Essay: To Cambodia with delicacy (how to make a small difference)

Essay: To Cambodia with delicacy
In the shade: film crew Annika and Trevor Salisbury
By Erica Bartle
I am not committed to Cambodia – have no clue as to what to expect. I am acutely aware that I will be here for two weeks, ten days in fact, and that any imprint I make, or thoughts and experiences I take away, will be but a footprint in the sand washed away with the tide, a fleeting experience to be filed away into the book of my personal history. But soon enough there is a connection

The purpose of my visit? I am here to support my husband in his work endeavours – he is behind a grassroots sewing project; an accidental micro-financier who had the idea, after a chance (or divinely orchestrated, as you might see it) meeting with a group already doing good work here, that clothing manufacturing might be a way to help, in some small way, create a sustainable living for the young women in their care.

It sounds like a lofty exercise, a little surreal as we leave within a moment's notice, but I am here, accompanying him on his third trip. Just weeks before I have watched on Australian Story the tale of Scott Neeson, the former president of 20th Century Fox International who left his seemingly wonderful but superficial life in Hollywood behind after taking a call from an actress who complained about her plane food, which was the nail in the coffin of that career.

He now spends his days rescuing kids from the dumps in the capital, Phnom Penh, and runs the Cambodian Children's Fund. He looks exhausted.

On arrival in Cambodia, we meet a mighty woman bursting with personality who has herself created a project to help the underprivileged and disadvantaged in this corner of the world. She is wary of journalists. She tells us stories, not to be disclosed except in close quarters, of the way her life has been turned on its head and the victories accomplished in the face of defeat, and I feel immensely privileged. I get the sense that here I must tread very delicately.

There are forces greater than well-meaning Westerners at play.

Sometimes the cost of the work – which seeks to rescue, restore, redeem – must be playing along with the charade in some unspoken, even contradictory, way. To turn a blind eye to wrong because you have to work within the framework you're given. This rails against one's sense of justice-seeking... but we have seen how good intentions can be mislaid and that the consequences can be devastating. Perhaps at no other time has this been more apparent in the meeting of democracy and the developing world.

The best of the West need not always apply here. Know thy enemy and think wisely. There is risk in seeking and exposing truth.

And it's the vulnerable – the widows, the orphans, the poor, the damaged girls, the children – who we must protect, even in our quest to assert what is best, and it's the locals' stories who we must hear (or see, as many are reluctant to share) without that journalistic, Western or human tendency to come to the table with our subjectivity. Please leave your moral superiority and best intentions at the door, along with your shoes, and cast your legs to the side when you sit on the floor to partake in your meal.

Not only must journalists reporting on the work of NGOs have an understanding and respect for the political landscape, but also the societal structure, cultural nuances and historical context – to write the wrong thing in one's reporting could be to undermine, in a single, rashly produced sentence proliferated via the internet, the very good work being done here by people who are committed to their posts for an indefinite time, often putting their lives on the line.

We must think critically but write carefully.

The people on the ground here tire of parachute missionaries and ill-informed media. For what purpose are you here? Are you here to give or to take away? What foundations do you plan to lay? These are real people; it's not for play. I immerse myself in news sources to get a loose handle on the context. From a girl selling from a basket of books preserved in plastic sheaths ("Do you go to school?" I ask patronisingly, but hopefully with heart), I buy a copy of Christopher Hudson's The Killing Fields for a refresher.

I look, I listen, I ask questions.

Like a ladybug on a leaf, by virtue of my skin colour and my hair colour (to which the Cambodian women, who cover themselves head to toe in clothes to keep the sun off their skin – the aspiration is towards a paler complexion), as much as I try to disappear, I can't help but stand out.

The girls at the school I visit flock and touch and query and want to play games of pick-up-sticks and stones. They each begin to take on their individual persona, and I am drawn in, affected by a few more than others. One girl who is five years old reminds me so much of my niece that it takes all the restraint I have (here I am weaker and more vulnerable and yet strong) not to break down and cry.

I am aware that many people come here to accomplish short-term projects. To do good and worthy work, and then go home. I am here to observe and support and learn; a malleable and expendable person, not like the people who are here for the long-term. Is this a false humility? The more I see here, the more keenly I am aware that it has never been God's intention to deny us our needs, our individuality, our own stories. And sometimes we need each other to validate that fact.

But we should not be overbearing or forthright in our presentation of this self, nor the wish to be seen for who we are – the very Western assertion of self-identity – to the point where we hinder, endanger or threaten others to submit to our often misguided persuasions. This domineering obtrusiveness was part of Pol Pot's mission. We must be willing vessels for compassion, love and understanding while having a sense of self that seeks to correct the wrong within to ensure we do not damage others unintentionally.

The girls we will be working with are all the victims of superiority of another person's will over them; the thief who comes to steal what is rightfully theirs, leaving ruin in his wake. The unthinking man out of touch with his own humanity, given over to persuasions, desires, ideology that seeks to wreck hell for its own sake; to exert control over someone else in an uncertain world through fear and manipulation and acts so callous your skin crawls when you hear the detail of it all.

And it continues, though not so overtly. This selectivity about who is worthy of life and who is not. Some might call it callous, others Darwininan selection, others 'just life', as if life itself were trivial, meaningless, pointless. I read the book of Ecclesiastes while I am here, a strange accompaniment to Hudson's book. God expects this questioning, this pondering on the futility of things. For what good does it do a man to win the whole world but lose His soul? What of the sanctity of life in the context of a fallen world?

There are some protective measures in place: we cannot take pictures of the girls' faces. While this is so that they cannot be identified by perpetrators and traced, I feel there must be some responsibility taken in how we present their stories. How are we to get the message out? There is good being done here by people on the ground. Though there is injustice – the hard and often impossible work undermined by people focused on achieving their own ends – there is also life and hope and progress.

Presenting the story itself is to mold what is theirs into our own image of what could and should be; the narrative. My husband and I wrestle with this issue late at night. I don't know that we've arrived.

You cannot simply observe these girls, whom we are privileged to have connected with; that would be to rob them of their humanity, just as lumping you and me into a collective group (a sub-group of 'human', which captures the complexities) and sticking a label on it betrays our identity. The fact that these girls are here in this place means someone has already done just that; stolen that which was not to take. I am hesitant to the point of debilitation.

Some journalism seems to be more about take than give. 

As their individual stories begin to unfurl, and the relational aspect develops, the mother-nurturer within can't help but feel invested. And since I have done this, though not intentionally, I feel a sense of great responsibility. No rash promises should be made. History is full of good intentions, and the God I know is not interested in fleeting commitments; better to not promise than to fail to deliver.

To have a singular vision and purpose for one's work would be beneficial. I yearn for a sense of direction. But for now I am content to sit and watch my husband cut patterns on the floor as the girls in the sewing room laugh at him. I know he experiences moments of overwhelming insecurity – what if this doesn't work? – but he has faith that is greater, more sure-footed than mine.

"This has to work," he says.

I am fearful for him and share the burden. For my part, I mostly stay out of the way; wouldn't know how to sew to save my life, which is a great irony. Instead, I immerse myself in a thesis. Not mine, but that of a Dutch woman who I have befriended. I will tell you her story soon enough; it is the least I can do to honour her work. I meet with other women, too – strong, resilient, passionate women who are not here because they are lost and trying to find meaning but because they felt called to do so.

It does not take a trip to Cambodia to awaken the parts of your humanity, though apart from the daily demands of life at home you are more tuned into the needs and cravings of body, mind and soul. Life is simple but exposes you, therefore, to the rawness of who you are, and sometimes we do not like what we see. Attending to your own humanity is crucial here; you could not survive otherwise. You would grow tired, bitter, disenchanted.

At home we have greater access to that which numbs and dulls the senses so that we don't feel quite so much... we can tune out our own hurts and pains and the discomfort of reality by going to the movies or opening the fridge or tuning out with a good book. Here, with such glaring need, it would be indulgent to do so. But we are still expendable; energies are finite if not constantly replenished.

You could very well immerse yourself in the work, or take on others' stories as your own, but that might eventually lead to an existential crisis. You have to look for God, for hope, for the best of humanity to hold onto and nourish your inner being; to allow yourself to see this experience, this place, as one part of an infinite reality and a grander plan. And then you have to concentrate on the individual in the quest to make a difference.

“The one thing that I’ve realised is that it’s not about accumulating the masses and trying to save as many souls as possible and giving handouts to everyone; it doesn’t work,” one of the dedicated NGOs on the ground, who has been in this line of work for decades, tells me.

“You have to touch each individual life that you come into contact with, and you have to take a really holistic approach to each individual person. Even with my individual children and staff… each one is an individual and you have to touch them individually, and then that flows on and you slowly start changing a culture. That’s how to make a difference.”

On our last day in Cambodia, taking a shower in a hotel at the cost of US$6 to wash off the Killing Fields before boarding the plane (alas, the Fields will haunt you anyway), we are driving to the airport on a tuk tuk, and I reach inside my bag for all the unused food that I will need to offload before boarding the jumbo, on which I will be more than adequately supplied with food in plastic containers that tastes good enough to be your last meal.

We pass one of the garbage collector kids, one of the dusty, dirty, skinny young boys sent out from home by parents to collect goods to on-sell instead of going to school. I chastise my husband for not acting quickly enough to dispense the food his way before we get lost in the haphazard traffic. My petulant self is weary and unsettled – what if that was the one who was meant to be on the receiving end? I want a happy ending!

What selfish thinking. I repent for my narcissism. And then we stop at a set of traffic lights. Crossing the road is a young boy of five or six who is selling pineapple on sticks. "Hey, mate!" says my husband to him, and then passes him the bag of food. He holds it up before his face, taking note of the apples and soy milk poppers, and squeals and laughs with delight. I am appeased; a happy memory.

I know what I am leaving behind is a complex and confusing state of affairs in Cambodia, and I am grateful that there are people there – Cambodian and western – who are committed, for the long-term. Yet it is not quite good enough to come and then go without resolving to maintain some sort of meaningful connection; holding a candlelight vigil to address some issue that has caught to your attention, albeit in the right way, for the right reason, and preferably hidden from a world that too easily throws money at problems with little thought for the unintended consequences.

On the flight home I resolve to write a list of small, do-able things that can be accomplished and vow to not let the good intentions fall by the wayside as life picks up pace, but also to bring something of truth and light to this little online space after the darkness of night. Onwards through Cambodia with delicacy.

See also:
Perspective: The road to redemption (via Cambodia)

Girl With a Satchel


Victoria said...

I cried reading this. It is a lot to contemplate, you feel so... helpless... There has to big as grander plan at work for us all.. PS you have such a gift with words. Thank you

chris said...

Nicely written. It's a special place. The scale and size of the gap blew my mind.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Thank you, Victoria... helplessness must surely turned to hope, though, right? Because God didn't bother atoning for all the wrong in the world just so it could carry on as usual despite itself... and so it is with us, I think. This Cambodia series is a coming-to-a-point-of-action outworking of what's on my heart (it sounds so earnest, but really it's like waking up from a long nap), so thank you for being a part of that.