Monthly Archives: October 2012

“I was married to the Khmer Rouge.”

A rare shot of Pream allowing her sorrow to show.

In 1976, Pream Sui was 19 years old, living in Anlong Sar, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Because she was one of the “old people” –uneducated rural villagers who weren’t a threat—she wasn’t killed but placed in a youth group working in the fields. One of the guards noticed her, decided he wanted her for his own, and married her.

The “wedding” took place at the end of a workday with 12 other couples composed of guards and the village girls they’d chosen. The girls had no idea whom they were marrying but dared not refuse their captors. The ceremony lasted less than 5 minutes.

After her marriage, Sui continued to work in the fields, under the gun of her husband, but like all the other “wives,” she went to his cabin at night. In short order, she had 2 children but when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to drive out Pol Pot, her husband disappeared into the resistance and moved away. He came back a few times to visit Sui and the children, but by then he had another wife and when Sui got pregnant with her third baby, he left for good.

Now a happy grandmother, Sui’s bad memories are in the past.

To be a woman in Cambodia in the countryside raising three children alone was shameful and indescribably hard. “It’s difficult to tell you how I felt because I cried every day,” Sui says with an incongruous big smile. Somehow, she managed to farm her 3 hectares of land, raise her three children, marry off two daughters (and pay for the weddings) and is now a happy grandmother living with her eldest daughter, Chen Soueb.

“Now I appreciate all my mother’s hard work and the strength it took to raise us,” Soueb says.

Caught between poverty & family.

Soueb, 30, has four children—12, 11, 10 and 7 –and a story of abandonment of her own. About 4 years ago, her husband Heng Ha began illegally immigrating to nearby Thailand, like 75% of all the men in Anlong Sar village, Banteay Meanchey province. Disastrous floods had ruined the rice crop and drowned most of the animals, and the village men were desperate for an income. Ha decided to risk illegally going over the border to earn money working construction.

It takes 1 ½ days to make the trip into Thailand from Banteay, working through an underground network to avoid capture and getting thrown into a detention center. Once in Thailand, Ha had no way to contact his family and could only send money home through a money train that skimmed off 25%. Ha made his way home just twice a year, and every trip was laden with the risk of  being thrown in jail. Soueb gave birth to her fourth child while Ha was in Thailand, and she feared that he would never come home – much like her own dad.

So when Soeub encountered Heifer’s “Community Empowerment Program” in her village – and attended the Family Focus cornerstone training with Ha– the couple figured that if they worked very hard at home, maybe they could make it together as a family.

Together at last – Ha & Soueb & their children.

For two years now, Ha has stayed home with the family and they’ve managed to make the same amount of money as when he worked in Thailand. Despite the devastating floods of last year, the 2 pigs they received from Heifer in 2011 have reproduced and provided them with income. They attended all Heifer’s animal husbandry courses and are also raising ducks and chickens, growing rice and grasses for income and feed, eating from their home garden, and most importantly, staying together.

Heifer’s impact in the whole village of Anlong Sar has been profound: increasing the number of home latrines from 10% to over 90%; boosting family income by 30%; improving food security with animals and home gardens; decreasing the incidence of malaria by 80%; and building solidarity among these women who are so warm and affectionate, they competed to hold my hand the entire time I was there (how much did I love that??)

Women from one of the four Self-Help Groups in Anlong Sar village with KK, Heifer’s country director.

Devoted teacher Eath Korm.

I saw more evidence of the strength of the community when we met Eath Korm, a disabled 21-year old who loved school but was denied entrance past middle school because his parents couldn’t manage the transportation (Korm can’t walk). However, a member of Anlong Sar’s Self-Help Group knew of Korm’s desire to teach and encouraged him to set up a tutorial service – and with the help of Heifer’s curriculum guides, literacy packets and Teaching Technology courses (the town has no books for the children to read, so they practice with the literacy handbooks), Korm is now tutoring an after-school class of 20 enthusiastic kids.

It’s a tiny village, Anlong Sar. There’s a long way to go before there is real literacy or decent education here, and the government hasn’t made much headway in meeting its responsibilities to these poor provinces. And yet … when you see darling Soueb and her family, or Korm on crutches before his eager students in the classroom, it’s hard not to see this as a leap forward in hope.

I’m feeling it. Are you?

Categories: Cambodia, Education, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

Under water but not overcome.

The weird landing approach to Siem Reap – all you see is water.

Every year, Cambodia ‘s rainy season lasts from May to November. During that time, this bowl-shaped country experiences floods and deluges in the low-lying center of the country, particularly around Tonle Sap (Great Lake), which expands from 1,000 square miles in the dry season to 9,500 square miles during the rainy season. The farmers in this densely populated plain which is devoted to wet rice cultivation make up the heartland of Cambodia.

Rice field in the Tonle Sap watershed

But despite the government’s insistence that the Cambodian economy depends on “helping people improve their land so they can grow more rice,” (90% of all agricultural land in Cambodia is devoted to raising rice), it appears that little  of the $18 billion Cambodia has received in international aid has been spent on irrigation or flood control to prevent devastation of rice crops and animal loss, or to make rice farmers more productive.

Water, earth, sky, animals.

In fact, Cambodia produces the lowest rice yield per acre in Asia – 2.4 tons/acre compared to Vietnam’s 4.9 tons, Burma’s 4.0 tons, or even North Korea’s 3.8 tons. With no irrigation system, Cambodian farmers can produce only one crop a year in the rainy season – while Thai farmers produce two and the Vietnamese three. Meanwhile, disastrous flooding occurred just last year, destroying 175,000 acres of rice, and with climate change farmers expect a lot more of the same.

The incomparable Mith Loeuy

The near total lack of water management and infrastructure puts Kralanh district farmers like Mith Loeuy and her husband Phach Phey at risk every year. When we visited the dynamic duo, the floodwaters had just receded from their front yard. The chicken coop was partially flooded and empty: they’d just sold 800 of their chickens and Loeuy was heartbroken we hadn’t gotten to see her birds. But she was also mad as a wet hen that the floods kept jeopardizing her progress.

Mith’s big coop, minus her 800 chickens.

“Last year, floods destroyed all the farms around here so a lot of people have migrated to Thailand. We had to put all our chickens on a boat and evacuate them that year, so I lost of money selling them in distress. This year, we sold all our chickens early, but now I have no birds and I feel very bad when I can’t earn money.”

Loeuy’s been earning money with her animals since 2008 when she started in Heifer’s original Self Help Group in this village. She received a cow and found out she had a gift for raising animals, then decided with her husband Phey to do “more, more, more!” as she eloquently puts it.

Phey with all the bags of rice they’ve saved to plant when–and if — the waters recede.

“I started with 10 chickens, then upped it to 20, then 80 .. I love chickens because they’re better than swine and easier than cows. (which she also raises) “When you want to eat, you just kill one, and when you need eggs, they’re always producing. You can make money to put your children through school with chickens. (She and Phey have 8.) “But now, with our rice and our animals, we’re just at the mercy of the water.”

It’s hard to see people this passionate, self-sufficient and focused have to work so hard to keep their heads above water,  – or even protect them from disaster.

Man vs. Water – and in Cambodia, it’s every man for himself.

Loeuy and Phey aren’t just exceptional farmers and animal raisers, they are also role models in championing education, even amidst envy and jealousy in the community that they are “acting rich” by educating their children.

“I tell people, ‘Look in my house, I have nothing more than you do,’ ” Loeuy says adamantly. “But we’ve sacrificed because we want our kids to have  to have education, good jobs and success.’”

Phey, Loeuy, and 3 of their educated 8 .. plus two smart grandchildren!

Louey & Phey’s example of investing in their children’s education has had a big influence on the community in which they lead by example, and by their deep commitment to helping others. Louey is the leader & trainer of her Self-Help Group, and the couple has even offered to take in other girls and send them to school — in addition to their own 8 kids.

Here’s hoping this family’s example of true leadership will provide an example for the nation’s leaders to follow.

Categories: Cambodia, Children, Education, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A song of reconciliation.

It’s difficult for an outsider to fathom the profound repercussions of the genocide in Cambodia, or how pervasively it has affected that country.

Even Keo Keang, Heifer Cambodia’s adorable country director, was not spared; her father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1977, and her 15-year old sister taken from their house and killed in 1978 – for the crime of being educated.

Heifer Cambodia’s Country Director, Keo Keang, in now happier days.

After those murders, KK was separated from her mother at the age of 8 and placed in a children’s camp, working 20 hours a day digging irrigation canals, with the clothes on her back and not a blanket or piece of soap to her name. That lasted 2 years. As she told me about the grief and deprivation of that time, her sweet face contorted into a mask of agony … in this land that is 90% Buddhist, she saw people slaughtered in the pagoda temples and monks being shot. KK’s personal stories are not unique; almost everyone in Cambodia over the age of 30 shares those same terrible memories of beloved family murdered, unbearable violence, and unrelenting terror.

Some scars you can see, like this one from a landmine; other scars are hidden.

But beyond the fear is the way of life Cambodian people learned over years of oppression: to trust no one and talk to no one, to care only about yourself, and to put your head down and simply endure. Which is why Heifer’s projects in Cambodia can be so transformative; one of the cornerstones of all Heifer programs is Sharing & Caring for others, something people in Cambodia have to relearn in the face of so much betrayal.

Chin Chhil & Seng Som.

We traveled to Pursat Province – over a river that was choked with bodies during the genocide- to meet two former soldiers who’d lost limbs in the conflict (which lasted here in the nearby mountains until the bitter end in 1998). Chin Chhil, a former government soldier and devoted father of 11, lost his leg above the knee in 1987 and can’t wear a prosthesis, greatly impairing his ability to provide for himself and his family.  Seng Som, former Khmer Rouge, is father of 5 and lost his leg below the knee. In 2010, Chhil received a water buffalo from Som in a passing on the gift ceremony (an asset worth about $1000) and now the two are close as brothers.

Both men went to war in their teens. Chhil’s father and two brothers had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge and he wanted revenge, so at 18, he joined the government forces. Som joined the Khmer Rouge in 1979 at the age of 17 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, fearing his family would be slaughtered by the government in retaliation. Som fled to the mountainous borders with the Khmer Rouge, dug in, and fought for 19 long years before amnesty was finally declared in this area. When Som returned home, he learned that all six of his brothers and sisters had been killed –whether at the hands of the government or the Khmer Rouge, he never knew.

Both men are farmers and fathers now – and eager to leave the past behind. Heifer’s project, in conjunction with a local Disability Development Service Program, is helping them do just that. Working in Pteah Rong, one of the poorest communities in Pursat, the program includes almost all 200 families in the village, and already over 100 water buffalo and cattle have been given to farmers organized in Self Help Groups, and passed on to other disabled members.

49 year-old Kuhl Samon, mother of 11 (!!) and her husband Chhil.

With 11 children to feed (only 7 still live at home), Chhil and his wife Samon work the fields with the help of their sons and their Heifer water buffalo (Chhil is not strong enough to farm alone). They raise rice and peanuts, have a flock of 100 chickens, and use income from their animals to send their beautiful children to school.

The next generations – free of war! (Chhil’s youngest daughter and grandson)

Som’s children are mostly grown but he farms and raises animals, still plays volleyball, and as Chhil was quick to tell me, is “very strong” and came in third in the town races.

If the only way to deal with a traumatic past is to create a hopeful future, these two men who may well have looked across a battlefield at each other now have a different vision. They break bread with each other, their children play together, and they work side by side to care for the animals that sustain them.

A beautiful lunch we shared.

“The advantage of working together is that we can forget the past,” Som says. “If you have a problem, I will help you. If you have a need, I will share with you. We’ve learned a new way to live.”

Categories: Agriculture, Cambodia, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Ducking the big issues.

On my first day in Cambodia, we traveled to Battambang Province (loved saying that word) in the northwest region of the country. Except for the low bottom land that was almost entirely under water, everything in Battambang was high: poverty, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, child malnutrition – as well as somehow, miraculously, the spirits of the women in Roka Village.

Heifer started a project here in October, 2009 with 9 self-help groups for women, and these ladies got right down to business. In a mere two years, they received 175 pigs, 1503 poultry, 5100 fingerling fish and 710 trees. They formed a project management committee and began saving funds ($5,641 to date.) And they inspired 8 more Self Help Groups to form in the community, passed on two generations of animals to other women, and increased women’s average income from 7000 R/day (less than $2) to 12,000 (that’s a whopping 70% bump).

2 chubby Roka pigs, waiting to be Passed On to another needy family.

Along the way, Heifer’s Roka project gave women like Chou Sarom a whole new lease on life – and that’s not mere quackery. In the neat house she shares with another family, in the shadow of a pagoda, Chou and her husband and four children (ages 24, 22, 21 and 10) have become duck raisers extraordinaire. Two years ago, Chou joined the group and received 12 ducks from a Self Help Group in another village. She’d never raised ducks (it’s more of a Vietnamese custom) but was determined to learn.

“I wanted to develop myself and become more independent,” Chou says, “so I went to all the trainings with our Community Animal Health Worker – and brought my whole family with me. “(Heifer trains four CAHW, one from each village to teach animal husbandry to the participants.)

Chou and her children quickly learned the tricks of the duck trade: how to bring males and females quickly together–then separate them for optimal egg-laying. How to make a nice clean nest with rice husks. What ducks love to eat.. banana skins and rice bran. And how to keep the ducks nice, fat and clean, as Chou put it.

“I’m so happy that my ducks are really healthy, I sometimes just stand there and admire them,” Chou laughs. “My young son doesn’t even want to sell our ducks, they’re so cute – and if somebody buys them and doesn’t take care of them, he’ll go to their houses and tell them how to take better care of them.”

From her original gift of 12 ducks, Chou has passed on 12, sold thousands of eggs, and raised hundreds of ducks, chickens and guinea fowl – which she’s delighted to report lay 40 eggs after mating. The ducklings can be raised as fattening ducks (a 4-kilo male will bring $2.50) or the eggs can be sold for about 12 cents each, and Chou sells almost 200 eggs a month. (“I make income almost every day!” she says proudly.) Her husband, who also helps raise the ducks, wants to expand the business so right now they are building a bigger home for their duck brood.

Chou and her brood.

To say Chou is happy and proud of her capabilities is a serious understatement. She’s taken all the trainings to heart, and loves to talk about her achievements, tugging us into her home garden to admire her organic produce and fruit trees (she’s done a market analysis and is planting the most desirable mango), telling us that her son has followed her saving example and learned to save from the small allowance she’s given him – but he saves twice as much as she suggested so his nest egg has really grown. And most importantly, how hopeful she is for the future.

“I used to worry that there was no future here – but now I have one child who has finished university, I know I can make money, and I see all the neighbors working together.”

I saw that, too.

It looks small but it feels huge!

As we were leaving Roka, we stopped at the new women’s cooperative that the Self-Help Groups have built with their own savings. Here, members can buy seeds and fertilizer at far lower prices, aggregate their buying/selling power, and practice solidarity with other women farmers. The women were building the whole structure themselves but still had to raise $100 to finish the concrete floor. KK, Heifer’s country director, and I donated $50 – and their joy was so great, you would have thought we’d given a million.

The beautiful face of determination: lovely Son Sinath of the Roka Agricultural Women’s Cooperative.*

If you could have seen the enthusiasm, hope and triumph on their faces as we drove away, it was almost as if we had.

* You can read more about Son Sinath’s inspiring story by clicking here.

Categories: Animals, Cambodia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Haunting Cambodia.

Cambodia is not easy to understand, and even harder to forget.

For starters, it’s the scene of one of the most horrendous genocides in the last century when, from 1975-1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government slaughtered 25% of its people in a bewildering effort to wipe out all educated, urban and professional men, women and children. That carnage (and the 2.75 million tons of ordnance the U.S. rained down upon the country from 1970-73) left the remaining population with a profound fear that the murderous Khmer Rouge government would reappear and has afflicted approximately half the population with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In fact, from 1979, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, until 1994, the country was not truly free of the threat of the Khmer Rouge.  And since then, the country has been ruled by a political party known as the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) — to whom the international community has donated $18 billion in international aid. Unfortunately,   precious little of that money can be seen in this tragic country’s infrastructure, education system, or economy.

A full 30% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, 66% suffer from seasonal food shortages every year, and 40% of children under five are underweight.

67% of the population (or more) is illiterate and bribery, and corruption begin at Grade 1, with many students forced to pay their teachers for their lessons and grades.

Almost 80% of people in rural areas live in primitive thatched houses, many without running water or electricity.

Given the country’s history of unleashed violence under the Khmer Rouge, it is also not surprising that domestic violence is rife, afflicting almost one-third of Cambodian women.

You would think all of this would make Cambodia totally depressing, but somehow, it’s not. It’s enchanting. The people are beautiful, and show touching appreciation for any help they are given—while maintaining achingly low expectations of a government that has not exactly served them well.

I can’t say the countryside is unspoiled, because it’s been devastated by deforestation and neglect … but when you drive down the road and see riotously green fields of rice interrupted by languid pools of lotus blossoms, and watch sweet brown children thrashing about happily in the water that is everywhere in the rainy season, it is a notoriously easy place to lose your heart.

Since 1998, Heifer International has been working in some of the least served areas in Cambodia, developing Self-Help Groups (largely led by women) that are helping 12, 244 poor, marginalized families make the steep climb out of poverty. I can’t wait to tell you some of their stories!

Stay tuned!

Categories: Cambodia, Children, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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