Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I’m Not Here For Your Entertainment

If my main role is to provide entertainment to the locals, I’m doing great.

As soon as I cycle out of my village, the children’s smiles and hello-what-is-your-names are matched by an equal number of old women who gasp, point, and laugh themselves silly. And they haven’t seen me in lycra yet.

A giant, balding white guy walking in the midday sun, wellies and socks not barefoot, may also be a little conspicuous here. (Don’t recognise the description? - well I’m fairly brown now, and still have a little hair – but I’m certainly tall!). Being wifeless, childless, godless and meatless probably doesn’t help me to subtly blend in either.

So I vowed that if I am here for their entertainment, it is going to be on my own terms.

In the hospital, thanks to the United States Army, Pacific Command, Corps of Engineers, we are getting a lovely new children’s unit. And it looks great – unlike the rest of the wards it is properly designed, solidly built and appropriately equipped.

But for a sick child I’ve no doubt it will still be seriously scary. The coldly clinical white rooms are a vast improvement on the dirty, crumbling old ward, but ironically may be even more forbidding for a kid who is already scared of their unknown illness.

In short, it needs to be child-friendly. A little entertainment is called for!

Once the inside is ready we’ll have walls and doors painted by local kids, and even some toys thanks the generosity of another colleague, Mary. But even before that we can get started with the outside – specifically the playground.

There is some play equipment already, but it ranges from the modestly corroded to the blood-curdlingly dangerous – sharpened bolts protrude from the climbing frame and halfway down the slide a rusted lip transforms it into a child-grater.

But Thmar Puok Welding Co. had it fixed in no time. The hospital dug out some old tyres and tree trunks, expertly cut by Thmar Puok Woodcutting Co. And VSO chipped in with paint, brushes and fruit (the success of any event here being directly proportional to the quality of the snacks).

All of which provided great fun for kids from Thmar Puok Primary School, who spent a hilarious morning painting their flip-flops, shirts, hands and even at times parts of the play equipment. It really is amazing what a lick of paint can do! - in just a couple of hours more than 30 school uniforms were completely ruined.

But it was worth it – the next day I heard a new noise from my office in the cleaner’s cupboard at the back of the hospital – the sound of children laughing (and not at me for a change). Hopefully this is a small step towards making the new ward just a little more child-friendly. And if nothing else, it sure was good entertainment.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let's be CLEAR

You will have noticed EAR across ASEAN nations, including in NGOs here in the KoC. VSO is affected: during my ICT at the VSOC PO my VA heard an STV talking to the CD about…

Hang on! You haven’t a clue what I’m on about?

No problem, those letters mean… well come to think of it I don’t know what they all actually stand for. I suppose I just use them because everyone else does – no harm done using the odd unnecessary acronym eh?

Well yes, actually!

An acronym, as I understand it, is basically a short word formed from the initial letters of a longer name – and this can be quite useful. Long and often technical terms can be shortened, making them easier to remember and quicker to say and write. In my work, for example, we talk and write about HIV/AIDS without having to spell it out every time, and we can be confident everyone understands what we are saying.

When we’re sure that an acronym is widely understood, it’s fine to use it. I think I am usually ok saying I’m from the UK, worked in the NHS, and now volunteer with VSO – which I might even describe as an NGO.

But there’s a real danger that we go way beyond this sensible and measured use of acronyms, to the point that they are no longer useful or timesaving.

By over-using acronyms we risk failing to be understood - or worse being misunderstood. We are likely to create more work than we save as people struggle to translate what we are saying. There is a real possibility that we will confuse, alienate and infuriate the people we want to work with.

Answer this: as role-models here (or wherever you are), what kind of example do we set if we make simple words unnecessarily complicated? How exactly does this encourage transparency and inclusiveness? What kind of legacy does this leave?

One of the things I’ve noticed as a manager, and as a sometime student of languages and philosophy, is that stupid, lazy or dishonest people are high users of jargon, acronyms and complex language.

On the other hand, smart, rigourous and frank colleagues speak clearly, concisely and almost never use jargon or acronyms. Which category would you like to be in?

Have a look at your language in the next thing you write, or listen to the words you use when next talking about work. Did you use clear, concise language at all times? Or did you resort to using acronyms? – and if so, did they make things more or less clear?

I hope you are now enthused to join my Campaign to Limit Excessive Acronym Reliance.

Just please don’t complicate things by calling it CLEAR.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A New Flagpole!

Whilst maternal mortality is important, and the trial of Comrade Duch stirs memories locally, what is really important in my hospital this week is... a new flagpole!

With all the important issues even within the hospital - an outbreak of Dengue, drug shortages, poor facilities - I confess that I was slightly bemused that erecting a new flagpole, and spending the day celebrating it, was the top priority.

But maybe that just shows how little I still understand about Khmer culture. Cambodian people take their ceremonies very seriously, and something as mundane to me as a new wall or restored pole are major events here.

And perhaps that’s fair enough – it’s good to mark even small improvements, and the staff don’t get much to celebrate. At a stretch I can even believe that seemingly cosmetic improvements could not only improve staff morale and pride in their workplace, but might encourage people to access services here. Who knows, maybe having a shiny new flagpole is a major factor in influencing women with pre-eclampsia to come here for early treatment?

Friday had be chosen as the day to raise the new pole – apparently Fridays are good for new projects, just as Mondays are lucky for important meetings and Tuesdays are to be avoided for most things. I’m not sure if this is a Buddhist thing or a local tradition – I suspect Friday may also be chosen as it’s a handy day to start the weekend early by sitting round and getting pissed all afternoon.

Anyway, from the early hours there was growing excitement around the half-erected pole, with paint lovingly applied, rivets tightened and the flag tenderly folded and re-folded.

Then the climax. Of course I nearly missed it – I had retreated to my office for an hour or so, and whilst everyone else instinctively knew when the time had come, I was oblivious (how did everyone else know?).

So up it went, everyone with a hand on the pole for added luck. But panyaha! (problem).

Half way up it slowly dawned that the pole wouldn’t clear the electricity cable. Given that power is off more often than on it would have been a cruel irony to electrocute the entire hospital staff, but in a rare moment of health and safety we paused and awaited a solution.

Cambodians are great at fixing stuff, and within seconds the ambulance driver arrived with his great long stick and managed to create enough clearance for the flagpole to be raised – hurrah!

So that was it. Or so I foolishly thought, but actually that was just the start.

A pigs head had been cut off, such was the happiness of this day, so we all had to set about eating it. Sensing my nausia, the kind director ordered for some eggs to be brought for the poor queezy white man – phew! I cracked them open, wishing only for some mayo and a sprinking of paprika to make my day.

Horror! These were the ‘wrong kind of eggs’ – the poor cook had assumed that as this was a special occasion I would require special eggs – the ones with a half-grown chicken foetus inside. I know I should not have shown my disgust, but well – it was bloody revolting! Luckily the chap next to me was only too pleased to help out.

I couldn't avoid the drinking though - Bayon beer flowed, and as the honoured foreigner I was even given a cup, which was regularly chinked, as far as you can chink a plastic cup (at which point you have to chink everyone else and then drink). The cupless locals made cunning adaptations to their cans to allow ice to be inserted.

A top tip: always keep your glass completely full with cubes – this keeps beer cold, increases the ratio of water to cheap lager that you actually have to drink, and most importantly deters kind-intentioned friends from topping you up with ice (using their unwashed hands). So maybe I am getting to grips with the culture a little after all.

By noon the party was going strong, and despite attempts at evasion I was getting heady, so made a break for home. I figured I could have lunch, a quick nap, and at least get some work done in the afternoon. Another miscalculation – it was only then when the party really got started, with the addition of Khmer music DVDs on full blast, and the presence of the electrician from the next village – clearly a reason to party even harder (and the one time when there was no power cut).

So the patients moaned quietly, we sang loudly, and a pretty new flag fluttered proudly over the hospital. Cheers!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wet and wild!

Before I’m flooded with questions – this is about the ebb and flow of my relationship with water.

The good news is that it’s now raining. A lot.

This certainly is welcome. We all need water to drink of course, and at the end of the dry season here in rural north-west Cambodia, it was getting increasingly scarce. There’s no mains supply here, so when the hospital’s well ran dry, we had to rely on back-up from the lake. Worryingly, this was rapidly evaporating too – not helped by local folk flooding in on tractors to fill their buckets and bowls.

But now we are inundated with water! Not only is it great news for drinking, it’s important for eating too. Food here means rice, and now the rain has arrived the new crop is being planted. The growing cycle is now flowing again, giving us all confidence that tomorrow we’ll be given our daily bread (or rather bor-bor, a watery rice porridge).

This is also very pleasing aesthetically – the previously dry, barren fields have now dissolved into beautiful, vibrant green as far as the eye can see.

There are more positives – with the rain comes cooler weather. Even hardy Cambodians were wilting at the end of the dry season. Constant temperatures in the forties are draining, uncomfortable and frankly unproductive – I spent most of my time drowning in sweat and just trying to cool down. Now temperatures are sinking even into the twenties – time for hot water bottles!

So basically rain equals a deluge of good news. But let’s not get swept away – it’s not all positive.

You see, whilst we previously didn’t have enough water, now we have too damn much. The drains, such as they are, rarely cope, so I’ve had a few unpleasant morning surprises floating round my kitchen floor.

And if we can’t cope inside, you should see the roads! Like the fields, the dry, dusty dirt tracks have also transformed – but this time into slippery, sludge-filled quagmires. It’s far worse than any mud I’ve seen before – it’s clingy, gloopy, slimy and seeps in everywhere!

Ironically, one of the worst things about the rain is that I’m now short of water. The moto who ships bottles to my house can no longer navigate the main stream (do I mean street?) – so while I negotiate a solution I am relunctantly resorting to evil plastic bottles. And I get soaking wet getting them. Surely, at least by Alanis Morisette’s rather fluid definition, this has to be ironic?

Oh, and it’s not just the water that’s now off. No internet for days – not even at Thmar Puok’s proud new ‘internet cafe’. So ok, it’s a few wooden benches and some of those huge telly monitors (remember them?), but here it’s a huge dive forward. Sadly, after three visits, I’ve yet to see anything working. This is partly because the rain has also disrupted the flow of electricity. Canoodling by candlelight may be soppily romantic, but I assure you slipping on soggy spiders is nothing to wax lyrical about.

Overall though, the wet season is undoubtedly good news - it ensures we all have enough to drink, whilst also giving me the excuse to flood my prose with bucket-loads of water-related puns.