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Gimme Shelter

By: Stephen Kesselman Posted: June-11-2008 in
Stephen Kesselman

Not one hundred metres from the popular backpacker scene of Phnom Penh's Lakeside district guesthouses, poor Khmer families live in an impoverished and extremely polluted environment. Lining the shores of the Boeng Kak lake are stilted houses perched overtop the water; the water itself covered with a layer of garbage and waste thick enough for a chicken to walk across without falling through. Bare-chested and barefoot children playfully crowd the streets while the adults gamble good-heartedly on a neighbours front stoop and women barbeque fish in aluminium troughs. Homes and shop fronts along the paved path that runs through the community are well kept and clean, but those further from the shore are not as easily maintained.

Access to these homes is possible only via bridges connecting them to land. Most of these bridges are in passable condition, despite being built and maintained with scrap wood and used nails, but some are in a state of constant and dangerous decrepit neglect. The small home of a family of seven is an unfortunate example of one of these.

Two weeks ago the bridge to their home was an obstacle course of loose planks, missing planks, gaping holes where some poor soul's foot pushed through the rotten wood, and an entire three metre section that had completely collapsed into the water. In order to get to the door of the house, the family had to shuffle flush against the wall, gripping it for dear life and hoping the deceptively solid looking water surface could support more weight than that of a chicken.

A difficult task, especially after dark when the kids usually get home from selling books and which, needless to say, has caused more than a few accidents. Accidents which, given the blanket of trash on the surface and the fact that no one in the family can swim, could prove fatal. This bridge was crossed everyday without complaint and though consequences occurred, and not infrequently, they were bothered not to prevent.

But who is there to prevent?

New wood is expensive and at twenty-five dollars a month, the price they pay for seven people to live in a room not much larger than the one at my guesthouse, there isn't much left over, and a new bridge is hardly seen as a necessity.

Some however, do see it as a necessity. Upon my arrival in Phnom Penh a friend and I became involved with a volunteer run school operating on the Lakeside called Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter is a school dedicated to education in the community for children and adults who want it and are willing to work in a co-operation. The aims of this organization are geared towards English language teaching, Aids education and prevention and general community development. It was through them that we met the kids and the family of the aforementioned home, and there that we decided to spearhead a project to repair or rebuild their bridge.

Funds were raised solely by the generosity of tourists in the Lakeside area and in the end, new supports, used wood, nails, labour and much appreciated celebratory beer cost no less than fifty dollars. For this we thank all those who made donations, you have helped to make a difference. We were equally ecstatic at the response of the people living in the slums to our arrival. Many were willing to contribute what they could toward our efforts, and though donations of money were essentially impossible for them, offers of their time, energy and expertise were very much welcomed.

In the two weeks time I've spent here, I've gathered that the Lakeside district holds a fairly ugly reputation in Phnom Penh; drugs, robberies, crime etc. I spent everyday of my stay here getting to know the people and families of the slums and have concluded that I've yet to encounter a friendlier and more grateful people in my travels. Many people don't even realize this community exists (I didn't), even though it is but a stone's throw away from their guesthouse. I encourage all those passing through this city to make a stop by the Gimme Shelter School to see what's being done or to view for themselves the conditions of life of the people we assist.

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