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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

30

TOUERN

Touern wants me to stay in her house.

She takes me there on the motorbike. This journey is familiar; it is as if nothing has changed. We set out together in the evening after a gathering with Krom Akphiwat Phum. We cross the river on the bridge near Wat Kandal then enter the roundabout with the huge statue of the Battambang legend. We swerve around the triple-life-size dark man sitting scantily clothed on a dais with legs crossed, baton in hands, eyes blazing. The ancient Battambang legends stretch far back.

We travel south past the new university and the abandoned airport until the busy edge of town is left behind. The avenue of trees is familiar; the left turn to the side road is rough as it always was. The way in and out of the village where Touern has lived since she first brought me here is reached by motorbike, bicycle or walking. Her husband has died. He left the family home long ago, never able to recover from the three years, eight months, twenty days of the Pol Pot time. She wears a woven band of remembrance around her wrist.

A few precious fruit trees have been cut to allow for connection of power lines for the house. All else is the same. There is a glow of light inside and the sound of children. Touern holds the light of the motorbike steady so that I can see the ladder. I enter the house face first, a gradual arrival through the square entrance-hole cut in the living room floor, and am immediately surrounded: greeted and hugged by the sons, introduced to the wives, tugged at by their children.

Everyone is seated on the floor. The hammock tied from post to post still swings as it has for years; perhaps it is the same hammock. Whenever an adult or a child goes close to it they give it a push.

This small house, which was originally one room, now has three corners partitioned off to form tiny bedrooms: one for Touern, one for her first son, his wife and children, one for the second son, his wife and baby.

All of these people are together on the floor of the main room. One wife is breastfeeding her child, with her husband sitting beside her, his gaze fixed on them tenderly. His hair is cut short; it stands straight and dark around his head. I recall him sitting right there as a small boy with his hair standing dark and straight around his head.

Touern watches as I greet them all. I know that she is proud she reared them virtually alone; she ensured that they each had a good education, employment and, when the time came, a dignified and traditional marriage ceremony.

I watch the swinging hammock, fascinated. When there is a chance I edge around the room to look inside.

There is a baby so small that she makes no bump in the heavy folded blanket. Her head rests on a pillow edged with a pink satin frill and an applique of a pink dolphin. She has an orange coloured knitted hat. On her hands, which she holds near her face, are mitts like boxing gloves made of blue and white felt. The heavy blanket is tan coloured with a huge yellow and green sunflower. Her eyes are closed. The buzz of talk in the room does not disturb her at all.

Everybody has been waiting for me to meet this latest member of the family. Touern nuzzles lovingly against her, making gurgling sounds as I have seen her doing with her own babies years ago.

Touern still goes to the villages and sleeps among the people, listening, questioning, encouraging. Whatever is achieved the people are able to say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ She still chooses the poorest villages, stays day and night, guides the conversations that uncover hope so that village people dare to plan for a future. ‘Help them to listen to the dreams of each other,’ she says.

We talk into the night as we always did in this cupboard-like space that is her bedroom.

‘What is the most important, Touern?’

‘Love the people.’

‘Are there some that you love most?’

Pause. ‘I love them all.’

I remember that Tolstoy wrote, ‘Everything I know I know only because I love.’

In the morning I watch Touern in action in her own village. Her energy does not waver. She draws people together without words. Sometimes I think that it happens mainly through that sideways look, the backward nod of her head, her eyes. It could never be described in a textbook of community development. She turns tension to laughter with an offhanded quip. That is who she is.

As we meet family after family in the village where she lives we pause to talk to everyone. In each household there is a grandchild or cluster of grandchildren being cared for while the parent is in Thailand earning a wage that could never be earned in Cambodia. Touern’s own daughter is a cleaner in a hospital there. Her baby is with her; the small daughter stays with Touern. This is the only way her daughter will ever be able to live independently, as she wants to do, in her own small house.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy