The Human Touch

After living for two years in Cambodia I have pretty much forgotten what it was like to live in a country like the UK with four distinct seasons, albeit in Northern Scotland often in the same day. Cambodia has only two, the rainy season, which is roughly June-November, and the dry season, December to May. So now we are in the rainy season. Unfortunately for the farmers who eke out a subsistence living growing rice in the provinces, so far this rainy season there has not been much rain. Some unseasonal downpours at the beginning of May resulted mainly in a spate of deaths from lightning strikes (graphically reported in the local press), but not much in the essential irrigation needed for the rice paddies. This is seen as inevitable, as the royal bulls (!), aided and abetted by the royal fortune tellers, have predicted a bad harvest for this year, and provincial Cambodians are mostly very superstitious and resigned to whatever fate is cast for them. 

I’m very, very fortunate that my work allows me to visit the provinces on a regular basis, as it is so easy to feel removed from reality in Phnom Penh. True, there are many sights in the city that evoke all those white western liberal guilt trip feelings, but it is only by traveling to the rural heart of Cambodia that a true sense of the horrendous poverty that still affects much of this country can be experienced. In many areas the approach to farming is still medieval in western terms, and people literally live from day to day. They do not starve, but they do not thrive either. There is usually just enough to eat, and no more. Healthcare in remote areas is very often non-existent. Often when we visit villages they will bring sick children to us, as if they equate our white professional appearance with some medical skills or knowledge. On a recent visit to a rural orphanage to visit some friends who are spending a year overseas volunteering, my wife and baby and I were shown a very sick HIV+ baby. As we stood around the tiny, fly-covered bundle that was sharing a cot with another child it became apparent that he was not moving or breathing. Little Dominic died in front of us that day, as I held my own baby boy in my arms, and that is something that I cannot, and will never, forget. In the west we are largely shielded from the daily realities of life and death by the distancing effect of the TV screen… another starving child in Africa, another dead Tsunami victim on a beach, another nameless victim of an indiscriminate bomb or landmine… it all blurs into the ‘oh, bad news again – isn’t there anything good they can talk about’ syndrome. Inconsequentiality becomes the norm, there is no space for ‘reality’ other than the ‘Big Brother/I’m a Celebrity…’ sideshows… Reality is something else, it is chillingly and sickeningly real, but do you know,I am really grateful that I have been given the opportunity to go out and actually face some degree of reality myself. I can only sincerely hope that it is somehow contributing to making me better at being a human being… we all need the human touch…

As that greatest of twentieth-century philosophers, Dave Allen, said – ‘goodnight, and may your god go with you…’





One comment

  1. Mike Rowfones Tand · June 12, 2007

    Did I say “apparently inconsequential meanderings”. I apologise. That was thought provoking and moving.

    I was going to send you an email but then I remembered it was your turn to write because I rdefinitely emember sending you a letter once. The reply got lost in the post or intercepted by a government agency. Also don’t know your address. Drop me a line if you get a chance – my address is :

    eg. if my name was Willy Poorboy the address would be
    willy@wpoorboy.freeserve. . . .

    I should have been a spy – the moon shines bright in Honolulu.

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