Up To My Knees In It
I love my job.Every day is an adventure. 11 years ago I backpacked, hiked volcanoes and glaciers, drove a monster truck school bus and did aerobatics in a little plane. Now I have an adventure before a day’s work even really begins! We start at 7am. By the time we reach our girls an hour later we’ve already navigated our little motorbikes through a hundred puddles of various colours, shapes, sizes and depths. That means we’ve hairily slipped and skidded our way through at least 5 of them praying to stay upright. We’ve squeezed through groups of cows on the road, seen water buffalo cooling off in the rice fields, nearly been hit by a 4WD, and already been rained on.
Then we navigate our little motos along narrow pathways that are little more than mounds of mud between the rice fields.We reach our girls feeling alive and invigorated, and quite frankly happy that we stayed upright and didn’t end up with the hot exhaust pipe of the moto stripping away a layer of skin as it lands on us. It happens. Thankfully not today.
We have 700 girls on our program and we visit every one, every month. So it’s been a month since we saw the girls in today’s village. We arrive to find Savet with a shaved head, as is customary for a child who loses a parent. Savet’s father died last week. With tears in her eyes she talks to us about how much harder life is now. She is one of seven children and her father used to earn $7.50 a day. Now, only her brother works, so their income has just halved.While we talk with Savet, another girl sits picking lice out of her friend’s hair.Savet’s mum is at the pagoda today, so we’ll come back and talk with her more next week - see what else we can do to help this family during such a difficult time.8 girls have come to greet us and talk to us about their month.Now it’s time to leave the motorbikes at the first girl’s house while we walk to the other 7 girls houses. They tell us that because of the rains of the last 3 days we won’t be able to get our bikes to each house. Instead we must walk, and at times there will be water. A fair amount of it. Cool. Let’s go.
We trek between the rice fields, through puddles and ponds and streams from house to house to talk with each family, to see how everything’s going.As I step into each puddle of water, I’m never sure quite where the floor is, so I tread carefully. In some parts the mud is clay-like and I lose my flip flops a few times.
Occasionally the water is clear and I can see little fish swimming.
But mostly the water is of questionable cleanliness. Bear in mind that the majority of families have no toilet and ‘go’ at the edge of the field, so then, we’re basically wading through sewage.
Ducks swim at the side of me.
And as I move through warm patches and cool patches and see tiny eel-like creatures in front of me, my mind turns to the stories of the worms that are present in these waters. The worms are tiny and enter the body between the toes where they take nest in the intestines and grow, sometimes to a metre long…. Ewwww. I want to stay present, as I follow our girls through the waters, but the thought of roundworms, threadworms, pinworms, hookworms and tapeworms just keep popping into my head. I can’t remember the last time I took any medication at all. I’m vegan and don’t do pills. I probably should take malaria pills but when I spend 4 months a year here that’s just too many pills. But right now I am thinking that as soon as I get back to Australia next Friday I should probably take some de-worming medication. You might think I should take it now while I’m here, but the World Health Organisation have tested the medication sold across town and most of what is inside each packet is not what the label says, so really, I’d have no idea what I was taking if I took it here, so I’d may as well wait until I get back to Australia. That gives me a week to research the different worms and medications and their supposed effectiveness, as well as look into whether or not there is a natural alternative. In the meantime, I’ll just try not to think about what might be taking up home in my insides. There’s really no point thinking about it, as there’s still a lot more water/gunk to wade through….And our girls wade through this water every day, I think they might need deworming tablets.
We visit the parents of our second girl and find Dad drunk. It’s not even 10am. Mum is embarrassed.We arrive at the third girl’s house to find her baby brother swinging in a hammock. He is one month and ten days old. Mum had a difficult birth in a village hospital, where no doctors came to assist her. Baby was born with only one eye, and two tumors protruding from his little face, one above his nose, and a smaller one to the side of his nose. Mum puts on a brave face and a smile, but she’s struggling, as you’d expect. She doesn’t really understand what the doctors have told her. She knows he didn’t get it from her, he just has it, but she doesn’t know what it is. She does know she’s been told he’s too little to operate on so must wait another 6 weeks until he’s stronger. Then he’ll go to the Kuntha Bopha hospital, a great hospital at the end of the street where our office is, in the city, and run by an incredible man named Dr Beat Richner. He should hopefully receive good treatment and care there, and it’s free.We move on to the fourth girl’s house and find a hard working mum shifting kilos and kilos of rice from sacks into buckets and carrying them out to sheets she’s laid out in the sun. She talks to us while she works. All is good with this family, no concerns.We move on to the fifth and sixth girl’s house and as we wade through water, slip through mud and emerge around the corner, we see 8 men drinking and leering and calling to us. We keep our eyes down and keep walking. These are known as the village gangsters. What are gangsters in a Cambodian village? Men who don’t work, don’t think, don’t care, drink all day every day and go around the village causing trouble. Do they take drugs? Yes, of course. Always. The village leader has told us to always let him know when we arrive in the village so that he can help to keep us safe. I’m not worried, though my team are visibly frightened. I do worry about our girls walking alone in this area when we’re not with them. I check in with my team, who tell me we could “get beaten up.”“Have you ever been beaten up by gangsters?” I ask.‘No, not me. But my uncle was. 5 years ago. Gangsters attacked him with a samurai.”Now I’m more concerned than I was.We arrive at this house to find a forced smile from Mum, and a Dad who does not want to talk with us. It seems we may have interrupted a fight. Dad tells us he doesn’t care whether his children go to school or not, “they can do what they want.” It seems we should come back and talk with mum another time. A time when her husband isn’t drunk, or isn’t there, and definitely when the gangsters aren’t there drinking. It’s time for us to get out of there.We move onto the seventh girl’s house. Her parents aren’t home. They’re out at the fields working. She’s up a tree. A long way up a tree, shaking guava fruit down. It’s frightening how high up she is, but it’s a normal daily activity for her. You want food, you get up the tree and get it. She’s up there a long time, her friends squealing in delight as she sends more fruit down to the ground. I half hold my breath, until she’s down safely.
As we cross more puddles to the eighth girl’s home we meet a mum who just blows me away. She starts by telling me what an impact her daughter joining our program has had on her, “I used to worry about my children. How could I afford for all three of them to go to school. I used to worry a lot. Now, because you help her, I don’t worry. I know I can afford the younger two because you pay all the school materials and school costs for Sreyroth. Thank you. Thank you for sponsoring her. Thank you for helping us.”It’s nice that she appreciates it and I love her enthusiasm for her children’s education, not all parents have that. But we certainly don’t need her thanks. In fact, she needs our thanks. She works so hard. I’m so impressed. She gets up at 4am and cycles for an hour in the dark to get to work. I think of wading through all of these puddles in the daylight and cannot imagine being able to navigate my way through these fields in the dark. Yet every day while her children continue sleeping, she gets up at 4am and cycles an hour to work. She works from 5am to 2pm as a cleaner in a restaurant. Then she returns back to the village. She earns $100 a month. $100 does not go as far in Cambodia as you might think. Our Education Officers start on $190 per month, and that’s good and fair for a single person in their twenties with no dependents. But how to survive on just $100 per month with 3 children to feed and care for? I tell her I am proud of her. That there is no need for her to thank me. That I was lucky enough to be born in a country where going to school is easy. It’s common. In fact every child goes to school. That she was born in a country where going to school is difficult. That we have 700 girls on our program and not every parent works as hard as she does. Not many mums get up at 4am and cycle an hour to work in the dark. I tell her again that I am proud of her and that her children are lucky to have such a good mum. Her eyes well up with tears. I don’t think anyone has ever told her they are proud of her. She thinks because she is uneducated and poor that she is not doing a good job. She’s doing an incredible job! In really difficult circumstances.
She herself has never been to school. But she wants her children to. She is happy we support her daughter now, she hopes but almost doesn’t dare to hope, that we’ll continue helping her, even after she finishes grade 9. We assure her we’ll continue our support until she completes grade 12, beyond if she might like to go on to university.It’s time to head to the local market for a late lunch. Back onto the motos and down many a muddy track. Until we reach this:
Phanna stops the moto,“What do we do, Nicky?”“I don’t know, what do you want to do Phanna?”“I can do it. I can get across. The man says it is possible. But only I can do it alone. You have to walk.”I watch Phanna and our little moto disappear further and further under water, holding my breath yet again, until he and the bike begin to climb out of the water. I take off my helmet and start wading through more water.What a day, and it’s only lunch time. I am ready for my lunch!I love my job!And my team. And our girls and their families.