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 café, 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.|
|Even in the dry season, the road offers perils.|
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.|
|Friends prepare winter melon for soup.|
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 SuccessesOur 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.
|On the road again with Rev. Hong Phally.|
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 fruitI 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.|
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 StretchI’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.
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!