Around 80 percent of Cambodia’s population lives in rural parts of the country. Like in the U.S., Cambodia’s rural countryside often has more poverty than in the cities.
I joined some staff members from the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency for an anti-trafficking workshop in Kampong Speu Province, about an hour outside of Phnom Penh. Around 760,000 people live in Kampong Speu, which has eight districts comprised of nearly 90 communes and more than 1,300 villages. The workshop was held in Sendey Commune, which I was told is made up of about 21 families. I was pleased to see that both men and women, young and old turned out for the workshop, including the village chief, a sign that protecting children against abuse is a priority. The workshop focused on educating the villagers on laws in place to prevent trafficking, how to spot vulnerable children and how to report instances of abuse. Everyone seemed really engaged and enthusiastic. It was, of course, held in Khmer, and I can only understand a few words of the language. Some parts of the workshop were translated for me and some parts I could gather what was happening based on actions.
A few people have asked me what I thought about traveling to the area, assuming I’m going to comment on the striking poverty. It was the first time since I’ve been here that the bathroom was basically a hole in the ground, for example. (But I experienced that in China and Mexico and was reason No. 1 that I packed toilet paper and hand sanitizer in my bag!) There’s no doubt that Cambodia has a lot of poverty. It’s seen in Phnom Penh with the barefoot children begging for money. It’s seen in the slums just down the street from the house I live in. But that’s not what I noticed about traveling to Sendey Commune in Kampong Speu. No, what I really enjoyed was seeing the spirit of the people. A group of 15-year-old girls who knew only a few words of English asked me to come over and we attempted to engage in a conversation. (They asked me if I was married. Even in Cambodia – more so in Cambodia, I think – marriage is the go-to subject when you don’t know what else to talk about.)
An administrator from the local school also tried to speak with me. Again, he knew only a few words of English. But the fact that I was in his country and he was asking me about where I come from and what I do in MY language says so much about his ability and thirst for knowledge. It was very humbling and doubled my resolve to try to learn more of the language.
But I think my favorite part of the day and what really shows the personality of the people was when the group as a whole was deciding what would happen if someone showed up to the workshop late. Everyone loves to dance and sing here. My students practice their English skills by singing aloud to Taylor Swift and John Legend. I’m asked regularly by Khmers if I will dance and sing for them. So what did the group ultimately decide as punishment for those who show up after the workshop has resumed? The offender was required to perform a song and dance for everyone, of course!