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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Theary is a talented Cambodian refugee midwife, so Nee tells me. He would like to introduce me to her as his vision and hers are similar. Theary’s obstetric ward at Médecins Sans Frontières is no more than two-hundred metres from MHTH.

I’m surprised to be greeted at the entrance of the ward by a slim young woman with dark, curling hair tucked back behind her ears. She is welcoming though she seems to be rather shy. This is not my image of a nurse responsible for staff and patients in a busy maternity ward serving one third of the population of this camp. Theary speaks English well.

Our first visit is formal. She shows us the labour ward with a bamboo partition for privacy and a bamboo bench for the delivery. There is no electricity or running water but Theary is ready with an improvised humidicrib, a nest made of the silver bladders from the inside of the barangs’ empty wine casks. They can be filled with hot water. The little labour ward has a neatly lettered sign in Khmer: No Spitting in Here Please.

Theary’s team is having a meal break in the late morning. I can hear lunch-room chatter and laughter. The nurses are sharing food they have cooked and brought from home. Since they are all refugees the language of this ward is Khmer; observations and notes are written in their first language. All have equal chance to develop professionally.

Theary moves among the patients on the ward, some in the last stages of pregnancy, some with a babe in arms. She is reassuring and friendly as she hears their stories and checks their charts.

Next time I return without Nee and bring food to share so that I can be part of the easy chatter in the bamboo-partitioned staff area. The lunch-room chatter becomes more serious; the mid-wives are taking the opportunity to tell me that women in this camp suffer in many ways, not only because of their detention. They describe what they have been seeing: women beaten by their husbands, women who have been raped, women who are destitute, ‘taxi girls’ who sleep with men for money and are vulnerable to STDs. They say that the families of soldiers are the poorest in the camp; this poverty leads to many problems including medical ones.

Often new parents in the care of this midwifery team choose to honour traditional rituals of birth: the father buries the placenta at the threshold of the family’s shelter or at a place where people gather, the mother is massaged with the traditional herbs, the traditional fire is lit under her bamboo bench.

Theary can ensure that Western knowledge is available and is used; the potential for partnership with MHTH is obvious.

I’m keen to learn from the way that the ward is set up. ‘How did you do it?’ I ask. She smiles and the serious professional role slips for a minute. ‘Mary Dunbar encouraged me.’ I am making a mental note to find this Mary and talk to her. Mary is no longer in the ward now that Theary is leading; this is the way I would want to do it.

One afternoon, after the work of the day has finished, Thavy feels strong contractions and knows that labour has definitely begun. This is not her first child. On the way to the border, in danger and destitution, the first two children of the family, both little girls, died of hunger. Though Thavy now has three young boys, she and her husband still mourn their daughters. Thavy admires Theary and knows her skills; she has arranged to go to the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital for this delivery. We wait for news.

Thavy gives birth to a baby daughter. Joy spreads fast. Soon after the birth Thavy and the precious child are ‘dinked’ home on the back of the proud father’s pushbike. The child is called Sopheak. She is dressed in pink and her brothers lean over her, awed, as she is held to her mother’s breast. We crowd into the tiny hut to admire Sopheak. Thavy tells us all that the name means ‘the straight, true path’.

Thavy is stroking Sopheak’s small forehead, smoothing the silky skin with her thumb. When she cradles the tiny bundle of baby tenderly in the crook of her arm the father and all three brothers are never far away. Sopheak is three days old when an Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist and a cameraman find their way to Site 2 and Thavy, still holding little Sopheak close to her, is ready to talk to them about the straight, true path that women in this place are challenged to take.

She speaks into the microphone of the rule of divorce: the first child of the union and the third and the fifth are always given into the custody of the man even if the divorce is caused by the man’s violence. ‘The children sob and they cry,’ she says, and repeats with more emphasis, ‘The children sob and cry. It is like tearing the parts of a body apart.’

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy