Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Skinny Cows and Economic Empowerment in the Village

We went to a local village today. It was unlike anything I could have imagined. The drive there was an escape away from hotel-tourist central. As I looked to the side of the road, I was shocked by how skinny and hungry the cows looked. Talk about an oxy moron. I kept picturing the black and white wrappers of the low fat, “skinny cow ice cream bars…and thinking if only they KNEW there was such a thing, I think the ice cream company would change the name. I could see their bones through their skin.

En route we stopped for lunch. Mind you at this point I’d already spent a day and a half with our video crew. Half way through lunch, I realized that one of the video guys is actually American! California driver’s license and all. The day prior, when we were having trouble translating a phrase or two, I noticed he chimed in, but he certainly didn’t say more than 20 words the whole day. I guess it’s easier to casually forget to mention that you speak English than to get stuck translating when you signed onto videotape. But, it was nice to be able to communicate now and again without a language barrier. Lunch by the way was amazing. Soups are an essential part of Cambodian eating. Today’s we had what’s called “Sour Soup.” Not so sour and pretty good. We also had some fried fish. Parts of Siem Reap are quite touristy, and like we associate the sea side with seafood; I think Siem Reap has the same feeling.

As we walked through dirt paths by what felt like a mini forest, I was in some way expecting to see a simple, small house. A house as we know it that is--with walls, roofs, and a door that can keep the outside world out. Mind you that the only buildings I’d seen so far in Cambodia, were hotels, the CWCC office space, the CWCC Shelter for Women and Children, the outside of the Royal Place/Residence (its right in the city center), the police station, a restaurant or two and rows of hotels catering to largely international tourists.

We walked through the trees, down the dirt path, and next thing I knew Ms. Noeun was grinning ear to ear as she stumbled upon a woman and a small child that used to live at her shelter. It wasn’t the family we had scheduled to meet up with, and since we seemed to be in such a desolate village, I was surprised that she ran into someone she knew.

Ms. Nouen embraced the child in her arms and carried her as she spoke to the woman. According to Sophanara- the UNFPA Cambodia Communications Associate and my ad-hoc translator, the woman referred to Ms. Noeun “as mom” –“hello mom, so nice to see you, yes I am keeping well mom…” As the day went on these phrases became common place. I had the opportunity to meet three families that had been reintegrated into their communities following their stay at CWCC and the end of their legal battles related to their rape, trafficking and domestic violence cases.

Ms. Noeun would smile when the women referred to her as mom, and she’d laugh about it. To one of the women she said, how can YOU call me mom? You are older than me and have three kids of you own. As we walked to the end of the path, I saw a woman in blue standing at her wooden table cutting coconuts in half. She stood under what looked like a tree house with a thatched, straw rood. As I look around (there were no wall) I didn’t seen anything that resembled a bed.

Mrs. Heang was the woman is blue’s name. She has a beautiful, welcoming face. Her 3 year old daughter lingered by her side and her 8 year old peaked around a tree, checking out the video crew as they set up the cameras. She also has an 18 year old, but he was away at school, thanks to a scholarship he’d received from CWCC.

She makes cake for a living and earns between 6000-9000 riel a day (less than $2usd on average) She sells the cake to her neighbors in the village and she also receives small sums of money or assistance through social services. Though she learned to sew while at CWCC when she left the center there were no machines available for donation. So instead, she developed a business plan with CWCC’s support to start her cake making business and she was granted start up capital of $100,000 Riel…($25). It was incredible to see what a difference that money (the equivalent of two cab rides home from midtown Manhattan to my apartment) had on her life.

As she spoke to us, she reflected a bit on how her life had changed. She was happy with her life changes and she cherished her children with all her heart. She said, “I know, that still, my economic situation is not very good, but at least I am not being threatened every day.” What makes a happy home, really? I learned that it is far more than a roof over your head and first and foremost it is a safe space.

After a quick segment of filming, we spent a few minutes together. They let me test out what seemed like a see-saw and learned how to “grind spices.” I stood on one end and the other end, like a hammer, pounded into the ground, chopping, breaking, etc. anything that needed to be chopped. I LOVE my pampered chef chopper, and value a good mortar and pestle but this wooden contraption took the cake in terms of efficiency, design, and easy of use!
Mrs. Heang invited us to sit down with her on the mat, and her mother, who also lives with her joined us. She continued to cut coconuts without any difficulty (whereas I have to use all my might to even cut through a watermelon) and poured the fresh juice for us. We drank some coconut juice and the kids ate the chocolate chip granola bar that I had in my purse. It was so fun to watch the little girl smear the chocolate over her face and then pick up the coconut juice, snap her head back and pour the fresh juice in. It could have been a commercial it was so cute. For those few minutes, I completely forgot about the sweat pouring down my face. In fact I don’t think I even felt the heat. I just felt such optimism, as I sat with this genuinely happy, healthy, strong family, who despite their difficult living situation seemed to live life to its fullest. I didn’t want to leave.

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