Reflections on a week in Cambodia


I began yesterday on the top floor balcony of the pastor’s house in Tonle Bati. I woke to the dawn chorus that arrived before the sun. In the day I took in two church services, almost all of which were in Khmer and untranslated. I had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner – five meals on the trot in all, and realised fairly late that it was the first day in a long time I had gone without tea or coffee. It ended with the first spot of souvenir hunting in Phnom Penh’s night market, cramped between tourists and locals, browsing stalls and trying to avoid being ripped off, and when the power cut, definitely trying to avoid being mugged.

It was a day of difference even in a country already so different. Seeing the rural poverty and the scratch existence of families working multiple jobs and raising chickens and ducks to reduce their dependence on the buying from the market. Seeing the neon signs above the market, and seeing the different rates we got on the tuk tuks when we had a Khmer speaker aboard.

Back from a night under a mosquito net, almost under the stars, and into a hotel that’s certainly not grand but comfortable and with warm water. My arms, never quite fully sweat free even under the fans in the late evening, stick to the leather seats as I make the most of the best wifi in the building by working late in the hotel lobby.

When presented with the itinerary for the final three days of the presidential campaign in the final season of the West Wing, Matt Santos grimaces with horror at the demands placed on him but stoically replies that you can hang from your toe nails for three days.

That’s been a bit of my attitude this week. It’s been tiring, we’ve been up and out early each day, spending fairly full days in villages, meeting with pastors and umoja facilitators, hearing from members of the community, those who participate in the projects and those who might like to. We’ve got back into the city ready for a rest, but with photos to sort, edit and upload, and blogs to write, edit and post. I made the situation a little on the ridiculous by deciding to write a guest post each day. I wrote a post for work, one for church, another for Tearfund’s Rhythms’ site (and another is on its way), one for the God & Politics blog, and one for Anna Robinson, one for Claire Musters, and there’ll probably be a couple more in the next day or two.

Each day when I’ve been tired I’ve looked at the incredible place I am and the chance to see and do things I rarely receive and determine to make the most of it. Sleep is for the weak, I can survive on very little for a few days. When I woke at 4.30am on the pastor’s balcony and the cockerels were only the start of the cacophony of sound surrounding me, I lay on the mattress and gazed through the mosquito net towards the slowly brightening sky and took about the only time I had had so far to think and reflect. I had said before I went that I thought it might provide such a chance, an opportunity to do what I have so little time for, the chance in a very different place to think thoughts that are crowded out of my mind most days. And then the only time for thinking comes when all sane people are asleep.

I thought deeply, too deeply for that time in the morning. I thought about the value I place one people and things, and what I do about that. Over the past week I have seen poverty and I have seen community resilience. I have seen the way that Tearfund works in Cambodia and how it works.

I realised that as much as we make a virtue of difference and use it as leverage to encourage donations to causes overseas, that much we keep people at arm’s length. When we seek to show poverty in contrast to opulence; when we show illiteracy compared to education, hunger to feasting, thirst to quenched mouths. When we do this we use difference as a lever to cajole.

And as I thought in the early hours yesterday as I asked questions I rarely do. As I appreciated things I skip over. As I wondered what future turns my life would take, I thought afresh about the value we put on other people, and the value we undermine when we hard sell in simplistic ways to reduce complex situations to tweetable lengths.

There’s something about the simple that is attractive, and there are times when it is vital to remove complexity and communicate with clarity is a virtue worth retaining. But there are also times it is reductionist and it insults the reader and the donor.

Every time a photo of a small child, preferably in shabby clothes, is used to solicit donations. I’ve done it, I’ve done it this week. Every time we reinforce the idea that certain things matter more than others.

Yesterday afternoon before the second church service the umoja group in Tonle Bati met. It was possibly even less photogenic that the earthworm raising project we visited on Thursday. Yet that’s the heart of what we’re witnessing in Cambodia, and at the heart are people who are valued more than gifts of resources.

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We often hear that when people are in old age it is not that they wish they spent more time at the office, or accumulating possessions, but spending time with people, their friends and their family.

When we think about development do we think about this? Do we think about people in far off places as partners in what we want to see happen, or consumers of goods we decide we are kind enough to offer?

And when I think of my relationships, do I value them highly enough, and if I do, if it is the relationships with people who I love and care for that matters the most, then what am I doing to reflect this affection?