Monday, November 17, 2008

Now you may have noticed that roads are a recurring theme in our news updates and might well ask what is our obsession with roads. But the road is the scene of a lot of Cambodian cultural interactions and continually fascinates us. Not too long ago, before the long overdue and not quite yet 'cessation' of the rainy season. Niam and I (Wendy) were riding home from school on their bicycles. We have been seduced into using the most direct route home because the road has been cemented to about two hundred metres short of our house. However, the final two hundred metres remain a 'challenge', equivalent to an Olympic event, of black sewerage, flood waters and submerged open sewers, but the canny and lucky make it through unscathed. On this particular day, the road was entirely blocked off by a wedding. It is normal practice here to rig up a beautifully decorated canopy across the road and conduct the whole wedding service and reception there throughout the day. The customary users of the road simply find an alternative route. So Niam and I didn't blink an eye seeing our way blocked by happy revelers and swung on to another street. When I say street, I mean pot-holed flooded track, but normally it is not too bad. However, this day the combination of rain and heavy trucks had rendered the surface somewhat 'unchartered' and as I gaily called to Niam to “follow me” I found myself reaching that awful stalling point on a bicycle when you know it's jump off or fall off. I sunk knee deep in mud with Niam trying her best NOT to follow me. I burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all, joined by the nearby labourers while a passing woman helped Niam wrestle her bike around the quagmire and we proceeded home.

Road rage is a concept being schooled out of me. The road is so constantly a place of interruption and obstacle that one doesn't expect anything else, not to mention there is the joy of constant interaction with other users of the road. Public space and private space are somewhat blurry edged and the sense that your wedding might inconvenience complete strangers doesn't seem to feature. In our experience here, there is always someone to help, (usually two or three and as many again who watch).

Speaking of always someone to help... I was riding home from Java on our motorbike two weeks ago and kissed the rear end of an SUV. Of course this was not intentional. I didn't want to kiss the SUV. I don't even really like them - they clog up the road and are so big you can't see what the traffic is like past them - which was precisely the problem as this SUV squealed to an unexpected stop and my last thought was, "I'm not going to be able to stop for this". And I didn't.

With the help of a number of people, (one was a specialist in primary emergency care), I got to ride in an ambulance and learnt that your body is not your own when you have an accident and nobody listens to you anyway. In ER, having had enough of being pricked and prodded, (“I was cold and just wanted a blanket and rest”), I sat up and said, "I'm going now", but didn't get very far. A week later following a colourful face to rival Joseph's multi-coloured coat, people are requesting the business card of the plastic surgeon because my face doesn't look as if anything happened to it....well almost. Steve had the fun job of picking up the motorbike from the cops two days after the crash. Our landlord joined him to add a bit more persuasion and the episode went surprisingly well, only requiring $10 to grease the wheels. Our landlord found out later that for Khmer, the police charge (or bribe) $20 for every night they have the vehicle. That would have been $40 for us so they were being very nice. The main hitch in proceedings occurred as Steve needed a copy of the police report for insurance purposes so they assured him they would photocopy it for him as soon as the power cut ended. It didn't, of course, but they had a relaxed afternoon waiting and Steve got to take some good photos of a large police truck stuck in the mud with lots of police trying to rescue it. To be safe he asked permission to take photos first but was a bit surprised whey they kept on asking him to take more photos, "in case we need them for insurance!".

TASK has been going through a growth spurt recently. A new Project Coordinator for HALO (orphan care project) begins next week and we have just been interviewing candidates for a new position of Business Advisor. This person will be responsible for providing clients with advice and support for small businesses, income generation initiatives and vocational training. We are also looking to hire a new project coordinator for the Teenage Drug User Rehab project (TDUR). Please pray.

Prom Pauv, one of the Co-directors of TASK, and Vuthea, a project assistant from the AIDS homecare project, are heading off to the Netherlands in two weeks to take part in a consultation on management change. They will be sharing about the localization of TASK, from being an ex-patriate lead organization to being one lead by local Cambodian people. Please also pray for that.

Please also pray for the situation in Thailand. Bangkok Airport is a main hub for much of Asia and so it has a large effect on Cambodia also. So far two team members have had their travel rearranged because of its closure and we are hoping to travel through there in less than two weeks also.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Efren and Becky Roxas relocated to the slums of Phnom Penh from the slums of Manila in 2006. With their wisdom, maturity and experience they have been a huge blessing to the Servants team in Cambodia. In particular Efren has become a good friend and inspiration to me. Currently he is working with the TASK Teenage Drug User Rehab project (TDUR). The following is a story from Efren illustrating the vulnerability of life for the urban poor…

Vee is perhaps the “most promising” client of TDUR. At 16, he was addicted to amphetamine & started to have heroin shots once in awhile together with his friends from the restaurant he was working. He was 17 when he entered the TDUR program last year. He stopped schooling at grade 8 and had stopped working by the time he joined us.

Last year Vee was very diligent in learning English & basic computer skills, and because he was 18 this year he would be able to go to the vocational training program which TDUR is networking with. We helped him prepare to enter one of these training opportunities and after a year of preparation it pays off. He was the only one accepted out of our four clients who applied. We strongly believed that after two years of full rehabilitation & vocational training, a healthy community integration would be possible for him. During this time he also professed to be a Christian and began attending a local church.

A day before going to the vocational training center to study for two years in Hotel Services something terrible happened. One of Vee’s friends from his old lifestyle committed a crime by killing a man and robbing the victim of all possessions. Vee’s family was dragged into this problem when this friend phoned Vee’s sister on the victim’s cell phone, asking permission to come to their house and change his blood-splattered clothing claiming that he had been involved in a fight. So he came, changed clothes in Vee’s home, then left to hide.

The telephone call was traced later, leading to Vee’s sister & two cousins being picked-up by the police, and imprisoned. By this stage Vee was living at the training center, some 40 kilometers out of the city, but with the perpetrator out of sight, Vee became the prime suspect of the crime.His mother was forced to negotiate for his capture in exchange for the subsequent release of the three relatives in jail. The decision was hard to accept, but it happened.Our “innocent” man has now been languishing in jail for more than two months. He describes the jail conditions as terrible.

Licadho, a Cambodian human rights organization reports that for Cambodian prisons, “Limited access to food and clean water, overcrowding of prison cells, routine denial of quality medical services and violence towards prisoners from prison officials and other inmates is a part of everyday life.”

Vee and 16 inmates are incarcerated in a cell with barely enough room to lie down. He has scabies and is fed mostly on rice porridge. Although we are allowed to visit him, we need to shell out $2.50 for the main guards and a little bit more for the perimeter guards and if we take any extra food it will not be allowed as it disrupts the guards business. They sell extra food to the prisoners at grossly inflated prices.

In spite of his innocence, it wont be until November, six months after his arrest before his case is heard. The evidence of three witnesses will be required for him to prove his innocence and be set free. In the meantime, however, the murderer has not been found, the trail has gone cold and the police have closed the case.