Just. Plain. Awful.

29 11 2011

I have sad news to report.

Last Friday, in our town three young girls were raped. A Khmer man broke into their shared house and raped them. They were in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. The one boy living with them was hit over the head with a hatchet. All of the students study at Tim’s school.

The rapist was a local man, known in the community for having worked abroad. The community members say he is covered in tattoos, uses drugs and might have HIV. To make it worse, he’s served time in jail for sex crimes before. We have been told he has been taken to Siem Reap by the police.

We are unable to fact-check any of this as it hasn’t been picked up by any newspaper we can find. We don’t have a TV, but I doubt that it would be covered on the televised news either. Regardless of the details, three young girls were raped.

Luckily, the girls seem to be receiving care from a well-respected NGO that aims to empower women and girls throughout the country. They work relentlessly with victims of domestic abuse, women who have been trafficked and victims of rape, in addition to the advocacy and prevention work they do. I’m hoping to meet with the NGO soon and will update if I learn anything new.

Please keep these girls and their families in your thoughts and prayers.

Katie

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Party at the Dragon Bridge

28 11 2011

Last week, the Angkor-era Dragon Bridge in our town was the center of a three-day celebration that much resembled a small fair. The streets were filled with people playing games, admiring the lighted boats in the water, sampling chicken kabobs from food stands, and watching Khmer movies projected on big screens. Periodically, a single firework would explode in the sky. Apparently, the celebration was to help raise funds for the wat that’s being built outside of town.

Here’s a short video of the traditional music and dancing that took place:

Click here for more pictures of the event: Dragon Bridge Party Pictures

Katie





NGOs: Friend or Foe?

27 11 2011

Foreign aid dependency is something I’ve been meaning to write about since training, but I’ve lacked the motivation to tackle such a complex issue. Then, this week I was a part of a conversation that triggered me to finally sit down and address it, at least on its surface.

Any discourse on foreign assistance is particularly pertinent to Cambodia, as it receives about one billion dollars of foreign assistance annually. While much of that is bilateral assistance—meaning that it is funding transferred directly from another government to the Royal Kingdom of Cambodia— a significant portion of it also comes through nongovernmental organizations. The number and scale of international or internationally-supported NGOs in Cambodia is truly mindboggling.

Although I personally find the micro-level discussion around aid dependency to be much more interesting (How do handouts affect a family or community’s future decision-making processes, psyche and ability to pull itself out of poverty?), the Cambodian students in our advanced English class hit one of the main points of the macro-level debate without any prompting.

When talking about Cambodian agriculture late last week, the following discussion took place.

Tim: How do you think agriculture will change in the future? How will it be different in the next 10 or 20 years?

Student #1: I think NGOs will continue to go to the fields and teach farmers things that will help them improve their yields so agriculture will continue to get better.

Me: What about the government? Does the Ministry of Agriculture help the farmers?

Student #2 (laughing nervously): The Minister has, uh, other priorities. Farmers come second. You see, there is a lot of corruption in Cambodia. So after the Minister… there isn’t much money left for the farmers.

Tim: So the government isn’t helping?

Students: No.

Tim: So what happens if all of the NGOs leave Cambodia?

Student #2 (without hesitation): We would have to go to our government and demand that it help us.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The strong NGO presence seems to be alleviating any pressure for Cambodians to demand basic support from their own government.

Granted, the Cambodian government works with a budget that could be considered miniscule (just over $2 billion, about a third of the budget of the Chicago Public School system), and truly may not have the ability to respond to such demands if they were made, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen to corruption levels— and just plain efficiency— if there was overwhelming public pressure. Would the government step up and begin to take responsibility for the welfare of its own people, no longer having the NGO community to rely on? Or would the corruption continue, leaving Cambodians to suffer yet again?

And, actually, I’d like to take it one step further: Would the Cambodian people actually demand their rights in the first place? Although our student understood immediately the importance of doing so, Cambodian society is still haunted by a strong sense of fear and obedience left over from the Pol Pot regime. Having no history of public uprising and a horrifying political genocide in its recent past, Cambodians might be left feeling paralyzed.

So, at the end of it, are NGOs protecting and promoting the welfare of Cambodians throughout the country? Are these organizations creating opportunities for the Cambodian people that they’d never demand themselves? Or, is the NGO community preventing a people from taking ownership of its own rights and engaging in what could potentially be an empowering and history-altering political process?

It’s an impossible question to answer, especially because of the mixed record of NGOs in this country, but it’s unbelievably important that all of us actors hoping to promote development in Cambodia never lose sight of these issues.

Katie





Happy Thanksgiving!

24 11 2011

Happy Thanksgiving! While you are gorging yourselves on turkey and stuffing, Tim and I will mark this special day with a box of mac and cheese and mashed potatoes! (Don’t pity us too much though, we were treated to a huge Thanksgiving feast last week in Battambong…)

Anyway, in keeping with last year’s Thanksgiving post, Tim and I have decided to each highlight a few things we are thankful for this year.

Katie:

Ah, I love this time of year. It’s the perfect blend of introspection and gratitude.

First of all, I am incredibly grateful for the wonderful places I’ve gotten to experience in the past 12 months.  At this time last year, Tim and I were in Argentina, completely unaware of the adventures that awaited us—first in Pittsburgh, then in Cambodia. The ease at which we’ve been able to hop around the globe this year is truly remarkable. And more importantly, the learning that has taken place in all three of these places is irreplaceable.

Speaking of gray days...

This year, I am also grateful for the wonderful staff I got to work with at the ENEC. What a bright, energetic and passionate group of young people. Their dedication to the work and collective sense of humor were much appreciated on cold, gray days in the ‘burgh. I only wish deeper friendships could have been formed. For me, they were one of the highlights of our most recent stint in Pittsburgh.

Also in Pittsburgh are Paul and Becca, two of the warmest and most caring people you could ever find. While they have done so many kind things for us (and made so many delicious dishes!) over the course of our friendship, there was one particularly important way they helped support us this year. Having spent time in Cambodia, they were able to introduce us to the magic and the tragedy that we would find here. They were not only experts, but enthusiasts, describing the daily sights and sounds of Cambodia, as well as the larger, more pressing social and economic issues. Their thoughtful insight helped prepare me mentally to come here—and, more importantly, to appreciate being here. They let me ask terribly-worded questions without judgment, set up an entire slideshow of photos, humored us and our uninformed excitement and even—get ready for it!—agreed to come visit! This year, I am so thankful for these two wonderful people and the undeniable ways they’ve helped influence my time here already.

As I’m gearing up to start a girls’ empowerment club, I can’t help but be especially thankful for the female friends (and family) in my life. From Mexico to Montana, Argentina to Ann Arbor, Comstock Park to Kathmandu (or wherever the hell you are now!), you women are amazing. You’re all leading lives full of bravery and sincerity, and I am so fortunate to get to learn from—and laugh with—each and every one of you.

And as always, I’m thankful for my family back home. They have been great this year, despite us moving halfway around the world to take jobs with no salary (and no option of grandkids for them). Today I am particularly thankful for the York Peppermint Patties and Peanut Butter M&Ms that they sent us. As proper a Thanksgiving dessert as you can get in Kampong Kdey.

Finally, I’m thankful for my support network here. Any returned volunteer will tell you, Peace Corps is an experience like no other, and volunteers inevitably form strong bonds with one another. From the inspiring staff members to the “idealistically pragmatic” volunteers, I’ve found myself among a good bunch (my husband included!). I am certain that many great times lie ahead of us!

Tim:

Thanksgiving has once again snuck up on me with its rich smells of cow manure and fresh boiled rice gently waking me up from deep, uninterrupted sleep while wrapped up tightly in blankets. Wait…that’s just Cambodia. And none of that is true. Except the sneaking up part. Although we’ve definitely done our fair share of holidays abroad, this one has definitely came faster than expected. With temperatures several dozen degrees above normal and a distinct lack of hearty meats and soothing fall spices, this year’s Turkey Day has come and gone without much of a blip on the radar. Keeping in tradition, however, it is time for our 2nd annual Thanksgiving from abroad gratitude blog (say that three times fast).

First, I am increasingly grateful to be a citizen of a country that has a program like Peace Corps. I’m not the patriotic type, but it’s truly amazing to have an opportunity like this made available to anyone, never mind me. When discussing Peace Corps to Cambodians, they often stand baffled at the idea of a country sending its people to help, squinting as if to say, “yeah, but what’s the catch?” So, thanks to the good ‘ole US of A for having Peace Corps.

Thanks to the lovely people down at 2621 Murray Avenue. The Howard Levin Clubhouse was a heck of a place to work, and I was bummed to leave it so soon. Thanks for letting me pick my pet projects and paying me to snack to my heart’s content for 40 hours a week. Thank you for a truly touching send off and for understanding why I needed to go.

I’m thankful for the support of my family through another seismic change in my life. At this point, I feel like it would take a lot to shock or surprise them. “Cambodia? Of course, honey. Whatever makes you happy.” Thank you all for not batting an eye when I decide to move 12 time zones away. Thanks for the emails, packages, and outlandishly expensive phone calls. To Mom: thanks for a letter writing frequency matched only by Amnesty International. As other volunteers whooped for joy over jars of peanut butter and goldfish crackers, I couldn’t help but smile when that long awaited Boston terrier card arrived.

I am grateful for my Dad and the almost undetectable spark in his voice on the phone when he realizes it’s me. I am grateful for my now Army hero of a sister, somehow making Peace Corps look even more pedestrian while she powers through Basic. I’m grateful for the unwavering determination of another, as she tackles the challenge of dissertation writing amidst health problems. I’m thankful for everyone in my family, who have never been as separated as we are this Thanksgiving.

I am lucky to be able to experience a culture as friendly and welcoming as I’ve found in Cambodia. The people here have undoubtedly lessened the blow of culture shock as perfect strangers have unceremoniously embraced us in a multitude of ways. Host families, coteachers, school directors, students, market ladies, and Khmer teachers have all shown a warmth (stoic and otherwise) that has been incredible in our first four months in Cambodia. I am especially thankful for the anonymous naked children that sprint twenty yards out of their house flailing their arms, yelling “Hello,” “Hewwo,” or a particularly adorable but incomprehensible yell too convoluted to try to spell. You all brightened my day. You say “hello” with more intensity (and let’s face it, frequency) than any English teacher could ever ask for.

Naturally, this experience has formed some meaningful relationships with other Peace Corps volunteers. Without these bonds, training would have been radically different. Peace Corps Thanksgiving was a blast! I’m not going to throw around the Peace Corps “F” word (family), but it sure is something special. Tonight, I am especially thankful for our good friend Kaija for supplying us with a box of macaroni and cheese that really complemented our Cambodian Thanksgiving dinner of mashed potatoes.

I’m thankful for a solid bunch of friends outside of Cambodia as well. Thanks to Paul and Becca who, despite Peace Corps temporarily ruining their dreams of being next door neighbors, were beyond supportive as we packed our things and left Pittsburgh again. Having experience in Cambodia, they gave us our first introduction to this amazing country. Thanks for the Skype dates, the picnics, and the less than gentle cajoling for us to return to the ‘burgh. Thanks to AM who, no matter how far we run, manages to find her way to our doorstep. We are so excited to see you soon!

Last but not least, I am incredible thankful for my wife of two years. She continues to be the listening ear, the source of laughter, the faithful dishwasher, and that perfect mix of support and inspiration. To add to it, she is going to run a half marathon through Angkor Wat (Lara Croft style) in two weeks. I wrote in my vows to her that in two years we could be anywhere. I mentioned the foothills of Uganda, but Cambodia is about as unexpected. That beautiful combination of adventure and uncertainty has shown no sign of waning.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!





Community Assessment

23 11 2011

As newly-inducted Peace Corps volunteers, we are encouraged to spend some time in our communities conducting assessments before jumping into any projects at site. An assessment allows volunteers to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of our sites while we start to form initial bonds with community members. An assessment also introduces us to the ideas and resources found within a community or organization so that we can try to leverage them to facilitate a positive change.

After six weeks at site, I can say that I have completed the first stage of my assessment, although I will undoubtedly continue to gather information throughout my time here.  I planned the assessment formally, but knew that many aspects of the plan were bound to change as I went. To be clear, it certainly was not as organized or official as one would guess based on the previous paragraph.

As a health volunteer, my assessment focused on health issues and health service provision. For me, the idea was to collect information from as many sources and methods as possible—keeping in mind, of course, that it was all filtered through my limited Khmer. Another motive for me was to gauge how different groups of people responded to me and to different ways of data collection.

The health center: Where most of the assessment action took place

Briefly, let me outline the different components of the assessment. First and foremost is observation. My most focused observation was at the health center and on outreach runs, but I also picked up additional information during daily activities—in the market, at home, while exercising, etc.  I observed over 500 patients seeking health care; however, the observation also extended to things like the physical facilities, patient-staff relations and hygiene.

The rest of my information was gathered in more direct forms. I gave the professional staff members of the health center a 5-question written survey to fill out, conducted short semi-structured interviews with many of the village health volunteers, and met with the health center director. I talked with NGO staff about community health and had my advanced English students do a ranking activity that revealed their priorities for improving the community and its health challenges. Finally, I interacted with the patients each and every day, gathering basic information about their family size and health, their mode of transportation, their house and their opinions of the health center.

What did I learn from all this work? I learned that Kampong Kdey is, generally speaking, facing the same health issues as most of the country:

  • A lack of clean water sources and latrines
  • High levels of respiratory  infections
  • Fevers, fevers and more fevers—caused by everything from mosquito-borne illnesses to dehydration
  • Prevalent domestic violence
  • A wide range of maternal health issues
  • Childhood malnutrition
  • Poor dental health

The health center seems to need more medications, an ambulance and more outreach. Many people living in the village still don’t know about the health center’s services or what to expect if they go. There seems to be a general undertone of distrust when it comes to the health center. The staff is not welcoming, the center lacks basic resources, and the doctors are under-trained and generally unavailable, the community members I spoke with said.

Apparently, the health center pharmacy is understocked

Most of this information is not unique to Kampong Kdey. In fact, these are the very problems we were told during training to expect. The more interesting element was how people reacted to the process. Not a single patient or health center staff member I spoke with—with the exception of the director and deputy director—saw themselves as a legitimate source of knowledge. They would consistently defer to an authority figure, saying that their own personal opinion did not matter. It was baffling for someone like me who grew up in a culture where you have to answer a survey just to check out at the grocery store or to get a coupon for your dinner. We’re used to seeing our experiences and our opinions as important to researchers, to marketers, to companies. This sentiment is clearly not felt here.

The last thing that I noticed was people’s uncontrollable urge to have the “right” answer. I passed out the written survey to health center staff, and they could not resist getting together to fill it out. I told them time and time again that there were no right answers and that I wanted to hear everyone’s opinions, but in the end, they still huddled together looking at one another’s papers. The patients were the same way. I tried a written opinion-based survey for a few days with the patients—and quickly withdrew it based on the overwhelmingly negative reactions I got—and the patients would all work as a group to fill out the survey, making sure the answer they wrote down was “correct.”

I’m glad to be done with the bulk of my assessment, but there are other pieces of information I’d like to gather too. For example, I’d like to learn a lot more about the physical and social resources in the community, and it would be great to talk to health care providers outside of the public system. These things will come with time though, I’m sure. The learning never ends.

Now that I’m finished and feeling like I’m starting to build a good understanding of Kampong Kdey’s situation, I will start implementing some small projects. I’ve got three or four ideas that I’ve been working on that I’m hoping to get underway in the next few weeks. I’d like to tell you more, but with how volatile things are, I’ll wait until some of them get underway to give any details. Either way, my schedule is definitely filling up, and I’m enjoying the transition into more project-based work.

Katie





Water Festival and PC Training in Battambong

19 11 2011

Although it feels like Tim and I don’t have much to report about what we’ve been up to the past few weeks, the reality is that plenty has been happening. We’ve both been moving forward with our work, deepening our relationships with the staff and further exploring the roles we will have within our host organizations for the next two years. Tim’s been working more hours per week than I have, but I’ve been trying to use my free time to meet people in the community, particularly the staff members at the NGOs in town.

Last week was a long holiday for us though, so we both got some time off of work. We had a five-day weekend for Water Festival. Water Festival is a holiday that celebrates the reversal of a major river in Cambodia, the Tonle Sap. Generally, the Tonle Sap flows into the Mekong River, but throughout the rainy season (June-November), the Mekong River rises, causing the Tonle Sap to switch directions and instead empty into the lake. Water Festival occurs at the end of rainy season, when the Mekong River drops once again, allowing the Tonle Sap to return to its normal flow. What that generally means for Cambodians is a lot of parties and boat races throughout the country. This year the festivities were cancelled by the government so the designated funding could instead be used for assistance for the thousands of flood victims.

We did not do anything special for Water Festival. Our town seemed to be deserted, as community members rushed off to see family and friends in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. So we spent a couple of relaxing days at home together and made a quick run to Siem Reap to do some errands and eat some ice cream. One night during Water Festival, we also had date night, which consisted of a $7 bottle of wine, some make-shift bruschetta and a pirated DVD. Exciting, huh? We both enjoyed the break but were eager to return to work on the following Monday.

However, I wasn’t at the health center long. I spent Monday there, but on Tuesday I took off with an NGO in my town to do health check-ups for children in the organization’s sponsorship program. In a village around 18 kilometers away, I conducted extremely basic consultations for around 50 kids between the ages of 5 and 12. And then, on Wednesday, Tim and I left for Peace Corps training in a lively town called Battambong, about five hours away from Kampong Kdey.

We spent the first day of training with our counterparts from the health center and school, talking more in-depth about our role in the community and how we can help support them. I very much appreciated having a translator to help facilitate a level of conversation that I have previously been unable to have with my counterparts due to the language barrier. I was able to learn a lot about the health center and what health-related challenges my director prioritizes. Then, the counterparts returned home and we volunteers focused on language for the next two days.

Tim and I are still in Battambong, but plan to return home today. Seeing other volunteers at this training brought up a lot of feelings and a lot of questions, but in the end served as inspiration and motivation to continue to move forward at site. We will both be leaving Battambong with new project ideas and more concrete goals and action plans for the upcoming weeks and months.

As a side note, we’ve really enjoyed Battambong as a city too. Tim says that Battambong is to Siem Reap what Jujuy is to Salta. (If you don’t understand that reference, and I’m sure most of you won’t, check here.) It’s an artsy town with a more vibrant personality than many other cities we’ve been to here. The river front has a beautiful park, where expats and Cambodians both go jogging or do aerobics in the morning. There are plenty of sandwich shops and bakeries, but it isn’t overrun by tourists. There are art galleries and a circus, language schools and museums. It’s been a great place to explore this week, and I’m sure we will be back.

So that’s a quick recap of what we’ve been up to. We’ll definitely keep everyone posted on how things shape up when we return to work.

Katie

 





Yinz Second Khmer Lesson: Khmai-burghese

13 11 2011

This is what happens when you teach a yinzer Khmer. I know they always say to remember your audience, and after some calculations, it seems that exactly one person reading this will understand. But we think it’s funny anyha. Enjoy, Paulie!

(Can you tell we’ve been on vacation and have WAY too much free time?)

-Tim