Over the Easter break, we eschewed the annual festival of chocolate to travel with our two young children the 6,000 miles to Cambodia as volunteers. My wife and the kids to spend their days helping out at a small school on the outskirts of Siem Reap and myself to help build a new home for a family of six in a little community out in the rural countryside.
I’d learned a little about Cambodia at school. Before we left I did a bit of background reading to refresh my memory. I read how,“on March 18, 1969, the United States began a four year long carpet-bombing campaign in the skies of Cambodia, devastating the countryside and causing socio-political upheaval that eventually led to the installation of the Pol Pot regime.The United States dropped upwards of 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, exceeding the amount it had dropped on Japan during WWII (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) by almost a million tons. Estimates vary widely on the number of civilian casualties inflicted by the campaign; however,as many as 500,000 people died as a direct result of the bombings while perhaps hundreds of thousands more died from the effects of displacement, disease or starvation during this period”. “The Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power, taking Phnom Penh in 1975 and later carrying out the Cambodian Genocide from 1975 until 1979, when they were ousted by Vietnam and the Vietnamese backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1979–91). The country faces numerous challenges and socio-political issues, including widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development, and a high rate of hunger. Cambodia has been described by Human Rights Watch’s Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.” While per capita income remains low compared to most neighbouring countries, Cambodia has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia with growth averaging 6 percent over the last decade. Agriculture remains the dominant economic sector, with strong growth in textiles, construction, garments, and tourism leading to increased foreign investment and international trade. Cambodia scored dismally in an annual index (2015) ranking the rule of law in 102 countries, placing 99th overall and the worst in the region”. “To this day Cambodia has a serious problem with landmines, especially in rural areas. This is the legacy of the three decades of war which has taken a severe toll on the Cambodians; it has some 40,000 amputees, which is one of the highest rates in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as four to six million mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia.”
Each morning, a group of 11 of us volunteers clambered aboard a battered flat bed truck to be ferried the 45 minute journey out into the countryside. Beyond the compact centre of Siem Reap with it’s air-conditioned hotels, KFC and Burger King, cheap beers, pizza joints and tie-dyed loon pants for neo-hippie college kids on gap years, along the paved highways the Cambodians appeared to be having a festival of litter. Every bush festooned with discarded plastic bags, every ditch filled with black, foul-smelling stagnant water and decomposition-defying plastic bottles. Off the highways and onto the dusty pot-holed side tracks the litter became less obvious. Out here in the rural areas they are too poor to throw much away. You find it re-purposed elsewhere. Car wrecks are stripped down for parts and makeshift tools. Plastic bottles are scavenged for the few pennies they bring for recycling. Empty rice sacks become bedding. We pass impeccably turned out school children walking or cycling to school and old women bent double under loads of firewood or, hunched under makeshift corrugated tin griddles, a mother and infant scraping a living selling roasted nuts. A noticeable number of middle-aged men with legs missing.
Here, now, on the ground, some misgivings and fears began to surface. Am I here to assuage some guilt? Is this the right thing to do? Am I projecting my values and beliefs onto people whose context is very different? Am I patronising the very people I hope to help? How are we determining who does (and, by extension, does not) receive our help? I put all this to the organiser, Sinn, a local Cambodian man who has made it his mission in life to help the very poorest in the community build their self-sufficiency. He explains that these are projects that are conceived of in the community. The community determines where it needs help and why. The community identifies those most in need and what their needs are. Then, and only then, does the call for volunteers go out. Primarily what they need is wells, toilets and safe, dry housing. What we are doing is providing simple, practical help directly with the people who need it most.
That need is immediately apparent when we arrive on the first morning, Monday. The family we are building for have just vacated their former home.
The village elders have, with the family, decided that the new house must be built where the old one stands so our first task is to tear it down and clear the space. The materials from the old house will be re-used elsewhere so these are stacked off to one side. This takes about 30 minutes. We spend the rest of the day building a work frame to be used for cutting of timber and constructing on the horizontal what will become the three vertical frames that the rest of the house will be built on. It quickly becomes clear what its like doing heavy manual labour in 38 degree heat. Our only power tool is a battery-operated hand drill. Everything else is cut, mixed, positioned and fastened by hand. The frames are heaved into place with ropes and brute force. On subsequent days we make and install crossbeams, floor boards, wall panels, a staircase, door and window frames, the door, corrugated tin shutters and roof. Local men, women and children, friends and family, come and go throughout the week. Fetching, carrying, hammering, laughing, playing, cooking, washing. There are no cross words. We share water and cigarettes. We are a constant source of amusement. Especially us four pasty, sweaty, overweight, out of shape Brits. They laugh at our torn shorts. At our sunburn. At our lack of agility. The laughs come easily and freely and keep on coming. We are made welcome. They are the happiest, friendliest community I’ve spent time in for many years. My fears and misgivings evaporate under the warmth of their kindness and generosity. I can look in the eye the people who will live in this house. I can high-five the little children who will sleep safe and dry. I can shake the hand of the man who no longer has to get up in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm to replace the palm frond walls, who can go looking for work secure in the knowledge that his family have a home.
By the end of Thursday we are done.
On Friday morning we return for the last time. The family cannot move in until a series of blessings are performed. We form up with the family and villagers for a procession that wends its way three times around the house while the head of the village chants the first blessing. Food and possessions are then laid out in the house before we are joined by three Buddhist monks whose incantations provide the soundtrack to a modest meal of pork stew and rice provided by the family.
In four days we have built a family a home. We’ve done it with them. We can see exactly what a difference it will make. Some might say this trip was borne of guilt and hypocrisy. Well, I don’t feel it. I looked these people in the eye. Human to human. They needed some help. I was prepared to give it. Did I feel good about it? Yes. Yes I did. But so did they. And they bent a hell of a lot less nails getting there. Cambodia has had a troubled history with the outside world. But not with me. Why wouldn’t I help? Having people come to your small corner of the world and leave houses not landmines. I think that counts for quite a lot.
Ours was number 73.