Posts Tagged With: Self-Help Groups

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

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