Over the past eight years, I have visited Cambodia many times and have come to love and deeply respect my Khmer co-workers, friends and villagers I have had the privilege to meet. It was not the best time for my last visit, as my first few days here were holidays to celebrate the king’s birthday. However, that did give me an opportunity to revisit some of my favourite haunts and to spend some time with precious friends, Stephen and Beth who are also wrapping up their time in Cambodia. That fact that it was 39 degrees with very high humidity, creating the sensation of 60+ degrees, was also a brutal reminder of the other side of life in Cambodia.
On Sunday, I made the dreaded seven hour bus trip to Siem Reap to meet up with TWR staff and a team of medical students from Singapore who have been volunteering in our pilot project in Pourk. They will be here for two weeks spending the mornings teaching and doing research in the villages. In the evenings they will be leading educational skits at village gatherings organized by the community leaders. Last night there was a great turnout of both adults and children for two skits; one on the dangers of drinking and driving and the other on the physical damage caused by alcohol abuse. Following the performances, which are largely done by village volunteers who really shine when given the opportunity to take the stage, there is a question and answer time.
A telling and very poignant moment occurred when a young girl of about ten years of age volunteered to come to the front to answer a question about alcohol abuse. When asked the standard CHE question: “Does this happen in your community?” this sweet little girl had no hesitation in stating “it happens all the time even my own Dad drinks a lot”. At this point, several community members escorted her father, who was decidedly under the influence, to the platform to answer the question. With his beautiful little daughter hugging him, he admitted to his own behaviour in front of his entire community. Alcohol consumption robs this village of at least 40% of their disposable income, leads to ill health, family violence and marital breakdown. It also leads to the loss of productivity, takes young people out of school and keeps people trapped in disempowering life circumstances that rob them of a future. Although not the focus of our project, it is a core and pervasive challenge that must be addressed as it attacks the dignity and identity of our listeners.
As we rode in a tuk-tuk for the 20 kilometers out to the village for the evening session, we were reminded of just how vulnerable our Khmer brothers and sisters really are. A brief storm that blew through in the afternoon, seemed pretty innocent to us as we rested in our hotel. All the way out to the community; although the sky was brilliant with sunshine and a magnificent double rainbow, we saw trees and signs which had been damaged and destroyed. We later learned that more than fifty homes in our villages had been completely destroyed, leaving families once again having to start over from scratch. The lessons for Tuesday morning were cancelled while our team went with the village leaders to visit some of the families affected.
There are so many people in our world for whom the reality of day to day life is incredibly difficult. This “minor storm” will never get international coverage because it is just taken for granted that people must just go on dealing with a capricious life and a belief system that offers little hope or comfort. It will not be easy to leave this ministry behind but I know that God is at work in this community and that our TWR staff will continue to build relationships with these leaders who are so keen to find the answers for their people.