Perspectives and Puppets in Cambodia

We are nearing our one month anniversary of living and working in Cambodia. Time is going by so quickly, yet some days feel so long. The weekends fly by while the weekdays can sometimes drag on - especially when we just go to work and come home in the evenings. Even though we have air conditioning at home and work, the 90-plus degree days still take something out of you. Fortunately, as Dave has mentioned in his posts, we've found wine and cheese to get us through the harder nights.

That being said, our experience continues to be fascinating. We chose Cambodia as a longer-term volunteer placement because we knew the country faced a number of challenges. It's the poorest country we've ever been to - ranked 141st out of 172 countries with an average GDP per capita of $1,900. The majority of Cambodians live in "moderate poverty" on $2 a day, but 40% live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 a day.  I'm not blind to the fact that most Cambodians can't go home on a Wednesday night and open a bottle of wine to unwind.

Collecting Perspectives

I've been really interested in other people's perspectives on Cambodia and Phnom Penh now that we've been here much longer than the typical two-day stay of the average tourist. A common sentiment about Phnom Penh from travelers seems to be - get in and get out - and move on to more comfortable places.

We met a traveler this weekend at our hotel in Siem Reap in his 60s, who has backpacked all over the world with his wife.  When asked what he thought of Phnom Penh, he said, "I've been really surprised that so many Cambodians can't speak another language."  I could relate to his comment. It's hard to travel and communicate in a country where you can't sound out the words, let alone even read them. But, it made me defensive.

Many people in this country don't have the opportunities so many of us do.  In some provinces and villages, less than 10% of the people even complete a secondary education. They have to work at a very early age to help support their families. They join their families in the rice fields or migrate to another city like Phnom Penh to try to make money (not always migrating to safer and better conditions).  Knowing this, I'm amazed how many Cambodians can speak any bit of another language. It reminded me to think twice about the judgements I may make after visiting a place for a short time.

A Volunteer's Perspective & a Game of Telephone

A few people have asked what we've been doing while volunteering with our NGOs. I've been primarily focused on fundraising and writing grant proposals to government aid agencies in the US and the UK.  As I read grant proposals and reports previously written by the staff at my NGO, I'm amazed by what they can accomplish. For example, a large portion of work in our office is writing reports to donors on the projects they are funding. These donors are mostly international funding agencies who primarily do business in English.  Oftentimes it works like this: the head of the province where the work is being done collects information and success stories from their field staff - written in Khmer. The province office then translates what they can into English and sends it to the head office staff. The head office staff then has to really translate the information into English and compile it into a report that will satisfy a donor.  This takes an immense amount of time and is for just one donor.  When the organization is funded by 10 donors, running multiple projects, this type of work is plain exhausting (and a bit like playing telephone over and over again at a sleepover party).

Most of my days are spent in an office and in front of the computer, not terribly different from my working life before. There is a greater sense of purpose in everything though - what I write in a proposal or what I learn from talking to a co-worker about the work we're doing - has the potential to impact Cambodian society for the better.

NGOs in Action

This weekend in Siem Reap, we were able to witness the Giant Puppet Parade. The parade is the finale of the Giant Puppet Project, which is a community children's art project run by a local NGO. Bright colored paper made puppets lined the streets of downtown Siem Reap and kids laughed and ran about, so excited to be in a parade and a part of something larger than themselves. They screamed and waved like young children do as they walked along the crowded streets. We saw the parade near the start and the finish and the kids had the same enthusiasm at both ends.

Frogs on stilts! Part of the Giant Puppet Parade.

Frogs on stilts! Part of the Giant Puppet Parade.

A puppet getting ready to strut her stuff.

A puppet getting ready to strut her stuff.

It's witnessing things like this in Cambodia that bring a huge smile to my face and a hope in my heart. With more than 1,500 NGOs working on a host of societal issues here, there are bound to be more opportunities for these children. I hope you'll agree after you see them for yourself.