|Pursat is a rural village, a five hour drive from Phnom Penh. It does not attract many tourists and only the odd NGO worker. It is quite an experience to walk along its streets and be greeted from all sides by choruses of Hello and Goodbye. There is a real fascination with foreigners and there is NO western food! It was here that Sakkany was raised and so it was here that herself and Bruce established Suistainable Cambodia (SC), an organisation dedicated to education, skills acquisitions and agricultural independence.
In exchange for rice, the poorest families in the village have pledged to ensure their children attend the local public school and the private school SC have founded. This has been quite successful with small class sizes of 12(!) and trained Cambodian teachers concentrating on English, Maths and Science. Attendance is usually excellant except during harvest time when the children's labour is required in the fields. There is also a small computer lab and the children are attaining sufficient training in their use.
A lot of the families living in the village once owned the land they farm. However, many of them lost their land due to $12 debts and are now merely tenant farmers. They receive a small proportion of the rice they grow and so SC encouraged each family to grow a vegetable garden near their homes. This was a novel idea to the villagers as was the purchase of a pig for meat! These are such simple ideas and yet they are so effective in providing the village with additional food and produce for the market. Up to now additional income has been found by collecting crabs in the paddy fields.
A further stage of the project is to provide skill training to the teenage villagers. We visited a Handicraft Centre where training is provided in woodwork, marble work, weaving and sewing. This would provide the teenagers with a further career opportunity when they leave school.
A 16 year old villager was diagnosed with AIDS two months ago. She lives with her grandmother and 12 year old brother. Her father is dead and her mother is estranged from the family. She has no idea how she could have contracted the disease. There is very little knowledge about such diseases and she fears that her fellow villagers will discover her illness and ostrocise her from the community. We visited a doctor in the local hospital to disscuss her condition and medication options. We were told that there are no AIDS medications available in Pursat and that the medication could be obtained either in Phnom Penh or in Monesseret, a four hour drive away. This is the reality of life for rural Cambodians - the majority of Cambodians.
We also took a field trip into the real depths of Cambodian countryside - Khmer Rouge country. This was my first experience of landmines. We passed scenes that could come directly from a film - areas of land cornered off by red tape and highlighted by landmine warnings. Only metres from the road, within the perimetres of the tape stands a house. Outside the house three children play. It is a surreal encounter. We lost count of the number of houses we passed along the way standing in mined fields. The purpose of our expedition was to view free land available with the intentions of establishing a silk farm. We were to meet our guide in a Khmer Rouge village and I had been advised to expect a colder welcome than I am now accustomed to! However, while there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm towards our presence, I found the people to still be friendly. It had been a very tough three hour drive on a bumpy, potholed and dusty road. We arrived tired and hungry and realised our guide had not arrived. this was puzzeling as hw had left a half hour before us and we had not passed him or his moto on the road. We ordered lunch and waited. Two hours later he still hadn't arrived and Sakkany was worried. I was amazed at the speed with which the worst conclusion was reached. She was convinced that the man had been attacked along the road, his bike robbed and he himself murdered. While this would be a conclusion reached after weeks abscence at home, here it took only five hours before his death was assumed inevitable. It was a scary awakening as to just how dangerous life can be for the Cambodian people. It is a much safer environment for foreigners than it is for the Cambodian people themselves. We drove back to Pusat stopping several times along the way at small settlements to inquire if anyone had noticed anything suspicious. Everywhere the reply was the same. No-one had seen him. No-one had heard or noticed anything unusual. Sakkany was sceptical of their help - a severe lack of trust in ones fellow Cambodian has been just one of the legacys remaining from the Pol Pot regime. Eight hours after we had left we returned to Pursat with no news of our guide, everyone fearing the worst. Later that night the guide was found to be allive and well. He claims he had taken a short cut - hence our missing him on the road - and that when he arrived at our destination we were nowhere to be seen. It is very unlikely he ventured out at all but what really amazed me was the speed with which he was presumed dead.
Meanwhile, back at Pursat Tony was busy learning the ropes in the constuction trade! The 16 year ols AIDS sufferer lives in a decrepid house that cannot become her hospital bed when she gets very ill. And so Tony was initiated into the local building trade. He was assisting the carpenter with repairs on her house - new doors, new roof, replacing timbers. With Tony's extensive knowledge of Khmer and the carpenters limited English it made for restrictive conversations but with much grunting and gesturing they managed to work together - not all that different to Intel apparently! Tony was relieved to be actually doing something practical and see something accomplished at the end of the day. The girl's grandmother took a bit of a liking to him too!