We’ve all thought it – so why can’t we just come out and say it?
One of the main frustrations of being a volunteer in a country like Cambodia is, bluntly, getting anything done. As advisors we work with and through our Cambodian colleagues – we advise, and they are the ones who actually do things.
So we push and we prod with our westerner’s energy and enthusiasm. And they gaze at us, somewhere between amusement and bemusement… And then gently ignore our wise advice and carry on as before.
I guarantee that every volunteer has at least once boiled over with the frustration of thwarted ambition and blurted ‘they’re just so bloody lazy!’.
And who can blame us? Wander round my village and the abiding image is of people sleeping. There is a whole culture of hammock life here, from the vigourous swinging of tiny babies to the gentle sway of ancient wrinklies.
This is especially true - and particularly galling - at my hospital. Luckily there’s no shortage of beds, so staff are never far from the next nap. There’s also a handy tamarind tree, which is great for lazing round, out of earshot of groaning patients. If you really can’t sleep, there are always endless games of volleyball to keep you from slipping back to your job.
The first thing I saw in the hospital boardroom was a cleaner asleep on the table. Can you imagine that in a western country? And yesterday I had difficulty working in my office due to the volume of the snores coming from the next room!
Even some Khmer people admit it. The hospital director regularly berates staff for simply not bothering to turn up for work when they are on call. And he’s given up even expecting any staff to work in the afternoons – if you must be ill, make sure it’s mornings only!
So there’s the rant. Any mitigating circumstances?
Well yes. For one, the climate. It’s not just that heat and humidity slows you down (thought it certainly does). It’s also that it changes the day's dynamic – basically, it makes sense to avoid the heat of the day, and compress activity to the early mornings or late afternoons.
And boy are Cambodians early risers! Even before the cocks start crowing there is a buzz of activity outside my house – men chopping wood (or even building houses), women sweeping or cooking. I don’t get up until 6: that makes me the lazy one!
And it’s not just domestic chores which start early. Farmers are trundling off for the grueling work of their rice fields from 5 every morning (that’s every morning, seven days a week). The market next to me is sold out of bananas before I even rise, and still open when I go to bed. I didn’t even know about the lady selling delicious coconut waffles until recently – because she finishes at 7am.
So not all Cambodians are lazy. But that doesn’t help us volunteers! Perhaps it is more of a problem for us as we tend to work with the worst offenders – health and education. But surely these are some of the most important of all jobs, and the most damaging if they are shirked?
True, but valuing the likes of teachers and health workers needs government leadership. The state here pays such workers around a dollar a day – can we really expect dedicated, hard working staff in return? Given this pitiful income, of course they will take other jobs in the afternoons, to make ends meet. It’s still wrong to dodge your responsibilities, and certainly to take bribes from patients or pupils, or steal equipment – but it’s easy to see why it is tempting.
Furthermore, let’s not tar everyone in schools and hospitals with the indolence brush! Tell me if this sounds lazy: yesterday my translator was up at 4am picking mushrooms and chopping wood. Around 5 he collected water from the pond, then took care of his young boys whilst his wife cooked rice porridge. At 6 he taught English to a group of children in the makeshift classroom under his wooden house. At 7 he popped into his school for a quick meeting with other teachers. And he was still in the hospital before me, as I dragged myself in bleery-eyed for the ridiculously early 7.30am start. Who could blame him if he wants rice and a snooze by 11?
Finally, even when there is a certain laziness – is that always such a bad thing?
I certainly don’t condone skiving off when you should be on call, or ignoring patients in need. But one of the best lessons I’ve learned from my Cambodian friends and colleagues is the value of slowing down a little. There is little of the stress here of western life – no packed diaries, road rage, executive burnout – and isn’t that a good thing?
So as I swing in my hammock and watch the hard-working farmers return from their fields, my answer to the question of whether Cambodians are lazy is as follows: “No – well not everyone… but yes, some… though maybe that’s not always a bad thing… oh I don’t know. Can’t you let me sleep?”.