Three years ago I made a trip to Cambodia as a field coordinator for Elevyn to meet with some NGOs there. It was a bittersweet experience for me.
It was my first experience in a country where there were so many child beggers. Now, the tour books and websites all warn you about child beggars and how best to deal with them, as if were the same nuisance as dealing with bad weather. But when you’re surrounded by hungry children in rags (which many people would advise you ignore to avoid perpetuating the problem), as you head from a sightseeing tour to a nice cafe for a good meal on you holiday; it was impossible at least for me, not to be in a perpetual state of moral dilemma. To top it off was a sign in our backpacker’s room which says “no sex with children” along other nos like “no drugs” and “switch off the A/C on your way out”. Since then, I never quite looked at poverty the same again.
My 3-week long trip involved meeting many NGOs and social enterprises which were amazing to say the least. The group which hit closest to home was an indigenous Kreung community’s social enterprise. It was after our trip to meet this group through CANDO in Ratanakiri, that I spent one sleepless night in Phnom Penh, typing this story which we posted up on Elevyn’s blog, a story about the significance of a piece of craft played out by ducks, helicopters and bombs.
I want to bring life back to the story and memory because I was informed last week of the passing of Mr Saphork, our village host who is also a volunteer for the Kres village community-based craft enterprise. According to our NGO friend, he had passed away in his sleep. In memory of his kindness, hospitality and generosity, here’s an excerpt from that blog entry featuring the interview with Mr Saphork.
“Duck…duck……helicopter….. zero?” I read out. Looks like our indigenous people here in Cambodia are quite modern, I thought to myself as I wade through an array of scarves with traditional motifs, ducks and helicopters.
These villagers had no electricity, no television and are pretty much surrounded by thick forests – why would they weave helicopters? Guessing it was a novelty from a picture or something – I asked to affirm it.
“In memory of the Vietnam war, we were affected by it as our village is so close to the border,” explained Saphork from the Kreung village where these scarves were made.
“Those are bombs dropped from the plane,” he added pointing to the patterns that looked like ‘O’.
I must have looked quite silly looking at him with round eyes going “Wow….”
Spellbound by these hand-loomed textiles, I longed to own every single piece I got my eyes on. They came in all kinds of textures and colours; from rough to soft, from ones coloured with natural dye and those coloured by market dye.
But I was not too sure about those with duck patterns though. I love animals and I made a personal pact not to eat farmed animals simply because of my love for them. But I’m not exactly a fan of ducks.
“What’s with the ducks?” I asked – guessing it must be for children.
“Oh, during the war we had to keep moving. So we couldn’t take our ducks with us and we had to leave them in the forest,” Saphork explained.
After a short pause he added, “We really regret it…”
I decided then that I loved ducks.
Note: Translation from Khmer and Kreung to English by CANDO team members
(View original blogpost here)
On days when I feel like I’m losing direction in what I’m doing, I remember Mr Saphork’s story and it gives me a sense of humility I hope to embody on a day to day basis.