Between us, Katja and I volunteered for over 4 years in Cambodia. We wanted to do something, however modest, to help people less fortunate than ourselves to have new, better lives.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Our focus here is on maternal health, and if an expectant mother is diagnosed with a condition such as pre-eclampsia (basically pregnancy-induced high blood pressure) then it’s vital this is recognized and treated quickly. Here, this can mean helping to prevent seizure, such as by giving magnesium sulphate injections and avoiding stimulation. But the only cure is to have the baby. As this is likely to be by caesarian, mothers need to be transferred to a larger hospital for this major operation. And how to get there (still avoiding stimulation of course)? The only way is in the back of our ancient ambulance, feeling every bump and rut in the hellish 50km route. It must be an agony for a poor woman in such a condition - another compelling reason for the road to be improved.
Friday, September 2, 2011
The evening of June 8th 1985 is clear in my mind for two reasons.
As we gathered excitedly round my granny’s telly, Barry McGuigan finally got his shot at a world title against Panama’s Eusebio Pedroza. It was so exhilarating that even my mild-mannered dad and brother were on their feet yelling ‘hit him, hit him, hit him!’.
But I also remember my mother’s entrance: carrying a tray of cocoa (it must have been one of those summers), she was clearly shocked by the atavistic blood-lust of her menfolk. “What a horrid sport!” was her typically polite criticism. She was right, but we told her to shut up anyway – it was just too exciting.
Twenty six years later, and I finally got round to watching another boxing match (in fact two in a matter of weeks). I'll remember these too, but I will also have the same mix of emotions about both of them.
At the most recent, we again huddled round the tv, but this time the drink was beer, the company soldiers, and grandparent’s house was Ta Mok’s.
Sounds like another cosy evening? Well, not if you’re from this country: Ta Mok’s name still strikes fear into the hearts of ordinary Cambodians. Widely known simply as ‘The Butcher’, he was possibly the most brutal of all Khmer Rouge leaders. He orchestrated appalling massacres in the southern zone from 1973, and led horrific ‘purges’ from 1975-1979.
His stronghold was the small northern town of Anlong Veng. I spent a week working at the (former military) hospital there, and had the dubious pleasure to visit his old home. Overlooking a lake, reflecting the Dangrek mountains, the setting could be beautiful – if it wasn’t that hundreds of slave labourers died cutting the trees and damming the river just to give him the lovely view.
The army commander who had taken up residence gently insisted we stay to watch some ‘pradal serey’ - khmer boxing. So we crowded round the battered old telly - it fact it could almost have been my granny’s old set from a quarter of a century earlier!
As for the boxing itself, I was struck by the shifting movements, and the use of elbows as well as feet: that’s got to hurt! And this particular bout was between two women - nice to see equality extends to the right to maul each other for public entertainment.
But I came away with very mixed feelings. It’s hard to relax in a mass murderer's lounge. Watching a boxing match in the home of a notorious killer is certainly one of the most unique memories I will take back with me from Cambodia.
My other recent experience of boxing, in the infamous Thai seaside resort of Pattaya, was also a memorable but ambiguous experience. Having fulfilled the aim of our visit (Katja’s crazy bungee jump!), we celebrated with a night on the notorious Walking Street. In between the sleazy bars we found a ring, with two young boxers about to put on a show which we hoped wouldn’t stray below the belt.
This was the first time I’ve seen boxing in the flesh, and it was alarmingly vivid - they pounded each other with frightening power. It was impressive and repulsive in equal measure, and (probably like the clients of the neighbouring girly bars), I felt both excited and a little ashamed to be there.
Part of me is undeniably drawn to boxing. Whilst I’m not quite sure how Mohammad Ali could liken it to the pursuit of a beautiful women, I can almost see why it has been described as ‘the science of sweet bruising’. I can certainly understand how writer James Lawton concludes that “in its atavistic rages, its often beautiful skill and the implicit courage of the protagonists, boxing takes men and women into areas that are untouched in other areas of legal spectacle”.
As a cinephile, boxing combines the brutality of Raging Bull, the passion of On The Waterfront, and the simple excitement of Rocky. As a health worker I note it is great for fitness (though not for brain injuries). And as a social activist I believe it offers a positive outlet for kids who would otherwise be punching dolphins or grannies.
I even had a go myself recently – no sparring of course, but I put on gloves and had a good go at my mate Pete’s punchbag. Throwing a punch is deceptively hard: there’s a whole art in placing the feet, positioning the legs, rotating the hips. It's almost like golf, in that it's much more about technique, balance and concentration than power. And landing a good blow gave the same exquisite feeling as hitting the sweet spot when striking a football or shuttlecock.
But the main attraction for me is simple. It is that boxing is the most basic of all sports - having a scrap.
Having said all this, another part of me - the larger, more rational part - really abhors boxing. The health arguments are compelling. And socially, there’s something not quite right about a couple of poor lads knocking lumps off each other for the amusement of sneering cigar-smoking bankers at the ringside.
In fact it doesn’t really need much debate: let’s face it, boxing is unpleasant, uncivilized and unsafe.
I guess it will eventually be banned - but not for a long time here in Cambodia. For one, nothing much gets stopped here, however bad it is. But also, it’s a national obsession, and it would take a brave fighter indeed to knock it on its head.
Perhaps the reason why it continues also reflects my mixed feelings about the whole thing. As Lawton concludes: “You can stop many things, for many reasons. But not included among them is a man's instinct to fight - and that equally compelling urge to watch”.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
“How we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other”.
So Ghandi got there before me, but I've always believed that how we care for fellow creatures is a good indication of how civilized we are (or are not) as a society.
On this measure, Cambodia had a head start through its buddhist heritage, with a sense of respect for other living creatures.
But these days, few Cambodians fear being reincarnated as a dung beetle, and when they hear me insisting on just veggies with my rice they often quiz me. My view - that it is cruel and unnecessary to kill animals to eat them - is met with uncomprehending stares: “But cow intestine taste so good!”. I learned to say “You know, like monk?”, and somehow it makes sense. (It’s a bit like when I go for an evening stroll and friends press me to hop on the back of their moto to get there quicker – explaining that I like to walk confirms me as a crazy barrang, but somehow “You know, for sport?” does the trick).
My sense is that Cambodians have become much more practical in their relationships with animals, with compassion (squeemishness if you like) now repressed from a young age. Basically, if a beast is useful to them in some way it will not be mistreated – not because cruelty is wrong, just because it makes sense in order to continue the benefit.
Thus water buffalo are well tended given their usefulness for plowing rice fields and pulling carts – but only as long as they work or reproduce. Pigs are well fed as they grow and breed, but are imprisoned and later killed (or transported in a tiny bamboo cage for someone else to do the dirty work). Dogs are tolerated as they help deter unwanted visitors (both real and imagined), but they live outside, scavenge food, menace visiting white men, and are routinely beaten.
The same goes for wild animals – they are valued only in as much as they provide a material benefit. Once the national animal, the kouprey (grey ox) was killed for meat. It is now extinct. Elephants were only useful if tamed, and again are now rare. The main hope for survival of dolphins in the Mekong is if locals can make money from them through tourism.
Cambodia still has a richly abundant animal life, and is home to 14 globally endangered species, including the Asiatic black (moon) bear, Malaysian (sun) bear, Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and the Pileated gibbon.
Take the bears: these impressive creatures are threatened because until recently their value has been seen here only as a commodity to sell for public entertainment or private pets, for meat (paw stew anyone?), or - even harder to stomach - for farmers to cage them, insert metal catheters into their gall bladders, and sell their bile as dubious ‘medicine’.
Thankfully there is now a sanctuary for bears (along with elephants, snakes, parrots, minor birds and decidedly scary tigers) at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, 40km south of Phnom Penh. As a leaving present for Katja we both volunteered to be ‘bear keepers’ for a day. What a fantastic experience!
We made up the feed (green beans, biscuits and jam mashed up in a bamboo pole and stuffed with morning glory leaves), and got to hide them in the enclosures to give the bears a stimulating search for food. A real effort has been made to create an interesting environment in the enclosures, not only with forest and plants, but even pools and hammocks!
We then got right up close to the mix of sun and moon bears, learning their different ages and personalities. They’re beautiful and look so cuddly - though I wouldn’t get too near as they have serious claws! We were fortunate to see a baby, which was of course adorable - but we also loved the dark black adults with the distinctive ‘v’ marking, and an older, more orangey female. Thanks to the sanctuary, these wonderful creatures will be safe from cruel practices, and a release programme begins soon in Cambodia’s western Cardomom mountains, working carefully with the local communities.
I thought it was great, and there were plenty of Cambodian visitors enjoying it too. But I couldn’t help thinking that the reasons I cherish the bears - for their beauty, but also what I see as the intrinsic importance of preserving the country’s natural fauna - may not be shared by many others here. Rather, I think they are valued more because of pressure from foreign aid organizations, or as western visitors like us pay good money to see them. Put bluntly, they are only in the sanctuary as they are worth more there than for pets, meat or bile.
Returning to Ghandi’s point, I feel the moral relativism about animals is now also applied to people here. I often feel colleagues at my hospital care for other humans no better or worse than other animals. If they treat them well it is because it is better for themselves to do so. Is it going too far to suggest that that nurses tend patients because they are told to, and because they risk reprimand if they don’t, but not through compassion to relieve the suffering of fellow beings?
So I think the bear sanctuary has an importance beyond preserving wildlife, giving really important hope for this country: if future generations see animals now being treated with compassion, just maybe it will encourage them to care for each other in the same way too.
Friday, August 19, 2011
Preah Vihear is undoubtedly an important and impressive historical monument. Unusually for low-lying
The elevated setting makes access tricky: from the
Our taxi only took us the foot of the mountain on the Cambodian side, where we transferred to a motorbike, who skillfully maneuvered us up the increasingly steep and treacherous slope. We had to get off and walk at one point, but overall it was an impressive effort!
The mountain is so high it was shrouded in mist – another rare experience for lowland
I call them ruins, though it at least seemed little damaged from the Khmer Rouge period – or indeed little restored since. However, the soldiers took me by the hand (literally) and pointed out new bullet holes and smashed sections of ancient friezes, clear evidence of the conflict earlier this year. It was really saddening to see this happening to a UNESCO world heritage site even now, in 2011.
It was similarly depressing – if hardly surprising – to see the clumsy nationalist rhetoric on signs around the temple: “I have pride to be born as Khmer”. What nonsense! You can’t be proud (or ashamed) over something over which you had no control. It like saying you’re proud to possess opposable thumbs or have an inward-pointing tummy button.
A truer description of what it was really like came from speaking to an old soldier. He showed me where, just a few weeks earlier, he had sheltered from missiles. No bravado here: “I was really scared” was all he said.
None of this could take away from the beauty of the place though. We admired the intricate (and highly phallic) carvings, enjoyed banging our chests with the soldiers in the ‘’echo chamber”, and amused ourselves by haggling over how much we should pay for our ‘tour’.
Fortunately the only fighting now seems to be among the semi-wild dogs who lurk around the shabby military tents and bunkers. And the news from
To brighten our mood further, as we started our decent the cloud cover lifted, revealing a fantastic panorama of dark green forest and lowland rice fields across both
As we stood admiring the landscape, I realized there was another view right in front of me, one which summed up my mixed feelings about the whole visit: leaning against the ancient wall was a peace offering of quietly smoking incense sticks; next to them was propped a rifle. Let's hope the incense wins out.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
I was shocked – horrified – baffled – on my arrival at the hospital this morning. Unbelievably, we seemed to have been attacked by vandals. It was not a pretty sight.
Fires still smoldered around the flagpole, and the shop under the tamarind tree, the social centre of the hospital, had not only been destroyed, but virtually all evidence of its existence removed.
Touring the wards there was more damage: one of our alcohol dispensers at the entrance to obstetrics had disappeared, blue dye had been smeared around the lab, and the bins outside paediatrics had been upturned and the contents strewn everywhere.
Worse still was the scene in the new xray room, only open a few weeks as part of our state of the art surgery unit. Someone had taken to the walls with black paint, daubing every surface possible, including the shiny new sink and once-sparkling white tiles.
It was a scene of devastation, and my heart sank.
Perhaps worst of all, the staff appeared to have been scared away by the attack, with no more than half a dozen to be found in the entire hospital. What a disaster!
This crime spree was all the more shocking as I don’t consider
Although, of course, there has been one almighty crime here, which dwarfs even hospital vandalism: the Khmer Rouge regime committed unspeakable atrocities during their reign of terror from 1975-1979, and it is only this year that the first person was held criminally responsible for their part in it (that was Comrade Duch, who led the infamous S21 prison and torture centre). Four more senior leaders are just beginning their defence in front of the snappily-titled 'Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea'.
As it happens, I had just finished reading the latest of Shamini Flint’s southeast Asia-based crime novels, and this one is set in
Thinking of such frustrations reminided me of the crime spree at my hospital - it was time to start some detective work of my own.
After gently interrogating a couple of nurses it appeared that the staff weren’t scared of a ferocious felon as much as taking a ‘well-earned break’’ whilst the Director was at a training day.
In the absence of the normal handyman, a random bloke from the pharmacy had decided to try his hand with the petrol strimmer, burning his mini-mountains of clippings and plastic bags, and starting various grass fires around the flagpole. He had also, he explained proudly, seen off the wild dogs who had been upsetting the bins.
The blue stains also turned out to be staff-inflicted - apparently something to do with malaria testing (my Khmer language didn’t get me any further than that),
Then the man who used to run the shop appeared, looking decidedly unhappy. It transpired he had been made to leave, but by the hospital rather than any vicious vandal. It seemed this was ‘because of the new surgery ward’ – I think as he used the previous building to store his goods and to sleep in when his shop flooded.
My fears of a crazy criminal were fading, but there was still a scene of devastation in the new xray room. Bang on cue the radiographer appeared – not in fury or despair, but rather with an unexpected grin on his face. “You like new paint room Mr Oly?” he beamed. “Need black, no light for develop film”.
My jaw dropped – he had done that to his own room! In fact, they’d all done it: perhaps there weren’t even any crimes to speak of, nor any destructive delinquent (or at least, only the staff themselves).
Though there was still one unresolved issue - what happened to the santizer in obstetrics? On interrogation the midwives shrugged and tutted a lot, wringing their unwashed hands, but there were no witnesses, no clues.
So the absent alcohol gel remains a mystery. Perhaps we will be needing the services of Inspector Singh here after all…
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Then it starts to go wrong. He falls for her, asks her to stop selling sex; she demands money, asks him to stay in
This, I hasten to add, is not about me! Rather, it’s the plot of the recent film Same Same But Different. The girl’s later revelation that she has HIV certainly complicates matters, but the depiction of
So what’s the problem?
Well, much of the debate is the same about the sex trade in any country. When it comes to child abuse or slavery these are clearly terrible crimes.
But why shouldn’t a women (or man) be free to sell her body if she chooses to? Indeed, why shouldn’t a man be free to buy sex, as long as it’s between consenting adults? And by making all or parts of it illegal, don’t we just drive the inevitable (the oldest profession) underground, away from lawful taxpaying and towards organized crime?
Yet where is the freedom for poor, young women with nowhere else to go? And isn’t there something not just distasteful but wrong about the rich and powerful being allowed to buy even the bodies of the poor and powerless? Shouldn’t the most vulnerable be protected, from both abuse and diseases such as HIV? Below the belt it may be, but the clincher for me is the old chestnut: would you be happy if your mum / sister / daughter were a prostitute? Of course not.
The approach here in
Whilst many of the punters are westerners, it is worth noting there are plenty of Asian sex tourists too. And Cambodian men, who by day lecture me about the importance of marriage and traditional values, by night find it totally acceptable to pay for sex in euphemistically named ‘karaoke bars’.
Prostitution is one thing, but what about longer-term relationships between Cambodians and westerners?
Part of me really welcomes these: the cultural exchange, the overcoming of national boundaries, the romance of love beyond borders. Last month I went to the wedding of a young American volunteer with her Cambodian boyfriend, and it was great. I really admired how they stuck with it despite opposition from friends, families, employers and the police (who even tried to evict all the westerners from the village the night before the ceremony, until a call was made to a suitably well-connected acquaintance).
Even with the more common older white man / younger Cambodian woman match, I know a number of very honorable men who have come to
But there are doubts – most such couplings are older, richer, uglier white men with younger, poorer, prettier Cambodian girls. Isn’t this somehow distasteful? Though is it any worse than if they were both western? Or both men? Or a rich woman and a poor guy (that happens too, though less obviously and probably much less often).
Perhaps it is because, bluntly, the relationships often amount to long-term prostitution – the girl gets money (a house, a passport, an income) and the man gets the girl. I confess that my heart sinks at the sight of shuffling ‘sexpats’ and their bored, compromised escorts.
But maybe they settled for the best they can get? Or even feel they made a good catch? And – tellingly – if I were a 60 year old single bloke I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t be tempted to enjoy the company of a stunning Cambodian beauty less than half my age – can you blame me?
So what about volunteers? What are our rights and responsibilities here? Interestingly, a straw poll showed a significant gender split.
Female volunteers seem to be pretty clear that their male counterparts should be very careful about ‘dating’ Cambodian girls. A casual affair for a volunteer may be ruinous for a local girl’s reputation, not to mention relationships at work and the reputation of our organization. And they are generally downbeat about the chances of romance with Cambodian men, who they see as having rather too ‘traditional’ views about the place of a women.
Male volunteers responded rather differently. We’re here to play as well as work, and Cambodian girls can be both stunningly beautiful and irresistibly playful. We’re not here to put our lives on hold – and in fact what better way to learn more about the culture, the language, the ‘real
So where does that leave us?
As always it all comes down to role-modeling. Put simply, if our sexual behaviour is abusive, insensitive, destructive then it’s bad. If it’s loving, sensitive and productive then it’s good.
If in doubt, we would do well to remember the apocryphal story of the American visitor giving a welcome address in Khmer, who proudly stated he had come “to help the Cambodian people”. Unfortunately he mixed up the verb to help (chooi) with that for fuck (choi).
Let’s talk about, let’s enjoy sex. But let’s not forget we’re here to help.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
I knew something was odd as soon as we landed in
It wasn’t just the tropical heat, or even the unusual scent of jasmine. It certainly wasn’t that it took hours for my bag to arrive. It was more basic than that: with no trains or busses - or even black cabs - how was I to get into town?
Then I noticed a group lolling in hammocks and playing chess, under a handpainted ‘Tower Tuktuks’ sign. These were no chirpy cockney cabbies, but a bunch of itinerant Yorkshiremen, come to the big city to drive their battered British Leyland tuktuks.
“Where yer go?” an old guy asked sleepily.
A friendly shrug and we set off. We circled the airport twice before I realized the poor bloke had no idea where he was going. “Just follow the Tonle Thames uncle” I growled.
We chugged along the riverbank with its colourful tourist dragonboats, past the sparkling new Cambodia-Britain friendship hospital at Hammersmith and the
Suddenly a monstrous black machine roared past us, forcing us towards the ditch. “Lewisham Lexus lout!” cursed my driver.
At the corner of the
“Road closed brother” the policeman barked. “MyBoy London Marathon today!”. To my astonishment my driver nonchalantly slipped a dollar bill into the officer’s outstretched palm, and drove on. Surely there isn't now corruption in Her Majesty’s Constabulary?
To recover I asked him to stop for food. Sadly my favorite chip shop at Phsar Covent had developed an unpleasant fish-sauce stink, and a pack of skinny dogs lurked menacingly outside Khmer Fried Chicken. So I went round the corner to Pret a Mango for comfort food - what wonderful sweet sticky rice they now serve!
Finally we reached the pagoda and I thrust a few dollars at my grateful driver. The South Bank was as vibrant as ever, with stalls of pirate DVDs jostling for custom with “”Same Same” t-shirt vendors, tastefully accompanied by the latest asiapop from huge sound systems.
Outside the Tate, gallery staff played volleyball, resulting in an unruly scrum for tickets within. In fairness demand was high: they were cheap thanks to cultural development aid from
I soon retired to the Apsara Arms for a litre of imported Kingdom Ale. What a day! This was still the same
As I swatted half heartedly at mosquitoes and idly pushed icecubes round my glass, I finally realized what was so surprising about all this.
It wasn’t so much that
It was simply that everyone had started smiling!
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
These are challenging times for those of us who love and profit from smoking in
Happily this country remains one of the most free in the world. The ultral-liberal regime may still permit pretty open sale of guns, girls and ganja, but it also means you can still enjoy a guiltless cigarette just about anywhere.
Two key forces ensure such freedoms continue here, in stark contrast to their growing erosion worldwide.
Firsty - well, it’s the Economy, stupid!
Conditions for business here are close to ideal. Staff costs are unbelievably low, workers do as they are told, and there are no irritations such as employment or health and safety legislation. What a breath of fresh air compared with the unionized, nanny-states of the west!
What’s more, there is virtually no tax here! Tell that to any businessman – be he selling cigarettes or lung-cancer drugs – and his greedy little eyes will light up! In the absence of a legal framework, informal payments are necessary to ensure the right permissions and the avoidance of complications – but it’s just business, and everyone has their price. We’re not complaining - and we’re not exactly going to start a moral crusade are we?
This is the crux of our commercial success here. As long as tobacco is understood to be good for the economy, employing staff and contributing to government finances, then we will be allowed to go about our lawful business in peace. In
Fortunately the alleged ‘’costs’ of smoking - dubious estimates of healthcare expenditure, days lost to work and low productivity of dying smokers - are far less tangible (and largely borne by poor individuals not powerful politicians). Do you know how many Cambodians die every year from smoking-related diseases? Thought not – nor do the Ministry of Health! As long as we bankroll wages and proffer‘’informal payments’ our position will remain strong.
Secondly, Education. Everyone knows cigarettes taste good. They are sociable, and sexy, an ideal cash cow in a country where half of the population are under 30. A pack of cigarettes is cheaper than a bowl of rice – it will even help stave off the hunger pangs!
It’s true that cigarettes aren’t quite as integral to society as they once were. At weddings, Cambodian brides rarely offer their groom a cigarette, nor are packets placed on guests’ tables. In pagodas, it’s rare to see monks smoking, and not so common to offer tobacco on spirit houses. Even prime minister Hun Sen no longer puffs in public.
However, thanks to successful advertising, everyone knows of their choice of products and are reminded of the benefits of particular brands. Advertising penetration is both deep and culturally sensitive – not merely billboards in towns, but traditional banners in villages, and best of all scrolling messages on ubiquitous karaoke videos – genius!
Of course we need to be smart: illiberal western-style legislation is threatened, and even a sympathetic government and a public rightly skeptical of authoritarian measures taken ‘for their own good’’ may be forced by the powerful international health lobby to ban adverts.
Don’t worry – most people here don’t see smoking as bad for their health – after all, with an average life expectancy of barely 60, folk have more immediate threats. Smoking is still widely socially acceptable – even in hospital wards (even by hospital staff in hospital wards!).
Rest assured we will not sit idly and allow the interfering health lobby to prevail. We will protect our profits and the rights of smokers. Nobody does smoke and mirrors better than us! We are already diversifying our message delivery: see if you can spot our sponsorship of soap operas, paid-for magazine features, even teaching awards; look out for more subtle branding of Thai fashion products, subliminal pop and harnessing the addiction to khmer boxing.
Even stronger than adverts are role models. Most children still see their parents or close relatives smoking, quietly preparing our next generation of customers.
Better still, an astonishing number of westerners in Camboida give priceless help in reinforcing the message that smoking is cool. It couldn’t be better: despite countless reasons to think otherwise, white people are still held in great esteem and their actions closely watched and mimicked. So it’s a godsend to our industry to see so many pale puffers (some even working for NGOs with health programmes!) in the trendy bars of
So whilst the smoking freedoms of the rest of the world risk being extinguished by attacks from unelected anti-smoking lobbyists, I’m heartened to report that it’s business as usual here in
So thank you, once again, for smoking.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
For children, it’s a great introduction to the famous game: properties have become themepark rides, but you still have the fun of building houses / hotels and awaiting reluctant guests, albeit in a simplified way.
Money remains paramount - the aim is still to secure a monopoly by crushing all others. You soon know which children will be foolish public sector workhorses and which have the financial incompetence / dastardliness to become bankers!
It’s not quite the real deal though. Coloured plastic counters replace the metal dog, car, iron (what’s the fun without squabbling over who gets the boot?). You can no longer win second prize in a beauty contest.
Worst of all, there is no GO TO JAIL bombshell, replaced with a harmless visit to the restrooms!
Back in Cambodia, a world away from benign boardgames, I spent this afternoon in a very real jail – the provincial penitentiary in my nearest town of Sisophon. It was quite an experience.
It all came about thanks to Mary, a VSO education volunteer who just doesn’t understand that when the schools break for summer that’s the cue to swan off on holiday.
Rather, she stayed behind to dash round with the energy of a seven year old rolling the dice (she’s nearer seventy), trying to cajole and persuade anyone who will listen that they need to help improve the lot of women prisoners.
It’s a hard task. There’s not much in the way of a Community Chest, and I don’t detect much sympathy for prisoners here. Perhaps people have enough to worry about. There certainly seems to be a great deal of shame and lost face if a friend or family member is jailed. And maybe people think criminals get what they deserve: as a victim of a few petty crimes myself I have some sympathy with this view.
But things aren’t quite like that here. Most inmates are young and uneducated. Many are convicted of smuggling drugs from nearby Thailand (they are the ‘mules’ of course, those in charge don’t generally end up in prison). It’s not right, but it’s pretty clear to me they were driven to it through poverty and helplessness, for the lack of any other way to make a living. Or they may be completely innocent - framed, or taking the rap for someone else - but if they are poor they’ll get banged up just the same.
And they are all poor, by definition: in a country which ranks 154th out of 178 in Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index, you can be sure that the only people in prison are those who can’t afford to bribe their way out of the so-called ‘justice’ system.
The prison itself is a series of low yellowy concrete buildings on the edge of town. The buildings themselves are fairly new, and on first sight it could have been a school or hospital (two other hotels with generally reluctant guests!).
But inside it’s pretty desperate. There are 12 cells holding a total of 123 women (you can do the maths). Each prisoner has even less than the paltry 2 square metres minimum demanded by international law. The walls and floors are bare concrete, with a shared toilet and sink in the corner. A hose pipe is as near as they get to a shower.
We were kept waiting for half an hour before being allowed to see the prisoners – apparently for them to be searched ‘for your safety’. I’m not convinced we were in much danger from the shy, innocent-looking girls who crammed into the corridor to gaze at us - though like zoo animals in tiny cages I guess such cramped conditions are bound to lead to stress.
We had come so Katja could talk with the women about health, particularly how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. The session was actually really good fun - as we appeared they gave us an impromptu round of applause, and we got big laughs as we put condoms onto cucumbers and I produced a phallic carrot for the demonstration.
But behind the smiles I’m sure were heaps of sadness. The guards were charm itself, but I couldn’t help thinking of stories of brutality once our backs were turned.
Perhaps worst of all was the sight of children in prison - 17 in all. Whatever their mums may have done, they are innocent and seeing them grow up in a prison is heartbreaking.
Their life is a long way from the fun of a Monopoly game. I hope, through the good work of Mary and those like her, they may get out of jail and take a chance at a better life.
Friday, July 1, 2011
What happens if you don’t pay your electricity bill?
Well your mail from United Utilities may turn a bit red. If you’re not careful you risk a sharp phone call or two. If you really fail to pay you endanger your credit rating.
The ultimate sanction is for the power company to stop their service – to ‘cut you off’. Fortunately that’s pretty rare – after all, we accept electricity as a fundamental requirement for living. We need it to run essentials like flatscreen tellies and hairdryers (along with little luxuries like lighting and heating).
At least, that’s how it is for a householder in somewhere like the
Well, one thing is your ‘need’ is pretty great. Your lights aren’t just for reading to the kids, they allow midwives to deliver them. The machines being powered are xrays not xboxes.
And yet, rather than being seen as somehow more important than a private home, when my hospital got into a dispute with the local generator company over unpaid bills, what did those with the power do?
That’s right - they pulled the plug on the entire site! Can you imagine the scandal if a power company cut off your local hospital? It’s unthinkable, and rightly so. Sure, we must all pay our dues. But never should disputes get to the stage that the ultimate sanction is enacted. That would be stupid, not to mention immoral. But it’s exactly what just happened here.
So I now work in a hospital which has no electricity. Well, that’s not quite true – we do have an ‘emergency’ diesel generator, and this is begrudgingly booted if a pesky patient needs an xray (and casually cranked whenever a government bigwig needs fanning).
It's little consolation that I'm now receiving better-late-than-never praise for getting some solar power working in the hospital. Thanks to generous donations from back home we replaced the batteries in 4 wards just last month, and persuaded the donor to install panels on the new surgery unit at the last moment. Why oh why isn’t solar fitted as standard on important buildings in a country with such poor infrastructure yet such brilliant sunshine?
As weeks turn to months we seem to be no nearer a solution, and it’s getting more and more difficult to look after patients. Even a low tech hospital uses electricity for a surprising number of things. When Katja asked the nurses why there was no documentation for a women who had been beaten almost to death by her husband, they had a novel excuse – how could they keep records when they can no longer use the photocopier? Even more basic: the new children’s ward has a scruffy handwritten note on the locked door to its beautifully appointed new toilet block: “no power, no water, no entry”.
What can I do? Well, I’ve tried to understand what caused the initial dispute, but having asked ten times I’ve now heard a dozen different stories, and sense I’m no nearer the truth. The bottom line is that if they thought I could assist they would have asked me by now. One thing I’ve learned here is that trying to impose my ‘help’ when it’s not asked for will only make my colleagues embarrassed and me frustrated.
So I gave a big sweaty shrug (no power means no fans either), and carried on. Maybe it’s not so bad. For one, our hospital doesn’t have much fancy electrical equipment - very few 'things that go bing'. What’s more, electricity isn’t the only source of power - small bits of kit often use batteries, and the fridges in the lab actually run from gas cylinders. We certainly don’t need heating, but cooling would be nice, and the fans do need power - but they weren't turned on for patients even before we were cut off (“too expensive”). And lights aren’t really used much either – when it’s dark you go to bed, don’t you?
Nevertheless, I really hope we get our electric back soon, not least for the selfish reason that I want an office with power. If not, future blogs may need solar internet or gas-powered computers. Dare I suggest my blogging may be a little like my power supply – it may not light up your world, but you might just miss it if someone pulls the plug.
Like your family, you can’t choose your colleagues, but some of us do get extraordinarily lucky.
This was the final week for my colleague Alison as a VSO volunteer, and today was her bitter-sweat last visit to the hospital at Thmar Puok.
To put it simply, she is the best colleague I’ve ever had. With her, my experience as a volunteer, whilst bumpy at times, has been enormously rewarding and eternally memorable. Without her, well, I’m not even sure I’d be here writing this.
I actually met Alison’s partner Paul first – on our training at VSO’s charmingly creaky Harbourne Hall (the greatest course I’ve ever been privileged to attend by the way – bar none). We had to role-play culturally difficult situations: he depicted a dirty old man and me a heartless young playboy – no typecasting there I assure you!
I then met Alison as we flew to
My first impressions were of Alison’s laughter and joie de vivre – something I was to grow not only to love but also rather depend on. She has an irresistibly happy face, and her dirty laugh is equally infectious!
Our placements started inauspiciously – together with another amazing lady, the marvelous septuagenarian Mary, the four of us wedged into an overloaded truck for the 8 hour journey to our
As we started work in our respective hospitals, I found myself relying heavily on Alison as a respected colleague and confidante. Our focus as health volunteers was (in theory at least) on improving child and maternal health, so Alison’s skills as an experienced children’s nurse were invaluable. I helped make the new children’s ward more child-friendly and advised on quality assessment, but only she had the expertise to advise on administering drugs and the knowledge to tell the right end of a sphygmomanometer.
One of her greatest innovations – inspired by her assistant Sokha – was education sessions for carers, initially at her base hospital in Mongkul Barey. Family members provide personal care such as feeding, washing and toileting as well as vital emotional support, and to tell the truth can spend hours just hanging round waiting for their loved ones to recover or die. As such they are a prime target for an opportunistic health promoter! Soon carers flocked to the events, and not only learned important messages about hygiene, nutrition and preventing disease, but were also given the power to raise issues and even complain – a rare sight in Cambodia.
So popular were the sessions that they soon became a weekly event, and Alison was able to hand over the organization to enthusiastic local staff. In her ever self-depreciating manner she joked that in the end she was only wheeled out to talk about two things Cambodians just can’t get their heads around – stopping smoking and starting wearing moto helmets!
The fact that the sessions are now owned and run locally is no accident – it is a key part of Alison’s approach to volunteering, and one of the most important lessons she taught me. Now, whenever I think of starting a project or running a workshop I hear Alison’s voice asking “and which Cambodian colleague will be leading this with me?” It’s easy but short-termist to just do stuff, much harder but far more useful to build the capacity of others. I knew the theory, but Alison showed me how to do it in practice like no other volunteer I’ve met.
So much for praise about her work. More important than anything was that I could always escape my village to be welcomed into Alison and Paul’s boutique shack, where she would patiently counsel me on the latest frustrations whilst I greedily consumed their home comforts – in particular Alison’s cupcakes and cheese salads, not forgetting Paul’s expertise as trumpet player, piano maestro and whingeing Liverpool fan. They even put up with my all-night internet sessions and squealing whenever a mouse joined me in bed – that goes way beyond just a good workmate!
There may be a useful lesson here for volunteer organizations: if you are clever or lucky enough to find the personal fit, there are enormous benefits in the support, encouragement and camaraderie of other volunteers. I certainly learned a huge amount and believe that the best contributions we have made have been working as a team.
So as we hang around for a ‘taxi’ to take her down the bumpy road to Sisophon one last time I feel thankful not only for the skills and knowledge but also the kindness, companionship, positivity and humanity I have been privileged to enjoy from this exceptional volunteer.
I’ll miss you Alison – Thmar Puok’s loss is
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Whilst written nearly twenty years ago, many of her descriptions are just as pertinent today.
Here are my favourite bits:
On socks: It was James’ pink socks that made the most impression on me that first day; amazingly they were still flashing about when we left two years later
On Cambodians: Two attributes of the complex Cambodian character we learned immediately; they are gregarious, and they are noisy
On traffic: The rule of the road is, officially, keep to the right, but unofficially it is the law of the bullyboy. Biggest is best and woe betide you if you forget it
On hotels: The overpowering stench of other people’s urine must have been enormously titillating to the resident family of cockroaches who after all had got there first
On nosiness: It was fortunate that we liked the chambermaid, for she spent an increasing amount of time in our room… She used to invite her friends and relations, too. A half empty bottle of rice wine under our bed was a sure sign that her husband had been visiting
On learning Khmer: Their language in theory should not be difficult to learn, for there is little in the way of grammar, just a multitude of words. But these are words the like of which we had never heard before… Everything had to be written down phonetically in a series of exercise books [which] bore, in English, the blue printed legend ‘The Solid and Commodious Note Book that is Starched is Very Useful for Study’
On learning Khmer (2): Dara was an excellent teacher, living up to his name which means ‘a star’… We laughed a great deal, at ourselves and at each other, but mainly at our comedian of a school-master, whose great fat belly continuously wobbled and bounced in time to his guffaws and giggles.
On learning Khmer (3): Apparently all that is needed to transform the teaching of prepositions is for a pupil to fall OFF a bike INTO a hole, or FROM a bike DOWN a hole, or… the variety, in Dara’s hands, was unending. And it was all accompanied by pictures on the board of pin-men fling THROUGH the air, and of course by huge fat wobbly chuckles
On illness: the diarrhea that was a continuously lurking and insidious unpleasantness, something we never really learn to live with
On stories of Khmer Rouge suffering: After moths of near starvation, he and his family had eventually reached the refugee camp… On arrival they were given food but warned to eat it slowly; their stomachs, accustomed for so long to little but water with a few grains of rice floating in it to make a ‘soup’, would be unable to cope with a big meal. For Dara’s little brother, the warning fell on deaf ears. He was a hungry child with food in front of him, and he ate. He died as a result
On the fall of Lon Nol: To uncaring outside observers, the whole thing smacked of farce. The world laughed at his tiny general, who had tiny furniture built to make him look tall by comparison. They laughed at the name of his military spokesman, Am Rong. The tears would come all too soon
On US bombing of Cambodia: Although officially out of the war, the US still needed their Cambodian ally to continue ‘their’ war against the communists. The Nixon administration sanctioned the bombing of the Khmer Rouge, and for two hundred days and nights a fleet of B52s dropped another 250,000 bombs on Cambodian soil
On work ethic: Pot Pot’s… whole idea was based on a ethic of work, work that was relentless and without respite
On life under Khmer Rouge: Dancing and music, idle conversation, even lovemaking, were banned
On street sounds: All sorts of wares were on mobile sale. There was the ice cream van, a handcart pushed by its owner, the bell on its shaft struck regularly in time to his step… Bread sellers mounted on bicycles declared their wares, the mournful ‘Noom-pang’… But my favourites were the noodle sellers, in early mornings and late evenings. A young boy would stroll down the street, tapping a stick on a flute-sized bamboo. The rhythm was intricate and the site of impact wandered up and down the bamboo, creating different notes. The result was a wistful almost-tune that to all of us came to encapsulate the whole scene. Following several minutes later came the hand pushed trolley, hot Chinese noodles aboard.
On music: Music was everywhere. All Cambodian ceremonial events have their own accompaniment, seemingly played as loudly as possible. A marriage or a death celebrated in a residential street, sometimes for days on end, can literally drive neighbours out of house and home…
On hospitals: Row upon row of rusty iron bedsteads without mattresses or bed-clothes, each with its drip-stand supporting a virulent yellow infusion bag, the contents couloured by a mixture of useless vitamins. Drips are an obsession, to every Cambodian and essential part of treatment on admission to hospital. That such ‘remedies’ could do far more harm than good was a very hard lesson for the Khmer doctors to learn
On the Mekong: An immense and awe-inspiring stretch of water, always a turgid milk chocolate brown and speckled with picturesque fishing boats
On rich and poor: The swimming pool at the Cambodiana… To the younger and more idealistic volunteers the comparison produced a huge philosophical dilemma. We were not here as tourists… To us old ones, hardened to the ways of the world, this posed little problem, I regret to say… But some could never bring themselves to go there. The contrast was too great.
On the Khmer Rouge: We had read about the murder of children by the simple expedient of swinging their heads against a tree. We had read of the typical case of the mother lashed to a treetrunk, watching her new baby laid on the ground to die of heat stroke, carefully placed just outside her reach… But sitting book in hand in a comfortable chair in a comfortable English home, such stories… had seemed disconnected from our own lives that their reality could be shirked. Now we could no longer avoid confronting the undeniable truth that these things had actually happened, here by the steps on which we sat
On schoolchildren: Perhaps it is the uniformity of colour not just of shirts but of hair too that makes massed Asian schoolchildren look so much smarter than their European counterparts
On the seaside: There can be few who have suffered a damp and near naked embrace by a Corsican bandit in the languid waters of the South China Sea
On volunteering: This was why we had come, why we were putting up with heat, sweat, mosquitoes, infected sores, diarrhea and emotional slaughter