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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



MHTH, the centre for Mental Health and Traditional Healing, begins to receive patients as soon as the building tools are laid down. It is as though a stream of needy people have come from nowhere.

Men, women and children walk in groups along the red-laterite road in front of the bamboo hospital of Médecins Sans Frontières, turn left into a smaller, rougher road, then turn left again, creating a pathway as they walk across to the new Mental Health and Traditional Healing buildings.

Those who have come for traditional remedies squat patiently on their heels, waiting their turn. Women with babes in arms look for shade or use a krama to shield the sun and keep the baby cool. The air is filled with the smoke and the fragrance of herbs, aromatic bark and leaves. The healers are calm, weather-beaten men. They have an air of pride. What they do here is what they know best. The patients are content to wait.

Further up the track a counselling class is serious about learning ways of restraining a violent patient. They practise on each other, amazed that this can be done without hurting the patient. A barang from UNBRO, a large and strong man, calls to enquire about the official opening of the centre. He is sceptical about any attempt at non-violent restraint. While he is still explaining his reasons for scepticism the counsellors surprise him, lifting him from his feet. He struggles but is held firmly and effectively, horizontal above the ground. The class erupts into laughter. He laughs too.

The day to celebrate the opening of MHTH is blue and clear. The rainy season is over, the early dry season sparkles with freshness, the bamboo buildings are decked with coloured paper chains. From Bangkok, from Aranyaprathet, from throughout the camp, invited guests come to the new MHTH to celebrate the opening with chanting of saffron robed monks, with food and with speeches. Nee’s speech in Khmer is easy and fluent. His speech in English is well practised. He invites the guests to look at the vegetable garden, the traditional healing buildings, the fish pond, the counselling buildings, the new – he hesitates here – ‘chicken, no not chicken, kitchen’. The guests applaud; MHTH is launched.

Guests are served a hot meal from large pots of rice and soup that simmer over open fires behind the new buildings. COERR has provided funds for this. Even as the guests celebrate, the counsellors are quietly working among the patients in the bamboo ward. The ceremony is simply another event during a busy week.

I watch the MHTH team of women and men arrive one by one to start the work each day. We greet as friends and share fragments of news before the work begins.

‘Sok sahbahy!’ Greetings to Thavy, a counsellor, as she comes up the track on the back of her husband’s pushbike. Thavy is a short, sturdy, motherly woman, one with typical Cambodian features: large eyes, soft dark curls and dusky skin. She grins as she steadies her feet on the ground. ‘Ot bpanyhah,’ she says. No problems. I smile back to her; it is a relief to us all that there are no problems. Thavy, probably near the end of her child-bearing years, is pregnant. She is adamant that she will not leave her work at MHTH until she goes into labour. ‘Why should I?’ she asks. ‘What else would I do?’

Thavy works with women who need to protect themselves from abuse. MHTH has gathered together a group of eleven vulnerable women to support each other. Where bamboo and blue plastic shelters are crammed together so that no conversation is private, where anger is already out of control by the time neighbours become aware of it, these women have been helped to devise a plan.

The woman who is first to hear the start of violence will beat on her cooking pot. Each other woman, as she hears the beating of a cooking pot, will find a cooking pot and beat it. They will run to the place of the violence, beating and beating at their cooking pots. The violent man will lose face in front of ten or eleven women standing together, making a great noise.

Thavy explains to me that there is no effective law to protect a woman. For a woman to approach the justice committee or, even more daringly, to seek a divorce, requires extraordinary courage. Until recently a woman was not permitted to file for divorce. Only the man could do that. It was his right. Even now the members of the justice committee are all men; they have not changed in attitude that the wife is the property of her husband. Thavy says, ‘It is still the woman who has to suffer.’

A wildly agitated man is brought in to the centre. The first thought is that he is psychotic. This patient needs to be restrained. Nee decides to take the night watch; it would be unsafe to leave a patient in this condition with someone less experienced. He observes the agitation, tries to calm the man but cannot quell the paranoia. He sits beside him through the night charting an abnormally high fever, restraining him with a silk krama, speaking soothingly. By morning he knows that this is not a matter for traditional medicine or counselling. It is a parasite attacking the man’s brain. This is cerebral malaria. His patient is probably a soldier who has been brought in from the mosquito-ridden jungle. The man’s condition is critical but there is treatment for cerebral malaria. The patient has a chance to survive.

At the end of the day, when all that can be done by the combined effort of the team has been done, there is, as usual, a ‘goodbye’, laced with laughter. Someone says ‘I have never laughed so much in all my life.’ At the centre of it is Thavy, with Tolla; they seem to always manage this ending of the day, a village woman clowning with a city man.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy