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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Theary answers my phone call in a voice that is efficient and mature, yet still familiar. Then she realises who is calling. If I am in Cambodia I must come to stay in her house. Not able to stay all the time with her? Then at least a night. Yes? At least start with meeting her at the office, have lunch, have a rest in her house, have dinner, stay the night.

A little before lunch time I arrive by tuk-tuk at RACHA, Reproductive and Child Health Alliance, and am taken upstairs past a silk wall hanging, past floors of offices, to a long tiled corridor with doors on each side. I know the RACHA story: one hundred and fifty projects across almost all provinces in this country, safeguarding health and improving life for mothers and their babies. Theary has been executive director here for almost a decade, yet it seems that not so many years have passed since she was a new arrival from the refugee camp, unsure of everything, including where to find food to eat for her next meal.

Theary steps out from a door furthest from the staircase. ‘Sister my sister.’ She holds out her arms. We run along the corridor towards each other laughing. We meet and hug as we have done before, then stand apart to look at each other.

She is wearing her dark hair shoulder length, softly curling and drawn back from her face. Her clothes are simple, tailored charcoal coloured trousers and a short-sleeved, V-neck cotton top. It is the colour of watermelon. She is slimmer than when I last saw her and more poised.

Theary introduces me to her colleagues. ‘This woman has known me for a long time, like a sister,’ she says. Her office is spacious. We draw up our chairs to a heavy table and, unexpectedly, she slides an album of wedding photos from a drawer.

‘If you had been here just a little bit earlier you could have been at my wedding,’ she says. We open the album. I’m wanting more than anything to hear about her new husband, not just to see the pictures. I guess it has been hard for any man to convince her to marry him; I know she has always been reluctant to shift her commitment away from the work she is doing.

As it happens Theary’s husband is a leader with important international development projects in Central America. He seems to understand that she cannot leave behind this work of hers in Cambodia and is content that for now they will be together whenever they can.

I scan the album with its first pages showing a ceremony in the USA; her husband is American. Step by step I gain a picture of him. Theary is wearing a Western wedding gown with the addition of a crimson Cambodian silk sash around her waist. Her husband is dressed in formal Western clothes; so too are his family and friends clustered around the couple. We turn the pages to the Cambodian ceremonies; bride and groom are pictured in the series of traditional costumes, as is custom. ‘He was very patient with it all,’ she says.

We share news of old friends as Theary drives me through the traffic to her narrow triple-storey home in a quiet street. As she cooks our food and brings it to the table she asks about my writing and we talk about the past, about the time that she left the camp and went to Sydney, about the episode of my bleeding nose.

Next day we lunch and laugh with Mary, Theary’s friend and mentor from border days. They came back into Cambodia together. Life was struggle for them both in those early days. Theary’s experience on the border was an obstacle and not an asset then; now she is leading a staff of hundreds of development workers, medics and doctors trained in Phnom Penh.

I sit on Theary’s sofa, in my hand a glass of wine that an Australian volunteer has brought to this gathering. The conversation is about medical ethics. Those gathered at her home have qualified in different parts of the world, all are discussing the particular problems in Cambodia, where their profession, as they aim for best-practice, is constrained by power and corruption. Out-of-date medication from other countries is finding its way to clinics where poor people are treated. Patients are endangered, so too is the health system they have worked to develop. Theary and Nee are taking a lead in technical discussions that I appreciate but don’t fully understand.

I had forgotten Nee’s medical training, but Theary has not.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy