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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



We drive to Kampong Cham, Nee and I, at 6.30 on a clear morning, enjoying the early light. Once we are away from the busy streets of Phnom Penh we talk together of recent protests, of the bloodshed and the arrests.

‘Did you notice the protest on the airport road the other day?’ he asks. I hadn’t noticed, but I would like to hear about it. Displaced people whose land had been grabbed by officials were protesting. They had been helped to research carefully in preparation and had found that on one occasion Prime Minister Hun Sen had denounced land-grabbing. On their banners they had an image of the Prime Minister with his wife, the words he had spoken and the date he had spoken them. When armed military police surrounded them these protesters had asked, ‘Are you against our Prime Minister?’ Those who had come to harass them stepped back in confusion.

Today Nee will teach at a university, the first formal session for the first PhD group in Kampong Cham with a qualified Cambodian educating others who are entering into the protracted struggle of planning and completing a thesis. Those who can persevere with this effort will be among the thinkers and leaders needed by their country.

I settle back to enjoy this journey even though I had expected to take the direct road north to Battambang. It is a lengthy detour. Our route is edged with rice fields and small villages. I understand that Nee is wanting me to meet his students but as we drive he suggests that I might do some teaching.

‘Together with you?’ I am not ready to agree to teach unprepared to students I do not know.

‘Yes, we can do it together.’ The drive is long; we have time to plan. We stop for breakfast in the sunshine, eat noodles and check preparations for the classes ahead. Nee reaches up to the rear-vision mirror of the car. Hooked to it is a grey-and-white striped necktie, neatly tied, ready for use on formal occasions. He exchanges his plastic thongs for shoes and socks.

As soon as we park in the university car park we are ushered into a tutorial room. The relaxed morning switches pace, as the doctoral candidates are eager. Nee gives them his total attention. He shifts his concentration from one to another of them: questioning, listening, and explaining. Each one’s struggle to frame a research question is vitally important. Throughout the long morning the focus does not waver. Nee holds authority. These well-dressed students around the table may see him as shabby and battered by life, despite his effort of necktie and brown shoes, but they hold to his every word.

A professor whispers a request. I nod in agreement and he passes a message to masters-level students around the campus that they would be welcome to attend the afternoon session.

The doctoral candidates sit behind us on a platform, where I am the only woman. Students not able to fit into the large hall watch through the louvre windows. I am astounded at such enthusiasm. We teach together, with Nee taking the lead as we have done over and again in these years. Among the men and the monks down there in the hall there are young women. My words are for them. The sun is sinking as the day’s teaching finishes.

It is dusk, then darkness, as we drive back to Phnom Penh with the longer journey to Battambang ahead. Nee maintains his fast-paced agenda by concentrating on one thing at a time. He is to teach the early Sunday morning class in a university in Battambang. When I agreed to this journey I had not understood that we would need to return to Phnom Penh before travelling north.

Phnom Penh’s city lights glitter and bedazzle. There is a stark contrast at the outer limits of town. The gap between the places of the rich and the places of the poor is profound.

Highway Five is in darkness; the moon has not yet risen. Nee is driving, reaching the speed limit of sixty kilometres an hour when he can. The traffic which comes towards us is so dense and erratic that more often we edge forward with the speedometer reaching thirty or forty.

To stay awake we recall and tell stories. The road turns and the moon rises in front of us; it hangs as a thin crescent, faintly tinged with red. We reach Kampong Chhnang well past midnight, when no story is good enough to keep us from yawning. It is impossible to go further in safety. We take two rooms in a simple hotel for a few hours of sleep and set the alarms on our mobile phones.

This pace is, I realise with worry, routine for Nee.

The car headlight carves a cone of light through the darkness. There is energy now in this pre-dawn time. Nee is telling me about a dream that is with him as he wakes each morning. He dreams of a farm, of a quiet life there. This image of ‘the farm’ is a peaceful beginning to the day.

‘I’ve already bought two hectares of farmland and I’ve sunk a well.’

‘What are you looking for?’

‘Time. To think more deeply, to reflect, to write.’

I have heard this before, we have had similar conversations for years now; twice he has tried to give it shape. He spent a very brief spell in a monastery but the quietness he longed for was impossible as the monks came to him and asked him to teach them about development. Later there was a futile though initially joyous attempt to set up a farm in Pailin.

The fronds of the coconut palms trace feathery black against the first glow of dawn; they become soft deep green when lit by the headlights. We watch the sky change: salmon pink, amber, pearl grey. As darkness merges with morning on National Route Five he talks once more of the dream: a place of quietness away from his over-committed life, a place where his spirit will be strong.

There is now enough light to distinguish the flurry of the start of day. People from roadside villages are organising the day’s work, loading pushcarts, sweeping, scattering water to settle the dust. Bicycles and motorbikes edge into the traffic flow. The sky becomes blue and it is 6.30. We pass a small roadside market where women squat beside laden baskets, arranging fruit and vegetables. Loud speakers boom popular romantic music; we are folded in a flurry of dust and the chanting of monks in the nearby pagoda.

Nee says, ‘I want to prepare for the last part of my life.’

‘What do you imagine?’

There will be a timber house of one room and a bathroom. Here he will be enclosed in silence and surrounded by growing things, the plants and the animals.


‘Yes, animals.’ This, he is sure, will soon become a reality. ‘As soon as there is a house and a generator I will be able to live there.’

I turn to look at him. Though his attention is still on the road, delight has spread across his face. He can see this farm as he wants it to be, as he says the words to describe it. The edge of the back fence and the two side fences will be closely planted with bananas. In the first year each plant will produce one bunch, in the second year two bunches and in the third four or five. Along the front fence there will be a particular kind of coconut palm yielding small sweet fruit. There is already a heap of compost for the planting. Mangoes and limes can be planted first, then beds prepared for vegetables. There will be small animals, and eventually a pond for fish-farming. ‘In the early mornings, after tending to the farm, there will be time to think and to write.’

From time to time a motorbike veers in from the kerb. Close to villages Nee holds his hand on the car horn to remind the bike riders of cars on the road. The highway is familiar. He drives steadily while giving his attention to the rest of his life, ‘the last part.’

‘There will still be the chance to teach in the universities and to support village groups.’ He is as clear about the shape of this as he is clear about the garden of the two-hectare block. The teaching will always be to enable people to think for themselves: illiterate village people, indigenous hill tribe people or PhD candidates.

‘This is the way change happens,’ he says. People become free, people find the courage to release themselves from oppression, once they begin to look at their lives and to seek answers. In the strengthening light Nee chooses words carefully.

‘Remember when we read Paulo Friere. Try to discover the question that touches the lives of people. Then they begin to think critically. Step by step they understand what is happening.’

We are nearing Battambang now. ‘Facebook is a way to ask questions. I’m not rich or politically powerful but many people in Cambodia and overseas keep contact with me. There will be good access to wi-fi in the farmhouse.’ I listen and hope that all of this can happen. I fear, but do not say, that Nee’s future is as unpredictable as that of Cambodia.

We have reached the edge of Battambang. Between Saturday morning and Sunday morning we have travelled close to six hundred kilometres. It is time for Nee to find the grey-and-white striped tie on the rear vision mirror and the shoes and socks under the driver’s seat, and for me to reach for my bag.

Friends in Battambang wait for me.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy