Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 10: Volunteering Part 2

Posted on by Andy Ahmed


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I’ve been recounting my attempts to ‘make a difference’ through seeking out worthy educational projects that help poor children. One I had immediate reservations about; the other seemed perfect, and in this entry I get rather carried away in my dreams. In fact, it’s downright cringeworthy. Feel free to laugh at me now; I’ll be getting back to romantic developments soon, so a bit of early practice won’t go amiss.

I told you that in the slum project I’m teaching in I’ve refused to dip into my pocket other than for school materials. My friends have handed over cash for sacks of rice. They are given a nice little receipt and the rice sack is produced to the pleasure and satisfaction of all. It’s just that they’ve supposedly bought a 20kg sack for $25 when you could then buy a 50kg sack for $20 in the market. Have compassion for everyone, but trust no one. I’m backing out.

It may be that my future is tied in with this new fledgling project founded by the young idealistic students at the elite university. They invited me to their board meeting on a Saturday morning and made it clear that they would very much appreciate my taking a very active role in co-ordinating and organising their ideas.

The members are all very young with one exception – the organisation’s president is none other than the president and founder of the university. I wasn’t motivated by any hint of self-interest or looking to brown-tongue but it can’t do me any harm that he’s taken a shine to me; given my field in a society where everything depends on having the right contacts there could hardly be anyone better to get on the right side of. I’ll quite probably be set up with plum, challenging lecturing positions, acquire a circle of intelligent, socially conscious friends to replace the barflies and bargirls and generally find myself rolling in bed of roses from now on in.

It will depend on how well I actually galvanise their ideas but I think I made all the right noises. For instance the president, being American-educated, was waxing lyrical about his dream of going deep into the backward provinces and flashing the latest computers and mobile phones before children with the message that if they study hard they too can acquire such prizes. Well if the American Dream doesn’t work in America how realistic is such sentiment in Cambodia? I gained approval for my radical suggestion that if we go into any remote community with such a gospel we have to back up promises with pragmatic support – i.e. set up schools for the poor children and make it possible through grants to send the best students to our university.

I do believe that with the experience I’ve acquired I can make a valuable contribution to guiding the movement in the right direction, and with the vision and clout of the president and team of very bright young things – possibly in terms of the combination of brains and good heart the best Cambodia has, the potential is unbelievably exciting. Ever since committing myself to Asia I have been of the mind that my mission is to change people’s lives, change society, change the world. The vision of our organisation is nothing less than that. It is the elite university in Cambodia, a different league altogether from all the others, a trail-blazer that the others try to emulate without having its expertise.

It’s the only university to have a community service programme for its students which we hope and intend other universities will also copy. The vision involves not only bringing quality education to the poorest communities but also instilling a social conscience in the hearts and minds of young privileged Khmers. It’s social revolution, it’s overturning the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and undermining one of the most cynical, greedy and corrupt systems in the world. It’s a lifetime’s work and it begins now. The way to turn a dream into reality is to focus not just on the final goal but also on the immediate details and ensure that each step is well planned and executed before moving on to the next one. At least that’s what I told them, and that’s what they are looking to me to make happen.

An inadvertent side-effect of all this is that I’ve stumbled on a successful strategy to get rid of female admirers. I had long realised that the only criterion necessary to garner life-long love and devotion is to simply turn up and stick around but I hadn’t thought through the effect of the converse. Quite simply, I’m genuinely very busy and don’t have time to meet the requests to show up here and there as often as demanded. None of the girls can actually conceive of the fact that I work long hours and assume that my no-show is a result of harbouring secret girlfriends.

It makes sense; they see plenty of teachers getting drunk every night and seemingly not taking any work home and assume we’re all the same. Moreover whilst I’ve frequently commented sympathetically on the long hours and lack of time off for these girls, it’s dawned on me that if you look more closely at their work practices it’s really the urban equivalent of watching the rice grow or herding water buffalo.

Perhaps the most extreme although very common examples are the phone booth and petrol pump girls. There is no equivalent of either in the West. The former are the girls who ‘man’ the public phones. There’s no coinage in Cambodia or automatic call-box system, rather at frequent intervals along roads there are rickety little booths where girls sit alone with a phone.

Should a customer ever need to make a call the girl dials the number and the call is made. In this age where even in Cambodia a high proportion of the population have mobile phones these girls can sit for days in a busy street waiting for a single customer.

But even lonelier are the petrol pump attendants. We’re not talking motorway service stations here; envisage a single drum of fuel with a pump screwed in the top standing at a roadside. Envisage a girl whose face is completely concealed by a krama (scarf to keep out the heat, dust and pollution) sitting hour after hour for days waiting for a motorcyclist to request a litre of petrol.

These illiterate women can’t while away the time in books; they just sit and sit and sit, alone, with god knows what breezing through their minds. Maybe you can begin to grasp how insignificant acts on my part such as smiling at someone as I pass by can have effects out of all proportion of my intentions.

Andy Ahmed

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3 Responses to Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 10: Volunteering Part 2

  1. Dermot Sheehan says:

    “It’s just that they’ve supposedly bought a 20kg sack for $25 when you could then buy a 50kg sack for $20 in the market. Have compassion for everyone, but trust no one. I’m backing out.”

    What was worse was that they were selling on all the rice that was donated.

  2. andy says:

    Good point. I hadn’t thought that one through.

  3. chris says:

    So they were working a money scam with the rice seller who split the difference with them later. Also they were then selling the donated rice. Gawd, they don’t need an education, they are living wisdom. They just need any “opportunity” ;-)

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