Sunday, March 11, 2012

a Lenten reflection from Cambodia

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Two weeks into Lent, I'm still reflecting on the encouragement and hope I feel from the Ash Wednesday reminder that our lives belong to a story richer, deeper, and longer than our brief life’s span*. After a hectic month in January of running up and down the country to visit project groups, I spent most of February in the city doing various forms of report writing. When I get caught-up in these day to day or even annual tasks, I sometimes feel bogged down. It is helpful at these times to take time to reflect. I'm really proud of our team and the 2011 accomplishment that Mr. Thy summarized. This season of the church is also a reminder to me that the little that we each do in this life is a part of God's great love and work through humanity. We are part of a story that is greater than any of us individually. This brings me hope.

In our March staff meeting devotions we reflected on Zacchaeus and how Jesus took time to focus on one person in the midst of the crowd, and Zacchaeus was transformed. So, in the midst of this great and cosmic story, I offer you three individual stories of transformation written by Amanda King about different people who have been engaged with our CHAD program. I cried when I read them, and I'm here to witness first-hand. Please take time to read about how a woman got a life-saving heart surgery with the help of a determined church family, how another woman is overcoming disability through a cow loan, and how an agricultural loan helped to reunite a man with his family.

Additionally, Mrs. Sophal, a health program staff with the CHAD program, shared with me this testimonial about her own life that was included in a Lenten devotional called Sponge Searching for Water prepared by our friends in Louisiana.

Thank you for being part of my story through your friendship, prayers and support. I'm inspired by what we can do together.

In peace, Katherine

*thanks to my friends Dan and Courtney Randal for this reflection.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A week on the road with Katherine

The clock and weather always win. 
The beginning of the year is always a busy time for the CHAD team. Every January, we visit all of the projects we support to bring encouragement, dialogue about any changes or challenges in the villages, and collect information for our annual report. After an exciting week of field visits, I’m back in Phnom Penh resting up at a cafĂ©, sipping a cup of coffee, and eating mango chicken salad. Here are a few reflections on my experiences this past week, especial for those who are interested in details of my daily life.

The planning for our field visits last week started about a month ago. We began by calling Rev. Sok Nora to inform him that we wanted to visit projects for three days in the Kampong Speu district because I was already scheduled to teach a workshop in that district in the latter part of that week. He agreed and said he would arrange our schedule. Then, unfortunately because of time constraints, he expressed a hope to squeeze the 11 visits into just two days rather than three. I was skeptical. A visit takes a minimum of 1 hour, not including driving time. However, I smiled and said we would do our best. Actually, since I was exhausted from traveling the previous week in Takeo, and I was glad to have Monday to catch up on some emails and deal with various administrative responsibilities that were getting backlogged in the office.

Guitio and coffee for breakfast.
Monday night, despite the fact that we’re in dry season, it was pouring down rain. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of water and quickly called my landlady. It sounded like a pipe had broken downstairs (it had), so I’m glad I was there to monitor the situation. I woke up early the next day, but Daneth, Sothi, Rev. Sok Nora, and I didn’t make it out to Angkrosang Church until about 9:30 (I blame the rain, lack of sleep, and a road-side stop to eat guitio, rice noodles in a clear pork broth with meat –that is similar to the Vietnamese dish “pho”. To actually get to the church, we traveled on a national road (fully sealed with black top last year) for about an hour, turned off onto a dirt tertiary road (bad, but passable), and finally onto a village track which was a bit slick because of the rain, but still passable.

Even in the dry season, the road offers perils.
It was our first visit to the church since a change in leadership, so we were excited to see the church’s progress and current programs and to offer encouragement. We first chatted with Pastor Sopeing and a few members of the rice bank, then they showed us their pigs and use of bio-gas. Pastor Sopeing joined us on his moto to visit the next project. When we were almost to the next site, we came across a Land Rover that had slid off the road and into a paddy field. I think they might have been crossing a makeshift bridge (I never got close enough to really see). Since the 4-wheel drive is busted on our white truck, there was no way that I was going to risk driving into a paddy field – I was nervous enough on the muddy, narrow, pot-holed roads! Daneth, Sok Nora and Sopeing continued on a small alternative lane by foot and motorbike, while Sothi and I waited in the truck for about an hour to finish the visit. They did rescue the Land Rover during that time (by what heroic means, I'm not sure, but there seemed to be many logs and ropes and people involved). Luckily, we also made it out in good time! After a quick courtesy call to a site where we are exploring starting a new project still in its developmental stages, we were done with our 3 visits in the southern part of the district. Success!

White Truck, 3. CHAD team, 1.  
After our Tuesday morning visits to sites in the southern part of Kampong Speu province, we drove north-west to the provincial capital city, arriving about 2pm. We gladly stopped at my regular cafe and had a late lunch of somla machu yuen (sour soup made with tamarind fruit, pineapple, vegetables, and fish), stir fried beef, and pork-filled omelet. After replacing an unexpected flat tire (White Truck, 1), we headed north to another region of the province to visit our next site, the Raksmei church.

There is a long and short way to get to the church, but since none of us could remember for sure the turn off for the short way, we had to take the long road. A few kilometers down the narrow village track, we stumbled upon road workers building a small bridge of sorts to let water travel under the dirt road between rice paddy fields. We arrived just in time to see a cart full of people pulled by a motorcycle unload and (somehow) drive over the construction and edge their way around us. The construction workers were not about to let us drive our heavy truck over their partially constructed bridge, however, so I got to practice my Cambodian backing-up skills. I was thankful that I was driving our white truck, which at least has a good turning radius for situations like these (despite the 4-wheel drive being busted).

Sharing the road with other travelers.
Then, just as we reached the main (but still dirt) road, the clutch gave out (White Truck, 2). We quickly called to the two sites we had planned to visit to cancel. As it turned out, there was no clutch fluid, so Sok Nora hailed a passing motor-scooter and caught a ride to the nearest market. After he returned with brake fluid, the clutch still didn’t work, so Sok Nora set out again to find someone who could help to bleed the air from the line. A guy showed up, but apparently he needed to do some repairs as well, so waited some more for him to return with his tools. Finally, I got the truck into gear. It was only about 4:30, so we thought that we would still try to make one more visit that afternoon…but, about 5 minutes down the road, the clutch gave out again (White Truck, 3). Luckily, our fix-it guy was still around, but gave us bad news – he had to send word all the way to Kampong Speu city for a replacement part.

Friends prepare winter melon for soup.
In the meantime, we discovered that our target destination was less than one kilometer down the road, so Daneth, Sothi and I decided to walk there while Sok Nora waited with the truck. It was probably 6pm by the time we reached Raksmei, but we had just enough light left to write down the details that we needed about the rice bank (CHAD team, 1). Eventually, we got back to our truck, the broken part was replaced, and we arrived at Sok Nora’s house – our rest place for the night – at 8pm.

After a refreshingly warm bucket shower down by the well, we were served sour soup with greens and beef, stir fried vegetables, and fried eggs (and rice, too, of course). Sok Nora and his wife gave up their bed (bamboo slats with a woven mat) for me and slept on the floor. It was a long Tuesday, but successful.

Rice Bank Successes
Our first visit on Wednesday was with the Yus Chor rice bank. This visit was a delight! The community gathered quickly, and Sok Nora lead a devotional for about 20 minutes. We found that the group at Yus Chor had very good records, they were working cooperatively, included both Christian and Buddhist members, and they had established good relationships with the local authorities. The group demonstrated ownership of the project; they were happy to put money toward building a new storehouse as well as making an annual contribution of 15kg of rice per family. Their plan is for 5 new community members to join their rice bank every year as their capacity for more rice increases. Their storage structure is sound, secure, and full of rice – all of the borrowers had repaid thus far in full! The bank was so impressive that Sok Nora suggested that their group leader be nominated as a lay representative to the national Social Concerns Committee. At the end of our visit, we were happy to offer them an additional $200 to buy more rice so that they can add even more families to their bank this year. The day was off to a slow but productive start.

Lunch with friends. Sour soup, fried chicken with spicy
lime sauce, apples and rice.
We soon headed over to our next visit, another preaching point of Sok Nora. The church there has two projects, a cow group, and a rice bank. We started our visit again with devotions. There was some confusion around the cows and some ongoing challenges that we knew from before, but in general the group was functioning well – for example, they had even started a savings group on their own initiative. After about an hour we headed back to Sok Nora's house for lunch, where his wife had prepared fried fish, stir-fried tomatoes and cucumbers, and a clear broth soup with radish, carrots, cabbage and pork.

On the road again with Rev. Hong Phally.
After lunch, we visited the rice-bank and cow-raising groups in Srei Sompong (Sok Nora’s village). The leader of the rice bank at Yus Chor had visited with this group a few times to help them with their record keeping, so we were glad that they had a good support network. After we visited with them for a little while, we continued on to Sankai Chrum’s rice bank, cow group, and small-business credit group. Reverend (Ms.) Hong Phally, who is also the District Superintendent for Kampong Speu and teaches the Mobilizing the Church community development bible study with me, is the pastor there. We found that the cow group is doing well: four of their cows are currently pregnant (one for the 4th time)! Three of the soon to be born cows are slated to be passed on, which means that all of the original members of the group that started back in 2005 will have finally received a cow! The group is happy to be working together and is looking forward to the day when they can make plans to expand their group.

The rice bank at Sankai Chrum is also working well. The members had good records, had paid back all of their rice including a supplemental loan of rice seed, and made plans to invite at least 5 new families. The members (each usually representing a family of 3-4 people) had each borrowed 60kg of rice, which for most of them lasted 2-3 weeks. They still needed to buy/borrow rice for an additional 2 months of the year at market rates. However, they said that they particularly appreciated the rice bank because it allowed them to borrow rice when they were very busy with transplanting. The next 2 months while the rice was growing they had more time to go out and get another job to have some money to buy rice to eat, but it was particularly important to be able to borrow this rice while they were busy at their farm since they had no cash coming in to support the family. We offered them an additional $200 to expand their rice bank as well.
A typical rice-bank storehouse.

It was almost dusk by the time we finally arrived at our last visit of the day, Prey Tom Touley. The rice bank members joked with us that they had been waiting for us for 2 days. We apologized that our truck had broken down. As we had agreed at the meeting last July, they had sold about 700kg of rice in order to buy supplies for a new storehouse. The new rice bank was lovely, made of green corrugated tin and nestled in the shade of some banana trees. After a discussion about how to keep clear records for the folks that were not able to repay this year but wanted to pay back the rice next year, we agreed to come back in February for another follow-up and promised to show up in the morning rather than at dusk.

We made it back to the provincial city by 8pm, Sothi and I ate some fried noodles at the only open restaurant we could find and luckily got a room at the 2nd (and final) guest-house.

A bumpy road and bruised fruit
I met up with Sok Nora and Hong Phally again at 6:30 the on Thursday morning for a breakfast of guitio and coffee and then headed over to the market where we picked up water, crackers, cookies, fruit and a few other snacks and supplies for the workshop we were having for the next two days.

It is not a surprise that the roads get pot holes.
We headed west to Treing Treyung, a market center that also marks the turn-off to a popular mountain retreat. Pastor Ngung Hok lives in this center and looks after two churches, one called Bethany in Chmkar Jeik village and one in O'kotrom which I had never visited. We were headed to meet the folks in O’kotrom who had recently started a rice bank; the trip from the market center took about an hour on a wide but very bumpy road. I made a joke that the fruit was going to be road-sick because, with my poor pronunciation, I know that I often confuse the words for fruit and sick. Since Cambodians love puns, it was well received. Sok Nora did hit his head as we bumped along, so it was not only the fruit getting bruised.

The church was so delighted to greet us. Since they are out in the middle of nowhere, they don't get many visitors and it was a happy meeting. Their rice bank was HUGE, bigger than some houses I have seen, and very well constructed. It was still missing some walls, but we decided to hold the meeting inside it, so they put down woven mats and we sat around with about 15 members of the group. Hong Phally led the devotion and we had a good discussion about the process of formation, vision and goals for the group as well as the by-laws they had established. Everything seemed in order and so we offered them $500 towards purchasing rice for their rice-bank, an increase from our previous indication that $300 would be available. They felt very encouraged.

Free time to chit-chat with youth and 
The Home Stretch
I’m working with several cluster groups of about 3 congregations each to study a series of lessons called “Mobilizing the Church” in order to establish a shared understanding of the motivation behind establishing livelihood development (micro-loan) groups. The Bethany church in Chmkar Jeik village of Kampong Speu hosts one of those clusters.
The first time I visited Bethany church in 2008 I left the
truck at the gate.
Bethany church with the Kirirom mountains in the background.

Continuing our travels, we made it to Bethany church at about 11am on Thursday. We were able to complete three lessons by the time we finished at 5pm. The host church had prepared a lovely dinner for us of soup and stir-fried vegetables. Hong Phally and I took an after dinner "constitutional" walk down the road to the local elementary school, and I sat on a chair in the yard reading my book (Half the Sky) until the light faded. About that time, several of the youth who attend the training got up the courage to come and ask me what I was reading. I was excited in their interest because, as a primarily oral culture, it is the rare person who takes time to read. We practiced their English for a while and then they asked me for a story, which I attempted in Khmer with a bit of help from Hong Phally. We gathered back in the church for vespers and about 8pm called it a day.

Sleeping on the tile floor of the church is not nearly as comfortable as the bamboo bed at Sok Nora’s house, so I have learned to carry two pillows with me - one for my head and one for under my knees. In the morning, Hong Phally and Sothi and I walked down to a little shop to have numenchok s'mla khmai (rice noodles with a mild green fish curry, shredded banana flowers and cucumbers) and of course coffee. I had brought my own can of fresh (unsweetened) milk, and the coffee was rich and chocolaty (I've heard that they roast it in lard, which is what gives it this rich taste).

A sun-shelter outside of Bethany church where meals are
prepared and eaten.
We milled around a bit, waiting for those who had gone home to sleep to get back and finally got started again at 8am (we had agreed for 7:30). Overall, there were very positive discussions. I tried a cake filled with durian fruit during snack time, which I think also had an egg yolk in the center – not my favorite – and for lunch we had a delicious sour soup (clear broth with lime and lemon grass and fresh village chicken), stir-fried chicken with mixed vegetables (bok choi, caulaflower, carrots), and lovely tender stir-fried dark-green vegetables (think weeds). Lessons continued after lunch until 3pm, and we agreed to continue in March with lessons on specific leadership skills.

I had succeeded in turning the truck around as soon as we first arrived without getting it stuck in the mud, so I was quite pleased that we were able to pack up and hit the road by 3:30. I dropped off Sothi at about 6pm and made it back to the new office by 6:30. The new office is just around the corner from my house (about 1 km away), so I was home shortly after that. I had a cup of tea with my neighbors and then went home to eat the soup that Sochiet (my house-helper) had prepared and left for my dinner. My downstairs friend stopped by and we chatted about her life for a while before I took a quick shower and collapsed into bed.

Although I had two weeks in a row of these kinds of visits, most weeks don't involve quite this much travel!