First of all, I’d like to apologize for the abrupt hiatus from blogging. The dearth of new information from my side has had two understandable, if inexcusable, sources:
1) I went to bed after 10 pm for a few days and got really tired.
2) The past week or so has been emotionally and physically exhausting because we started doing field visits to the villages affected by our projects.
The second point is what I want to focus on in this blog. I figure it’s only fair that, if field visits were the reason I slacked in keeping my blog up to date, then the least I can do is fill you in on what they were like. The experience has left me speechless, which is not a common problem for me. Over the course of those four days, we visited 8 villages. We started early in the morning, either hiring a tuk tuk or van for the day, and spent all day “in the field” as they say in NGO speak. When we arrived at a village, people were usually already gathered waiting for us. We split up into two groups, one group going with Yunthy to speak with the village or commune chief, the other group going with Chak to have a discussion with community members. We had set questions already to ask each group that would give us a better sense of what the community was like and what their problems were. After the meeting, we’d often visit the homes of two or three members of the community to hear their story and sit with them in their homes, such as they were. I think it would be most efficient to use a brief story to demonstrate to you why these home visits in particular were so profound and life altering for me.
The story is about a young man and his mother. They lived in the district of Prasat Balang, which has a population of mostly indigenous people, and they are frequently passed over for government development projects because they are ethnically different than the majority of Cambodians. We visited the house of his mother who had attended our community meeting. She still stands out in my memory for her smile…it was almost never absent from her face, and it lit up the entire room. I’ve read so many stories about the power of human resilience that it shouldn’t have surprised me to see the poverty behind her smile, but I felt like it reached out and slapped me in the face. This bright, happy woman lived with her husband and her 21 year old son in what was basically a lean to. Under the roof was an open fire to cook on, a few pots, and shelves for food supplies. The structure wasn’t fully enclosed: the floor was a raised platform of wooden slats surrounded by two walls. There was a tiny enclosed structure to the left, not more than 10 ft by 10 ft, that the family may have retreated to at night. There was no bathroom to speak of. In addition to her son at home, the family had another son. She gestured to the woods at the rear of the house and said that her second son and his family lived in the house behind them. I never got the chance to see what it was like.
I also never got the name of the son who lived at home, probably because I was so shocked by his appearance. I’m not proud of it, but that’s the way it was. He had a large growth on the right side of his face, next to his eye, that looked red and angry, but the family had no money to pay for clinical services to get the growth diagnosed. He also walked with an extreme limp because his left leg was severely twisted. Apparently he’d broken his leg as a small child, and it wasn’t set properly when he went to the clinic. This disability prevents the man from working in the fields as a farmer, but he was out of school for so long with his injury that he was never able to rejoin his class. There is no such thing as continued education where he could complete 8th grade, much less high school, as an adult.
This man was exactly my age, and yet the differences between the two of us were endless. He was languishing in what could barely be considered a house, unable to work the jobs available to him, unable to go back to school, sick but unable to get care, and here I was. A female American university graduate, traveling the world in perfect health. I could barely get a word out between my shock at their circumstances and the crippling guilt I felt over the disparity between my circumstances and that of the boy standing before me. When we got back to the van, I cried quiet, overwhelmed tears into the backseat with the hopes that our Cambodian hosts wouldn’t notice. I didn’t want them to think I was weak or that I’d been oblivious to poverty before coming to Cambodia. I had known what poverty looked like in theory, but I couldn’t help being deeply affected when presented with the real thing.
There were many other village meetings and home visits we went to over the course of the week. We saw similar poverty over and over, but I never got over seeing the faces of poverty put in such stark contrast with my own life. I never got over the mother’s indescribably happy smile despite her son’s bleak future. By the end of the week, I was almost desperate to find some way to deal with the guilt and helplessness I was feeling. I have in no way come to a final conclusion about my emotional quandary – I can’t say I read anything that brought me all the comfort I needed or had an epiphany that explained all the disparity I saw. These inequities don’t balance out, and I don’t want to be comforted into complacency. What I have realized is that, instead of feeling sorry for myself and lost in my own confusion, there is a far more productive response I can have to hearing these families’ stories.
I’m sure that there isn’t an immediate end in sight to the emotional stress of exposing yourself to the harshness and unfairness of the world the way I’ve decided to. There is going to be pain and guilt and confusion and helplessness, but I can choose to turn those worries into the more productive feelings of determination, commitment, and desire. In a commencement speech, Paul Farmer once talked about the start of the abolition movement in England, specifically the man often seen as the founder of the movement, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, Farmer said, was struck by the question, “is what I see about slavery true?” The answer was yes, and after that realization, he was unable to do anything other than fight to end it. When I ask myself the same question, “is what I see about poverty and inequity true?” the answer is definitely yes, and I find myself facing the same inevitability. What I see is true, and I will be able to do nothing but fight it. I will use my privilege to the benefit of others. I will be fueled by a never-ending desire to fight for the vulnerable, weak, and under-served. I will never give up on the vision of peace, health, and sustainability so many of my generation have for the world we are to inherit. Hopefully I’ll make a dent. I believe with the help of everyone in my corner, everyone in the corner of peace and health and life, we can.