In wanting to continue helping out with the CHOICE group and the fantastic work they are doing, I opted to offer my services on one of their fortnightly village trips. Each fortnight Ross and the other members of CHOICE hire a truck, collect food, medical and clothing supplies for over 80 families an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh. Starting at 9.30, myself and the other volunteers assembled at Chiva’s Shack (guest house) where we joined tables and aligned ourselves along both sides, assembly line style to prepare the bags of goodies for day.
We assembled around 80 bags to hand out to each family, irrespective of size because as Ross explained to me later, we weren’t trying to feed these people – nor did we want to. The bags of goodies, consisting of 3 scoops of rice (enough for 1 – 2 days, definitely not 2 weeks), toothpaste, soap, soy sauce and some 2 minute noodle snacks for the kids creates a bridge of trust between CHOICE and the locals. That trust allows them to get deep into the community where they can tackle the main issues facing the village, such as clean water and self sustainable living.
At 10.30, bags all packed and tied (the knot I learned at the soup kitchen came in handy) we piled into the truck and left for the first village. 45 Minutes in we all stood as the truck veered right onto a bumpy dirt path, gazing in anticipation as the first village came into sight. My prior expectations of the village was a cluster of bamboo huts in a relatively small area with a small amount of farmland either side to sustain themselves. I was wrong. The dirt road up to the village was actually quite beautiful, tall green trees lined either side of the road, lying in-between were small houses of varying size and quality. This road went on as far as the eye could see however today we were helping out about 1.5km’s worth of houses. On either side of the road is some of the lushest green rice paddocks I’ve seen, leading me to believe that the village should have been doing alright for themselves if they had crops like this. I later learned however that the villagers had no ownership of the neighboring land, nor even the small bit of land their house is on, as it was all privately, or governmentally owned. What first started the village was the enticement of work created by these private farms, unfortunately the problem now is with the encroachment of modern machinery, work is sparse and there is no land to produce their own crops.
As the truck slowly came to a halt, children bearing huge grins sprinted towards us waving frantically in excitement of what CHOICE had brought for them today. We all hopped down from the truck, greeted them back with their infectious smiles and laughter before getting splitting up and getting to work. Each of the CHOICE members had their tasks: One gave the kids a lesson in English and handed out pencils and paper, another set up a medical station while the rest of us began sorting out the food bags. Bags sorted and ready to hand out Ross, his wife, myself and some of the other volunteers started walking up the road to give a food voucher to each of the homes. Along the way, he talked to us about the villagers situation, some of the successes and also obstacles that CHOICE has encountered along the way.
ngs from the children
Walking past a mother and her baby we come to a halt as Ross walks over and begins talking to the mother. On one of the village trips they noticed that this mothers’ baby was sick and in dire need. A huge absyss had formed on the back of her head and without medical attention, would have died. The girl was brought back into Phnom Penh and through luck, persistence, compassion or maybe even a miracle was admitted to hospital on the Sunday afternoon for surgery on the Monday. I had seen the hospital earlier that week and know that people, especially over the weekends wait days to get admitted , perhaps even longer to get treated. Yet here this girl was, right before our eyes, hair starting to regrow. A life saved for $20 in medical expenses. Amazing.
Further down the track we stop to have a look in a few of the houses of which the quality varies greatly. The rich have tin roofs and sides, perhaps even windows whilst at the bottom end of the scale is concrete floors and the occasional missing wall. What they all have in common however, is a water filter. The CHOICE group had given water filters to the village homes early on to help filter out some of the unhealthy minerals and bacteria that flow out of the single pump installed by UNICEF back in 2006. It wasn’t until only those found to be using the filters received their food voucher did the entire village embrace them. Unfortunately, the filters fail to remove one of the most poisonous substances – arsenic. The ground and water is loaded with the substance, even the rice is grown in it, providing a dire reminder that unless something changes, the effects of the water on these children could be deadly in 20 or 30 years time.
The last voucher handed out and now on our way back to the truck we can see the first of the villagers returning with their bags. Children skip along happily crunching on their 2 minute noodles wearing their clean new clothes. Ross explained that when they first started coming to the village most of them had no clothes, and those that did, had very little. Now, each trip sees them handing out huge bags of donated or cheaply bought clothes. Back at the truck, ‘the clown’ is entertaining the children by making balloon animals and hats. The excitement of the children is incredible, all trying to jump up into the truck to have their very own hat. The look I receive when I show one a photo of them with their hat is priceless.
Before moving onto the next village we walk back the way we drove in, towards the village still. The still, a far cry from the shiny, metallic ones back home is a mixture of clay, a pot, and some other pieces which I can’t easily describe. For 1000 Riel – 25c we can buy ourselves 1L of the 60% rice whiskey. My stomach cringes in remembrance of the happy water in Chiang Mai and free whiskey shots in Vang Vieng bars. No thanks. A local woman on the trip however buys herself 5L of the ‘medicine’ and we continue walking for a little while until we come to a grave. Ross explained that on a trip a few months ago, the truck pulled up to a village in tears as a young mothers baby had died no more than 45 minutes before they had arrived. Unfortunately, with the each group of villages only seen once a month, not everyone can be saved. Without having time to truly process the story and seeing the grave and mother nearby, the truck pulls up to take us to ‘blind guy’.
Blind guy, aptly named because he is, in fact, blind, lives under a tree on a privately owned property with his family. The family’s job is to look after the cows and make sure that they are fed and that no one steals them. In return, they are allowed to use the barn for sleeping. Blind guy had an interesting, and unfortunate story. When he was younger he was in the army, and then became an officer during the Khmer Rouge where he was shot, the bullet just scraping past his eye making him blind in that eye. During his later years he developed a cataract in the other and is now completely blind in both eyes. CHOICE had once taken him to see the Fred Hollow’s foundation to no avail as all the nerves had long since died.
Saying our goodbye to blind guy and his family we hopped back on to the truck and drove to the next village where similar activities were repeated. I could continue on for another thousand or so words about problems with the government not allowing the construction of a school and other land issues but I hope I’ve written enough to convey how in need these people are and the wonderful (and important) work that is being done by CHOICE. The experience was exhausting and incredibly rewarding. The children’s smiles and antics voiced a constant ‘naww, so cute’ from the other (female) volunteers while the faces of women receiving clothes and food vouchers expressed happiness, hope and gratitude. CHOICE is a beacon of light in an otherwise corrupt and hopeless situation in Cambodia. There are orphanages and NGO’s which pay village parent’s money to take the kids to the orphanage, offering them an education all the while the owner pockets donations. Others abuse kids by having a daily parade of tourists walk through to see and play with them (for a ‘donation’), an act which cannot be healthy. Others, abuse in more traditional ways – physical and rape. If you’re coming to Cambodia and want to lend a hand, contact CHOICE. If you’ve got some extra cash and want to do something worthwhile with it, you can be sure that 100% of donations will go to buying food and supplies for those in need. Nothing taken out for admin or paychecks because all the staff have their own sources of income from back home or other local ventures.
Website is below for anyone interested: