Welcome back to our main story: our visit & charity expedition to Sineth’s home town. This will be as much a travel report as a social-economic commentary that might challenge some of your beliefs, so try to keep an open mind or put a pink blindfold on.
The last time Sineth visited her village was in after our marriage in Dubai in 2008. I went back to work, so she went alone. Much has changed in six years. Even though we visited during dry season, the improvements to the road are remarkable: what used to be a four-hour drive now takes only two and a half hours with an informal daily taxi service. Not in the back of a dirty dusty pick-up truck, but by air-conditioned van! The driver was known to Sineth, still a boy when she first left. From Siem Reap to Kralenh is almost completely paved, and the part between Kralenh and het village is now a gravel road – a vast improvement over the muddy bumpy road, so much so it has changed the entire village in less than four years. Adding to that is the shaky economic situation in Cambodia: we estimate that half of the under-40 working population has moved to Thailand for work. The pay is much better; the newly constructed homes are testament to that; but many of the fields lay bare: hardly any summer rice, few vegetables are grown on the river banks. Some of the vegetables sold in the village came from elsewhere. Some of the fruit and vegetables sold in Siem Reap were imported from Thailand. Most Cambodians who work in Thailand do so illegally, so children are left under the care of those who stay behind. Overall, people are better of materially, but it comes at a price.
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The village itself is situated on the banks of a river, which in May is a murky buffalo bathing pool, but swells up during the rainy season, rising 6 meters (18 feet), flooding everything, fertilizing the soil and providing all-you-can-eat fish buffet. It is hard to imagine as we arrived in dry soaring heat. People told me it would be even hotter than Siem Reap, something I found hard to believe. But trust me, it is. I am used to the heat in Panama, but this was Dubai-hot: a relentless 40 something degrees Celsius, which is fucking hot in Fahrenheit. And it wouldn’t go below 30 at night either. As for the accommodation, well I’ve been more comfortable camping next to a train track in Kurdistan than in this village. I can see why Sineth left for the city when she was 12.
So we did our charity round in the evenings and returned to the bliss of civilization after two days.
Now, a word about poverty and charity. It is very politically incorrect to say so but nevertheless true: most people who are poor, are lazy and/or irresponsible, and any efforts on them are wasted. You cannot help people who won’t help themselves. You give them a motorcycle, they’ll brake it. You give them money, they squander it, you build them a house, they’ll neglect it. In fact, helping this kind of people only perpetuates their destructive behaviour: the only thing that might stop an alcoholic from drinking is poverty, the only thing that might improve a negligent mother is the shame of poverty. If nothing else, they’ll serve as an example to other people: don’t drink, gamble, be lazy, waste your money, do petty crime, or you end up like them.
Our charity efforts were therefore directed not at the poor, but at the unfortunate. The people who are trying but got beaten down nonetheless by bad luck. The only reason we can do this, is because Sineth and especially her father know every villager and their stories.
This is not possible nor the aim of larger charities or social security systems: most are self-serving sellers of misery. In Cambodia charity is big business. Ever wondered why 20 years after the war ended, they are still constructing orphanages here? Unicef estimates that 75% of all orphans in fact have parents, who just want to save a couple of dollars. But take a few shots of some poor child, and people stop asking questions. The recently opened guest-house we were staying needed staff and contacted 15 charities involved in educating the poor to work in tourism, not one ever bothered replying. I could give you countless more examples from Cambodia and other countries. Sure, some of the money does end were it is needed, and not all charity personnel lives in 5-star hotels driving around in shiny Hiluxes. But most do.
You really want to see this country move forwards, give it market access to western markets so that people can help themselves. I’ve seen amazing productivity and creativity on the countryside and in the workshops of Siem Reap: if these people can export their goods, nobody needs a hand out. And of course it would help if the present government of former Khmer Rouge thugs gets replaced. A government which, by the way, receives financial support from the United States, the EU, Australia, China and Viet Nam to do stuff like this (NSFW).
(As a side note: both in Santa Fe as well as in the next village to Sineths’, I spotted signs of projects funded with EU money. What the EUROPEAN union is doing in Central America and South-East Asia is rather baffling. You’d think messing up one continent would be enough. May 22 Europeans can vote for the
Supreme Soviet European Parliament. For what its worth, at least you can let them know what you think?)
Back to our charity efforts. We had raised a modest $590 and bought some sarongs, head lamps, flash lights and solar lamps (special thanks to the charity branch of d-light who delivered these lights at cost) We saved half of the money to give directly, $7-12 dollars per person. Five dollars is a days’ wage in the village.
We asked the help of Sineth’s father to select those who are working hard but struggling. We have added a couple of stories, some of which are particularly tragic. Luckily even in poor countries, such stories are exceptional rather than rule. Not everybody is featured in this slideshow, of some we didn’t take pictures, and some pictures are of poor quality.
While this kind of help might not look structural, think of it this way: we are not the only ones who help these struggling people, they have friends and family, a community to which they belong and who does help and support them. These social structures are lost in many more developed countries, were we shifted the responsibility of helping our fellow man to anonymous bureaucrats. Who is poor and who is rich here?
Each time Sineth handed over the packages & money, she received blessings from the beneficiaries. I’d like to extent these blessings to you who donated. Thank you very much!
Tomorrow we are going to visit the widow of Cambodia’s most famous singer, Sinn Sisamouth. Since I got into the habit, I will continue my stories.