education. The son, a bright student of 14, was I’m sure, looking at the circumstances he was seeing in Cambodia and imagining what it would be like growing up here.

For my part I was thinking about my mother in law, who lives with my partner and I, and the life she had seen growing up in mide-Century China, near Gaungzhou. She witnessed the Japanese invasion and walked, as a child, hundreds of kilometers to find safety.  I think it was a visit to her home village in the mid 1990s that prepared me in some way for my first journey to Cambodia in 2004. Everything connects doesn’t it?

A highlight of the visit was when we introduced the family to student Kimsan and we asked questions about her life, and about her hopes and ambitions. Kimsan took the photo above.

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Our visitor from Hong Kong. We invited him, if he ever considers a ‘gap year’ initiative to stay in touch.

After the family made their kind donation – Alex records all gifting: out system is making our income streams transparent – we walked around the children’s home (the children were having lunch) and said our goodbyes, though the offer was made to leave the son here in exchange for one of “our” students. No?

But seriously, we did invite the visiting student back given that his high school – as is practice with many Asian high schools – will probably require him to undertake a ‘social good’ project. He would be most welcome.

It was a real pleasure to meet this generous family.

A new policy for volunteers – designed to raise the bar

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Volunteering – it isn’t about us, it’s about the support we can provide for disadvantaged students in Cambodia

One outcome of my recent meetings with Savong who heads a school and children’s home is the introduction of a minimum donation set for would-be volunteers to his organisation. This is set at $US 100 and is in-line with similar steps taken by similar NGOs in the district.

Volunteers and visitors have long been valued at these NGOs, and as Savong acknowledges – we are the lifeblood, financially, of how these NGOs operate in order to meet the running costs of teaching staff and equipment at the school, not to mention clothes, care, food and education costs of the children at the SOC Home.

But with Cambodia becoming a hotter destination, we’ve seen the rise of the “cheap” tourist who not only visits NGOs unannounced, interrupts proceedings, takes a million photos, but then after 2 hours, drives away without even making a donation – any donation. In other words they using the NGOs to provide a photo-op: they’re not there to make any difference, whatever, to the lives of the children.

As I’m keen to tell friends these days: a lot of what we can bring to these NGOs is about expertise, skills, experience and talent – volunteers bring great teaching skills to the school for example – but money is still vital to the running of these places if they are to keep developing.  And as part of our overall travel budget, what’s $100?

Other NGOs have found that the policy has lifted the overall quality of their volunteers (only the serious apply – the cheapies are put off) and, thankfully, helped with the running costs of the organisations. We hope so. The $100 rule will apply whether the visitor or visiting couple is there for one day, one week or one year. (It is not a daily rate!)

Any thoughts about this?

For more on volunteering click here.