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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



The frontline of battle is pushed back towards Palin once more; it is safe to work in the villages and stay there for four or five nights at a time. It is wet season in Battambang Province, the paddy fields are soft and warm, the seedbeds dazzle with luminous green.

I am in the riverside village of Ansang Sok with half of our team. We are not bringing aid, not even projects. The Cambodian women and men of the team are listening to the stories, watching the life here, gaining trust, sharing what they have of daily rice and of time while the people of the village also share with them. They are learning how the people survive, and affirming this. They listen carefully to the ideas of local men and women who have dreams for a future.

They try to enlist a cluster of villagers to choose a leader for a project to repair battered old boats. But the village people do not yet know who to trust. They still struggle to survive individually in any way they can. There will need to be months of building trust, of encouraging and educating local people. This needs careful building of foundations. ‘Step by step,’ the team say as they realise this.

There is no rice grown here. Before the Khmer Rouge it was a village of jute crops but the jute factory is long gone and families survive on the fish they can catch in the Sangkie. There are some fruit trees but no vegetable patches. The village is inundated with floodwater at least twice a year. It is inundated now, literally awash with none-too-clean mud.

While the women and men of our team fan out through the village to listen to the people I stay beside them, gradually learning the basic skills for living here. I need to master the dexterity of sluicing my muddy feet against the plank of wood set at the foot of the house-ladder. I should elegantly scrape mud from my right foot with my left and my left foot with my right while standing erect, holding a dipper and pouring a steady stream of water down on to my feet. Instead of this effective routine that every child of two has learned, I stoop down and fuss with my hands, rubbing at each bare, mud-clogged foot. ‘You are like a duck,’ they say. But fondly, as they say it to a child.

It is well beyond my skill to walk steadily upright in the deep slime, though the child selling vegetables does it with the tray balanced on her head. The rice field is the toilet. ‘Do you need to pass urine or do you need to pass stool? Go further.’

People talk one on one with the team. They talk in their families and gradually in their neighbourhoods of the challenges of their own daily survival. They reflect on the long ago time when this was a thriving, jute-producing village. What is holding them back from developing again?

We are welcomed to stay in the house of the village leader. We sleep in a line on the floor like sardines in a can. I first met the village leader’s wife five months ago on the day she gave birth to their youngest. He is now a charming baby who gurgles with delight when he sees me. The other children are more tentative in their greeting. I understand … the routine way of disciplining children here is ‘Be good or the barang will eat you.’

Touern and I set out on the motorbike towards Bay Damran in the late afternoon. Touern has been selected to fill a space on the team. I knew her in Site 2; she is a country woman born in a remote village. When the Khmer Rouge took over in ’75 she would have been a young girl with eyes that spoke, dusky skin, and crooked teeth. Her eyes still speak, she is comfortable in her skin and her smile is memorable. She has struggled in poverty and grown in wisdom in the decades since that time.

When I met her in Site 2, Touern was working for the Women’s Affairs Association while studying counselling and social work. She was full of hope and energy even then. After the border the only work she could find was cleaning offices. With the income from this she supported four young children and a husband who rarely worked.

She slips into community development in the villages as though she was born for this. Touern is unrelentingly cheerful. This is her instinct, not her doing her job.

It is harvest time in Bay Damran. As we arrive a line of villagers has already assembled to walk to the distant rice field, ready to begin harvesting at dawn. They notice our arrival and have begun to learn that the coming of a foreigner, even one on the back of a motorbike, might signal a handout. They turn from their track through the long shadows and swarm around us as we dismount; understandably they never miss an opportunity to gain the protection of a rich patron. ‘We are hungry,’ they say. Touern grins. ‘And what would you do if we did not come right now?’ she asks. They look at her. Nobody speaks. ‘I suppose you would fall down on the ground dead,’ she says and, without a pause after saying this, without another word, she tumbles down, stretched full-length on the ground. The watchers laugh in delight, pick up their krama-packed bundles and head back down the track through the long shadows.

The three-and-a-half kilometre walk to Chroy Ampor is never as straightforward as it sounds. There is no road. We balance on ridges at the border of rice fields. Six or seven times we must wade through waist-deep water, sometimes for twenty or thirty metres at a time. I am learning to keep my feet under me where they belong, but cannot be relied upon to always succeed. After a few slithering entries and exits to the deep, Ean and the CPP-appointed village leader from nearby Spean each offer me a forearm to clutch as they charge manfully ahead, having done something so uncultured as allowing a woman to touch them in public.

We are soaked from armpits down. My krama is wound around my head. The village leader from Spean is steadying me with his right hand. His left arm is raised above his head, holding his precious AK-47 aloft to keep it dry.

Chroy Ampor is infinitely more miserable than Ansang Sok or Spean, but there are fine people in the village. Ean asks me to take the ever-present, ever-watching Spean village leader for a walk so that the natural leaders of Chroy Ampor can share with the team their own plans for their own village. I should make sure that the walk takes as long as possible.

We follow a muddy path to a stream, the leader from Spean and I. The only way to cross is to balance on a log. It is shining with rain water. The leader is enjoying his role as protector and guide, demonstrating what we should do. He will go first with his gun across his shoulder, edging sideways with his bare feet curved around the log. I will place one hand on each of his shoulders and, steadied by him, slither my own bare feet across the log. We are half-way when he loses balance, splashes to the water and is submerged, AK-47 and all. I slither astride the log, hesitate, then splash down into the water beside him. He need not lose face and this will prolong the time for the Chroy Amphor group to do their planning. We drag ourselves out, clean ourselves up and return to the village by a longer, safer route.

Without hesitation and with much drama, the man from Spean tells the story of how he has bravely rescued me from the water. He laughs uproariously and tells it again and again and again.

It is evening in the dry season. We are back in Chroy Ampor. Almost our entire OSB team is here, as the people of the village need to celebrate. They have built a road linking their village to Spean; it is completed just before the wet season begins again. This year when the waters rise they will be able to bring their sick people to a clinic and the older girls and boys will walk the three-and-a-half kilometres each way to school. Goods will be brought in and out of the village. It is a fine, high, hand-compacted road, and they are proud.

We celebrate. Everybody in the village is here.

A blue tarpaulin is rolled out at the side of the fire; we would call it a campfire in Australia. Music from a battery-operated cassette player is amplified and we are invited and urged onto the dance floor, eating sweetened black rice and dancing on the blue tarp until the sun rises.

‘Go to the people. Listen to the people. Help them to hear one another. Support them to act together. When it is done they will say, “We did it ourselves.”’

Natural leaders from many of the villages are ready to come to Battambang to learn together. The rented cement house is no longer adequate.

It is traditional for the Buddhist temples here to have a salla, a teaching-house for poor village people. We negotiate with the Battambang department of religious affairs to rebuild an abandoned salla in the grounds of a local Wat. The monks agree and a contract is signed. Mal is an engineer; he can design something suitable, while the rest of us clear the site.

The salla in Wat Kundung is restored as a simple tiled-roof building with its original brick walls to a metre in height, then with wooden lattice walls to allow breeze to blow through. The team and the people who come from the villages can work together here. This new salla is viewed with pride by the Wat Kundung villagers; it is reached by taking a gravel track between ever-flowering old frangipani trees. We relish their perfume and plant some scarlet-coloured bougainvillea.

Reth, a woman living in the village of Wat Kundung, has a one-room house that she built with her Option B house frame. She offers it for rent. She wants to move to her mother’s house which is beside it and the rent money will help her to care for her children while her husband is at war. I rent the house and make it my home.

There are no fences here. ‘Our neighbour is our fence’, people say, watching out for each other. Reth and other women neighbours squat beside me as I learn to cook my food in my terracotta cooking pot over a charcoal fire. We talk. They surround me in my daily life, often strolling past as I take a dipper shower clad in a wet sarong, standing on a plank above the mud at my open-air clay water pot, as is custom here. My neighbours ensure that my door at the top of my stairs is securely locked at night. Years later I will understand the steps they have taken to be sure that I am safe.

Our team in the new centre in Wat Kundung is growing in confidence. It is registered with a Khmer name: Krom Akphiwat Phum. There is a logo, a circle of women and men with hands clasped. Local leaders out in the villages understand that the name means that this group will support the development of village community in every way.

When UNDP representatives from many countries plan a conference in Phnom Penh they invite Krom Akphiwat Phum to bring some of the team and some local leaders from the villages to contribute. It is a warm evening in mid-March when we gather in Phnom Penh to sleep on the floor of the OSB office, readying ourselves for the conference next day. The organisers have prepared a folder for each of us and there is a sense of occasion.

A leader from the village of Kampong Ko, a name that translates as ‘cow paddock’, is particularly delighted that the conference booklet gives background information about each village represented. ‘I can read and write,’ he tells me with pride. I wake in the night to see a pinpoint of light halfway along the dark row of sleepers. The man from Kampong Ko has a flashlight held above his conference folder. He is soundlessly mouthing words while the rest of us sleep.

The conference is held in the grandest venue in Phnom Penh; most participants are wearing suit and tie. In mid-afternoon, when I have become convinced that we are invited simply as observers, there is an invitation for comments from the floor. The man from Kampong Ko raises his hand and stands. ‘I am from Kampong Ko.’ This is said with great dignity as he stands in rubber sandals, working trousers and faded shirt. ‘I can read. You say that Kampong Ko is developing a duck project and a rice barn. Yes, we have a duck project and a rice barn. But really we are developing people. That’s what we do. We develop people.’

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy