Sunday, March 16, 2008

A week in the field

Saturday afternoon, March 15, 2008, I returned to Phnom Penh from four days in the field (my seventh week in-country), where Mr. Leng Thy (my CHAD program colleague) and I met with seven churches. I found the week's experience both sobering in the challenges and exciting in the prospects. Here are some pictures and my immediate reflections upon return to the city.

Cambodia is a country still visibly struggling to rebuild community trust, stability and self-sustenance after many years of civil war and foreign occupation. There is a strong sense in the poorest parts of the country of needing "relief" and looking to the West for that relief. For individuals who are Christian in this predominantly Buddhist country, there is sometimes a disquieting hope that since "now we are Christians ... you should provide for us." However, the urgent solicitation of Western relief, on whatever rationale seems promising, is not limited to the growing Christian communities. An edge of desperation among proud people and an urgent solicitation of the West seems to extend through every setting in the country where there is NGO work aimed at poverty alleviation.

Members of Toul Prom Methodist Church in Banteay Meanchey Province gather to discuss starting a cow-raising group.

A significant job for the CHAD program is to share about the concept of stewardship and why we, as Christians, need to nurture, sustain and expand the resources that have been entrusted to us so that we can share with others. Mr. Thy talks about a time when Cambodia was rich because people worked together, but now because of mistrust people are locked into poverty. It is from this starting place that CHAD works with church and community groups to start development projects. We ask the community to identify what needs it has and then what resources it has to begin addressing those needs. CHAD works together with the community to provide a gift-loan. It is called a gift-loan because the individual who is entrusted with the initial portion of money or, say, an animal is expected to return that to the group so that the gift-loan can be re-invested in the community, rather than being paid back to the donor.

The single disappointment of our work this last week comes from our visit to a church this Saturday morning. In 2006, there was a micro-credit project to provide loans to purchase fertilizer for families in a village in Kampang Chhnang. This community has been really struggling with the concept of a gift-loan. While some of the recipients of the initial fertilizer were able to pay back the loan in part, others could not, and yet others moved away. Part of the challenge I think is the vision of the money as belonging to CHAD and not to the community, so that direct recipients are not sufficiently motivated to re-invest in the community. There are other outstanding micro-credit loans that this community has from other NGOs with similar disappointments.

A young boy looks at rain water collected from the roof of Kangwa Church, Banteay Meanchey

Mr. Thy, the local pastor, the community and I couldn't come to any resolution about the next step to take in this instance. Mr. Thy and I are encouraging the local pastor to work on building trust and communication within the community through a small project, maybe around basket weaving, because now there is so much mistrust that the group members don't even attend meetings any more. This was my first introduction to a dysfunctional project. I know that they exist and that this particular situation is not at all representative of the micro-credit projects as a whole. What has happened in this community is disappointing, but for now I am trying to assess any mistakes that were made, so that we all can do better in the future.

The rest of the visits were extremely positive. CHAD worked with a community in Swaiant village in Batanmbong province starting in 2005 to establish a cow-raising group. When we visited this week, we met a five day old calf, the second to be born to this cow! This church community has worked well together for cow-raising and so we were excited to celebrate the beginning of a rice bank with 10 families.

A cow with her 5 day old calf. This is the second calf for this cow, so the husband and wife who are caretakers of the cow will get to keep it. Also pictured behind the cow is the pastor of Swaiant Church where this project originated.

The economics of rural Cambodia is that the primary source of income for farmers is selling their rice, which is usually harvested in December. Some of the rice is sold immediately after harvest, and some is kept to feed the family throughout the year. However, if the family needs money they will sell their stored rice. For this reason, there is a lot of hunger in the months of October through December before the new crop is harvested. The local merchants charge 100% interest on loans of rice taken at this time.

Unfortunately, no one family has the money to build a structure to store rice. In this community, the families had all contributed money to purchase the supplies for building a communal storage house for rice (about $5 per family). We observed the cement pillars that had been erected for the storage building and the palm trees selected to be cut down for further construction materials. Unfortunately, the community member who is skilled at planking palm trees has been sick with a fever and so the rice store is not completed. The community hopes he will recover soon and the families can finish building the structure in the next week.

CHAD provided the $750 in capital to purchase the initial store of rice. The group has established its bylaws and policies for loaning out the rice (at 30% interest, about 1/3 the rate offered by local merchants). The group hopes that in three to four years it will have doubled its rice and can use this to start a new rice bank. I was excited to listen to the families talk about how they hoped to use this rice bank to reach out in ministry to their community. They were realistic about the challenges and were committed to continue working together, expanding upon their initial success with the rice storage house.

Signing the contract for a Rice-bank at Bour Village, Banteay Meanchey Province.

Mr. Thy and I disbursed two other gift-loans for rice banks at and met with two other communities that are in the planning stages, one for a cow-group and one for a rice bank. The other visit was to follow-up with a cow group about what to do since the first calf that was born had a broken leg. The group agreed to sell this calf and to pass on the second one.

I was also able to test various water supplies available to communities include rain water, tube wells, open wells, truck-tank delivered water, and ponds. A picture of the biological water quality and options for improvement are starting to emerge.

Testing water from a pond that is the sole source of water for a household in Borvil Village, Battambang Province.

Up to now, I have been attending visiting local communities (within 1-2 hour drive) meetings with pastors, organizing our financial records and generally learning about the CHAD program. It was exciting to get out and visit more remote locations this week and hear directly from the people about their joys and their challenges. I can see that this will be a hard job. Mr. Thy teased me that some of these communities will give me a headache and that maybe when I return to the States for General Conference I will not want to come back! But I remain hopeful; there is important work for the church to do in Cambodia and I give thanks to God for my opportunity to participate in it.

More pictures (this time with captions!) can be viewed here.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Finding a routine

This last week I seem to have finally found a routine! I catch a tuktuk into work with Erica, an individual volunteer-in-mission at the dump-site orphanages. We join in morning devotions with the other staff and the young men who are studying mechanics for three months with the "Faith Engines" youth employment training program. Then I spend an hour studying Khmer with Jantein.

Office work still feels like orientation as I work with Mr. Thy to streamline the process for receiving and processing project proposals. We have been making more trips to visit existing agric- and micro-enterprise groups. We are also planning for two big 2-day workshops in March on Wholistic Development (particularly using local resources for small projects) for the Kandal and Kampang Chhnang districts, and I am getting ready for some workshops on water quality and sanitation with a local church and a pastor group.

This month we were also blessed by a Volunteers-In-Mission Team from the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church who came with a medical team to run a free health clinic at two churches in the Kampang Chhnang district. The medical clinics were well received and Missionary Irene Mparutsa, community health nurse for CHAD, is busy making sure that the individuals that need follow up care from the hospital here in Phnom Penh are getting the proper treatment.

The Louisiana team visit started with the dedication of a new church that was built with their support over the last two years. It was a wonderful experience to see that a conference that it still working on rebuilding the homes and churches damaged by hurricane Katrina is simultaneously reaching out in partnership with its neighbors on the other side of the globe. At the luncheon following the dedication service I sat with this group of high school students who were thrilled to practice their English with a native speaker for the first time.

From Dedication of...

At the end of the health clinic I was able to join the team as they traveled to Siam Reap to visit Angkor Watt and other temples. It was quite spectacular, much more than I expected. Here is an example of some of the beautiful bas relief carvings.

From Angkor Watt a...

I especially enjoyed Bayon Temple with its hundred faces.

As before, I have more (unorganized) pictures at