Part 1

Life and volunteering in Cambodia … Part 1


I should perhaps introduce myself, as I didn’t get the chance to meet any of the group before I left the UK to volunteer with VSO in Cambodia, particularly as there were only 2 days left from when we were linked up, before I flew out to Cambodia.


My name is Sheila. I’m from Manchester originally, but have lived and worked in Birmingham for over 40 years, after first arriving in the 1970’s to go to University, where, after a switch of course, I studied African Studies, although didn’t get to sub-Saharan Africa until 2012 as a VSO Volunteer!


I’ve not had a straight forward career path, but perhaps that has given me a range of skills and experience which has definitely come in useful volunteering with VSO. I worked for about 15 years as a youth and community worker in the voluntary sector in Birmingham, in both inner and outer city areas; then worked for over 20 years in Birmingham City Council in a variety of roles, including Women’s Equality Policy Officer, CEO of SRB6 (a Government-funded regeneration programme in North West Birmingham); and as a senior Regeneration Manager. Most of my work has focussed on tackling poverty and inequalities, and working with communities so that they are involved in identifying solutions, rather than having them imposing on them.


I took early retirement at the age of 57. I hadn’t planned in advance to do this, but with the cutbacks I could see the services and resources I’d helped develop being quickly dismantled, and the increasing work pressures on reducing staff numbers. But, at 57, I felt too young to stop and put my feet up. I felt I had skills I could still put to use, and, combined with my interests in travelling and experiencing living in a country very different to the UK, I applied to VSO to become a volunteer, as their approach and values felt close to my own.


So, Cambodia is my third placement country. I was previously in Zimbabwe for 6 months as an Organisational Development Advisor, and then Uganda for 2 ½ years, in a range of roles, but my main one was project managing a livelihoods project, YELG, which was funded by Sue and Greg Dyke.


If you go onto YouTube, you should be able to view a video we made at the end of Phase 11, which is when I was working on the project (YELG Phase II impact video RS27197). This will give you an idea of some of the previous volunteering I have done. (NB Sue and Greg Dyke were so impressed by the way the project had developed, and the significant changes they saw in the lives of people the project worked with, they immediately offered to continue support for another year, to ensure the benefits gained were sustainable.)


I arrived in Cambodia on 24 September, and was really lucky to be here in time for the Annual Volunteer Conference, which was a really good introduction to VSO Cambodia. I was able to meet all the volunteers, and many of the staff, and get a good introduction to what VSO Cambodia was doing across all its different areas of work, on Education, Livelihoods and Governance. VSO Cambodia is also one of the countries, where the ICS (International Citizenship Service) programme operates, which involves young people, both from the UK and Cambodia.


One of the strengths I see in VSO Cambodia, is the way it builds on the ICS programme, with continued links with the Cambodian young people, in VSO activities. For example, many are employed as Volunteer Assistants, who provide translation support to International Volunteers – without which many of us could not operate effectively. Others are employed or contracted as Project Assistants, whose role is more than being a translator, and involves aspects of project management. Both roles build up the skills of those young people, and can help them on a career path, to become Project Officers or take other roles, working for the development of their own countries.


After the Volunteer Conference I had almost 3 weeks of in-country training – so, again, got a really good understanding of many aspects of Cambodian life and more details on VSO’s work here – as well as Khmer language training, which is an essential skill. Very little English is spoken, and, in my organisation, for example, no-one speaks English at a level in which you can communicate about work matters – hence, my reliance on my Volunteer Assistant, Ra Ner – she is my life saver.


My placement in Cambodia is as Organisation and Project Management Advisor, part of an EU funded project, on Sustainable and Inclusive Fisheries on the Great Lake (the Tonle Sap). I am based with a small community organisation, CCD, in Kampong Chhang, which is about 2.5 hours north west of Phnom Penh. My role is to support the organisation in strengthening their project management systems, so that they can effectively deliver their part of the project, and in strengthening their organisational capacity, so that they are able to attract funding to deliver other activities.


The overall project is working in 2 provinces, and there will be another volunteer to work with the other NGO in the other province. The project activities include supporting the Community Fisheries, who by Cambodian law have the fishing rights on the Tonle Sap (and other river or coastal areas), and the responsibilities for managing the natural resources – in particular, the fish – so that there is long term sustainability. They were given these rights and responsibilities with limited training or support. So, one aspect of the project will be to provide technical training, for example, on their legal rights and responsibilities, and to encourage greater co-operation between the local authorities, including the police and the community fisheries, so that they can carry out their responsibilities with the support of others.


Another aspect of the project, which will be delivered by another NGO, is to provide technical training and business planning training, to support the fishing communities to diversify – for example, in keeping livestock – so that they are more resilient to shocks, such as climate change, which is affecting the rain patterns, and water levels, or in undertaking value addition activities – for example, with aquaculture, or small scale fish farming, or fish processing – which could bring in greater income to households.


A further aspect of the project is on improving fishing communities’ links to the market, so that they are more aware of the demands of buyers in terms of quality and quantity and of market prices, which in turn could result in increased incomes for the fishing communities.


It is early days in the project, and in my placement, and the above probably sounds very technical and difficult to understand, without more practical examples, so I thought I would give you a snapshot of life as I’ve experienced it in Cambodia so far, and of the differences I feel from having been in Africa for almost 4 years. (I did a lot of travelling between placements and after placements!)


I was so used to boda-bodas in Uganda – these are the motorbike taxis and the only way to really get around in cities or rural areas – which weave in and out of any other vehicles, go round roundabouts the wrong way, drive up onto pavements, and generally ignore any traffic rules, in order to get to their destination, that I think one of my first impressions was how organised the traffic was in Phnom Penh. There were traffic lights, dual carriageways, and lots of cars, tuk-tuks, smaller motorbikes and bicycles, which all seemed to follow some sort of traffic rules. Although I did discover later on, in the rush hours, that it is just like any other big city.


And, where there are no traffic lights or give way signs, somehow at junctions all traffic slows down, and all sorts of vehicles seem to weave in and out of each other, going straight over, turning right or left, without any incidents, or any traffic coming to a halt (that is, apart from rush hour). I’m still amazed at how this happens, and other vehicles give way or weave around bicycles. So, even in Phnom Penh and definitely in my smaller town, it feels very safe to ride a bicycle. Perhaps this is something the UK can learn from. I’ve often heard of similar street landscapes, which I think were in Sweden, where they had removed the give way signs, etc, which resulted in less road rage, or accidents.


A strong impression is probably having tea more or less always offered free as part of a meal, and endless supplies of tea. Black tea, of course, often a weak tea flavoured with flowers, and you can have it hot, or cold, with a glass full of ice.


…  seeing lots of people wearing face masks, a bit like if you go to the dentist, and they have a mask to cover their nose and mouth.  I haven’t quite got to understanding why, sometimes it is if someone is ill, so doesn’t want to spread germs, but there must be a lot of sick people here, or there are other reasons … Will get to the bottom of this at some point whilst I’m here.


… having chunks of ice put into your beer … sounds strange … but the beer is usually some type of lager, and in my opinion, the colder the better to take away the taste … and, when it is so hot, any cold drinks are more than welcome (and whilst you might be advised off having ice for health reasons, I think my system is pretty sturdy after 4 years in Africa!).


… taking shoes off going into offices, many shops, hotels, and, of course, in pagodas or Wots (and hats even in the grounds of the pagodas).


… the vast number of pagodas or Wots everywhere, every couple of kilometres on the main roads, or down small roads deep in the countryside. Many look like they have recently been built or restored (many were destroyed in the Pol Pot era), and new ones are being built all the time, which must take a lot of local resources.


… there is no night life or music out in my smaller town. I was so used to hearing music anywhere I travelled and lived in Africa, from the smallest shop or bar, with people dancing at most opportunities. Gulu, in northern Uganda, where I lived for over 2 ½ years had a reputation as a party town, as people were still celebrating the fact that they could do so, and live without fear from Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army. The town I live in now closes down soon after 8pm; most music is from Karaoke bars, which are not the place a lot of women would venture into; and life starts early from about 5.30 am, with chants or gongs from monks, amplified, or school children in the nearby school chanting the alphabet.


… there are no wash hand basins or taps at most cafes. It is interesting as many people would think hygiene or sanitary conditions were far worst in Africa. But, in my experience in Uganda, and many other places I travelled to in Africa, you would always find a barrel of water, with a tap and soap for hand washing before eating – even in the more rural areas. I got so much into the habit there, that I found it strange when I came back to the UK, that people didn’t automatically go to wash their hands before eating. And here there are no obvious hand washing facilities.


… when it rains here, it really rains, heavy and for hours. I think I experienced one of the UK’s wettest summers before I came here, only to land in the rainy season! Just as the UK was experiencing one of its most spectacular autumns!


My town, Kampong Chhang, is very much a working town. If you are travelling from Phnom Penh to Battambang (a definite tourist attraction) you would pass through here. Not many tourists stop, but the scenery around here is very beautiful, with hills and mountains in the distance, and lots of activity on the lake, with floating villages, and fishing boats, mostly small size all around. I’ve been out in the field a few times with the team, and it is really interesting to see the fishing communities on the ground: it helps to put my work with the organisation into perspective.