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Modern Life Is Rubbish

By: James Dingle Posted: December-23-2011 in
James Dingle

As I look at the child standing in-front of me with his arms outstretched wanting me to pick him up, I realise his clothes are soaking wet. Not wanting to refuse an 8 year old a hug or look bad infront of the teacher I’ve just met, I dutifully pick him up.

“Think you’ve made a friend there” she said.

“Why’s he so wet? Is it sweat?” I asked. It was a hot day but I was struggling to remember if I’d ever seen a Khmer sweat.

“Let’s hope so”, she said smiling, before telling me one of the girls had once jumped into her lap and then wet her pants, whilst laughing.

Carrying my smiling and potentially explosive cargo up another flight of stairs to the top of the school building, I felt a welcome northerly breeze as we looked down into the courtyard below. Awkward about holding someone else’s child whilst standing at the railing of a fourth storey balcony, I put my new wet friend down and hoped the breeze would dry the large damp patch on my shirt front.

I’m being shown around a school for over 100 young children in the southern district of Stung Meanchey in Phnom Penh. My chaperone is Kate Griffin, the Country Manager of the NGO Indochina Starfish Foundation (ISF). The role of the school is to provide ‘catch up’ education for children from an impoverished community nearby. The school packs each little person with two years of national curriculum in one, the aim being to get them ready for high school by the age of 13. They seem to have an exceptional rate of success. Without ISF none of these children would get an education and would be forced to pursue other avenues to survive.

From our crows nest we look down into the courtyard, an asymmetrical concrete space where the boys play football and basketball. The girls sit in tight groups on the various balconies ignoring the boys and talking in hushed whispers. Some things are the same the world over. A bell goes and they scurry to classrooms for the last lesson of the afternoon.

I’m visiting ISF because I’ve recently arrived in Phnom Penh and am thinking about doing some work with them. I feel lucky with the education I received and believe education is an integral corner stone for Cambodia’s future.

“You really should go and see The Community”, says Kate. “One of the staff members will take you on a moto and you can see where these children live.” In no time I’m being driven down the road towards the so-called ‘community’ not quite sure what I’m doing, where I’m going or whom I’m about to meet.

What was a smooth, sealed, local road outside the school quickly becomes a rocky one with large wheel-wrecking potholes. The rubbish starts with the occasional pile, easy enough to dodge or ride around but the piles become mounds and so frequent there’s no other way past but over them. Before long there is no road at all, only rubbish. Unidentifiable grey matter, blue plastic bags filled and knotted, human waste, bits of rope, string, twisted metal and undernourished fowl and children pecking around in it looking for food. We are only a mile from the school and the environment has changed beyond recognition.

Hanging on tight to the back of the moto, I wonder if it would be both better for his bike and quicker, if we got off and walked. But my driver is dogged and demonstrates impressive operational skills ploughing through makeshift drainage tracts and over mounds of waste. Either side are decrepit, wooden, single-room shacks devoid of front doors and furniture. People are milling about, naked children running in packs, a three-legged dog urinates in the street with difficulty and colourfully clad pyjama girls sit talking, watching the world go by or preparing food in the dusty street.

The journey from the school has taken only a few minutes and we arrive at some small, dilapidated shacks arranged in an L-shape. This is part of ‘the community’ and the families that live here each have children that attend the ISF School. The crook of the L-shape is filled with a massive pile of yet more rubbish. A few naked children are picking around in the tip, making use of anything bendy, colourful or interesting. My chauffeur, revving hard, strains his moto against the terrain and ensures we’re watched with interest as we bumble hazardously into the compound in comical fashion and come to a clumsy stop.

The community’s living space houses about 10 families and is marginally bigger than the footprint of my relatively modest sized apartment. These families have been identified by the schools social services as eligible for support and their children receive the educational kick-start that ISF provides.

Perched on a low rickety wooden deck outside one of the shacks are two girls in their early 20’s, barefoot and dressed in brightly coloured, simple clothes. One is extraordinarily beautiful and she smiles at me and puts her hands together in greeting whilst bowing demurely. I take off my helmet and say ‘hello’ but I can’t hold her gaze and choose to look around the site instead.

There are a couple of tons of miscellaneous rubbish sitting right on their doorsteps. I imagine most people in Phnom Penh have rubbish on their doorstep, but nothing like this. My moto driver says the community make a living from sifting through rubbish, sorting it into useful piles and selling it on. I’m wondering where all the rubbish in their yard comes from. Do other people put it there? Or do they collect it and bring their work home with them? I’m told that recently there was an enormous tip only a few hundred yards from where we are where the smell was so bad that within minutes it gave you a chronic headache which was probably not all it was capable of giving.

Young, naked children come up and say ‘hello’, waving their recently unburied treasure at me enthusiastically before running off barefoot across the tip calling out to each other. I can feel the flies around my legs no doubt interested in the unrecognisable smell of my wife’s shea butter shower gel I used this morning.

Outside one of the shacks a pair of cyclos in serious need of repair stand idly by. Next to them, a one-wheeled metal cart leans over abandoned in a thick, muddy puddle. I recognise it’s box-like wire frame as the recycling cart I see being pulled by hardened women in old clothes and tattered bonnets, always accompanied by the enthusiastic repetitive squeaking from a coloured plastic horn; a sound I often hear through my sitting room window. In my previously naive understanding, I had liked the simplicity of that noise. With new context, it seems the most contrasting of sounds simultaneously echoing both childish joy and immense hardship.

I’m aware I’m still being observed and I’m suddenly unsure what capacity I’m here in and how to behave. Am I a tourist? Visitor? Charity worker? Passer by? Either way I am sincerely challenged by the stark poverty in which these people live.

Invited over to one of the shacks, some locals offer me a seat on the deck outside their front door. They sweep the spot I’m to sit with their hands, giving it a token clean. The deck acts as sitting room, kitchen and dining room combined. I ask about the recent floods. A very dark skinned woman who has two children at the ISF school says the water was a couple of feet deep for nearly three weeks, flooding their homes and forcing them to sleep outside. She indicates the space we’re all sitting on. Four people sleeping on the deck, occasionally in torrential rain and presumably with buoyant objects from the rubbish tip bobbing around them.

I want to make more of the opportunity to ask these parents about their daily lives but the questions I want to ask all feel so personal and the answers somewhat obvious. How much money do you make? Where’s the nearest water supply? Does the awful smell bother you? Do you eat every day? Do you know if any of your children have hepatitis? Instead, I ask about the spirit within the community. One mother, states that life is hard but they’re in it together and they do look out for each other. Above all, they’re pleased their children are receiving an education they would never otherwise have.

Whilst the children are at school the parents work in some of the hardest jobs society has to offer, that of rubbish collectors and cyclo drivers. They squeak through the streets from dawn ‘til dusk grinding out a living from what the rest of us throw away. The cyclo, an increasingly irrelevant relic of a past era, sees the driver battle through every hot day trying to maintain an income competing against the more practical, safer and quicker tuk tuk. They pedal for a pittance then sleep in the carriage they sit on all day, clustered together for safety, too tired to go home to their families. Nearby, the tuk tuk drivers play cards for money.

There are slums the world over where people living in trash try to make a living out of what everyone else no longer wants. This is the first time I’ve seen it up close and whilst the hardship is obvious, there is hope that exists within these communities provided by a variety of NGO’s such as ISF, trying to give children the chance at a different life to that of their parents. The parents know this and accept it. They recognise if they continue in their ever-present battle to put food on the table without relying on their children to also contribute to the family financially, the children can stay in school and receive the education they never had.

Education provides children with valuable learning and skills but most importantly, it also gives them confidence - confidence in their own abilities, confidence to progress as people and confidence to strive for a better life. The people in the community know this and recognise their children will experience a life beyond empty bottles, thereby making their life in the rubbish not so rubbish after all.

For more information about ISF, contact Kate Griffin at kg [at] indochinastarfish [dot] org


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