Part 3

Life and Volunteering in Cambodia, Part 3 … “It’s so hot and we haven’t got to the hottest months yet!”

Sunday afternoon, early March, and it is so so hot. I feel I am melting away. I’m not sure what’s best to cool my flat down: open all the windows, close the curtains (which keeps some sunlight out), or shut the shutters. I’ve given up worrying about mosquitos getting into the flat. I’d rather have some cool air, or should I just say ‘air’! And I’m told that April is the hottest month. So, I can’t imagine what that will be like!

Things are moving very slowly with my placement and project. As I mentioned previously, the organisation I am based with has a very low capacity, and very little understanding of project planning, project management, or monitoring. This is a real challenge, as it is one of the partners VSO has contracted with to deliver an EU-funded project, and there is pressure for VSO to deliver on this project, and meet donor requirements.

I feel I spend most of my time trying to coach, mentor and train the small management team to do basic planning or monitoring, which leaves little time to even begin working with them on how they will deliver a quality project, and deliver in a way that will make a difference to the fishing communities.

As no one speaks more than a few words of English, my Project Assistant, Thailong, who is a local Cambodian appointed by VSO, has to spend more time than anticipated in translating or interpreting discussions in the organisation. We both can feel very frustrated when – after what appears to have been a session, or a process where everyone understood what we were suggesting, or several days working with them to support them collect basic information for monitoring, such as “how many planning meetings have you had with each fishing community and how many community members attended” – we find that the next day we are back at square one as it were! Although we have managed to get a number of planning and monitoring systems established and “somehow” working (with a lot of on-going help from the two of us).

I know that, reading this, you might feel that this is the role of VSO volunteers to “skill” up these types of community organisations, but the challenge is that this community organisation is supposed to be the one skilling up the community fishing communities, to strengthen their management committees, support them with the development of action plans, and improve engagement with the wider community. The project only has another 15 months left. So, if you don’t have an organisation which is capable of delivering from the onset, there will be limited benefits for those fishing communities. Ultimately, one has to consider whether the priority should be spending lots of time and resources capacity building a delivery organisation. I know we all want to hear positive stories about development, and I try to refrain from sending out negative stories, but the realities in development means that not everything is rosy, works well, or brings benefits to those we all think it is doing. VSO experiences the same challenges as other development agencies. It is probably a bit newer in the field of contract management to others who have been working this way for a long time, and I think VSO is still on a learning curve from being a volunteer placement organisation (in a development context) to one managing and delivering on contracts (ie on funded proposals).

The country office is aware of these frustrations and challenges, and we are trying to see what can be done to change this situation, although there may be limited options. And, within the next month, there will be 3 VSO volunteers coming to join the wider project, which will hopefully reduce the isolation I feel as the only volunteer, as I will be based in the same town, and, having the full complement of volunteers will help to move the overall project on.

In the meantime, I have been using the opportunity of long weekends to visit other parts of Cambodia. (Cambodia and my organisation has lots of public holidays.)

I went to Kep, on the south coast, for the Chinese New Year. I managed to find a really quiet place to stay (bamboo bungalow style), surrounded by frangipani trees, so the smells in the evening were amazing. The hills of the Kep national park were just behind, and about 5-10 minute walk to the sea, past a French-style deli. So, treats of coffee and croissants. And sunset views by the sailing club, watching the sun go down behind some islands. Kep has a very small beach, although the coastline is open for quite a few miles, and you can walk or cycle along the coast for a distance. As it was Chinese New Year, the beach was packed – or, to be more precise, the pavements were, as they had been covered with tarpaulins to create shade, and mats put on the floor by enterprising local people, who then collected “parking or picnic fees”. And families arrived for both days of the weekend, with huge picnics. Traffic jams with cars parked 3 abreast. It looked more like Blackpool on a bank holiday (in the sun!).

I was really surprised to see so many families on a holiday break, because, in Uganda where I lived for 2.5 years, festive seasons meant that people went back to their villages and family homes to celebrate as a family. But, someone explained here that most of the families at the beach area would have come from the local area and just for a day trip. The local crab market is famous, and you could buy all sorts of fish and crabs and other sea creatures freshly cooked in front of you!

I went to Mondukiri last week for a few days. This coincided with International Women’s Day, which is a public holiday here (and in many countries). Mondukiri is in the east of the country, towards Vietnam, and has rolling hills and elephants. It used to be very forested, but lots of illegal logging, and under-the-table payments for securing land by particular companies, means that the hills are no longer a mass of trees.

It is also one of the areas in Cambodia with indigenous people – mainly Bunong, who have been particularly affected by the illegal logging and “sales” of land, and see their traditional lifestyle and livelihoods disappearing rapidly. As in many indigenous cultures, people don’t have a concept of private land, and a combination of force, where families have been forcibly evicted, or poverty, where people have been offered a small amount of money to “hand over” land for areas rich in minerals or for farming, means that the Bunong have lost a lot of traditional land. I understand there are still some 200 wild elephants in some of the protected forest areas. In the past, the Bunong used to use captured elephants and train them for work. So, there are quite a number of elephant sanctuaries around Sen Monorom (the provincial capital) for elephants who used to be working ones.

So, I went with one company (chosen above others because it is run by Bunong people rather than foreigners, and one of the main guides used to work with VSO), but there is fierce competition amongst them all. They all claim to be more responsible than the other, or more of an eco-tourism project than the other. It’s so hard to judge from the information to hand.

One of the days, I went for a 15km walk in the hills, through forests, with huge trees, thick undergrowth, and towering bamboos, with small clearings where people were growing rice, cashew nuts, bananas, crossing rickety bridges and then to waterfalls to cool off. On the second day, I walked to see their elephants. It was really strange after being in parts of Africa where you certainly wouldn’t be walking in elephant country without an armed guard, who would shoot in the area to frighten off an elephant if you or it got too close – to being here and feeding the elephants or washing them in the river!

It was really hot in the daytime, but so much cooler in the evenings, even needed a fleece, which was a pleasant relief from the heat in the lowlands of Cambodia.

I’ve also been in Phnom Penh quite a bit, sometimes for weekends, or project meetings, or VSO training. So, I feel that I’m getting a better feel of the city (or at least a part of it). I usually travel in by shared taxis. So, for 3.75$ I can travel about 90km, and get there in about 2 – 2.5 hours. And, depending on how many passengers they have, can either have a very comfortable journey or one squashed with 4/5 people in the back seats.

One trip, we ended up travelling a different way into the city, through vast areas of wasteland, with lots of building sites, and newly-built gated communities, which appeared to be located in the middle of nowhere. The gated communities looked like gated communities anywhere, but with huge entrances. One looked like a replica of the Brandenburg Gate! All a bit soulless: a vision of the future where all cities look the same no matter where they are, or a film like ‘The Truman Show’.

I gather these “wastelands” have been the source of lots of protests as people who had lived there for years were evicted and moved miles out of the city – which, given that this was the source of their livelihoods, has meant that many have lost their means of earning. Many of the areas were also flood plains which have been filled in, potentially creating problems in the future.

 You wonder who and where are all the people whom these vast areas of new gated housing developments are for. The population of Phnom Penh or Cambodia would have to grow substantially.

Travelling in the shared taxi were two police officers, with a man sitting in between. They were taking him to a drugs rehabilitation unit, although I understand there isn’t much rehabilitation takes place there. I hadn’t realised they were police until we arrived outside what appeared to be a prison and, for a moment, I thought the taxi was going to enter as well. I did a quick check that I had my VSO ID and VSO emergency number with me just in case!

Another joy of travelling in the shared taxis, or more like horror, is the front seat passengers. If you want a front passenger seat to yourself you pay double, but this doesn’t stop the driver also picking up someone to share his seat. So, you can have the driver, sitting at an angle, with legs maybe just about reaching the pedals, swerving in and out of traffic, overtaking at breakneck speed, and no one else in the taxi seems bothered. I’ve just learnt to close my eyes!

Weddings, celebrations and funerals are big occasions here, and usually half the street is taken over by a huge marquee, with cards, motorbikes or bicycles weaving past. Very loud music is the order of the day. Just in case you didn’t know a wedding, or funeral, was happening, you can certainly hear the music from a distance. The marquee is usually decorated with flowers, and the colours dependent on the occasion. Women dressed in the most amazing outfits and make-up turn up on their motorbikes. I’m just amazed how they can be so formally dressed whilst riding a bike!

People are now busy talking about Khmer New Year, which takes place mid-April. It is a really big festival, with most people returning to their home villages. It’s almost a two week shut down, and means it’s difficult to plan activities or meetings within the fishing communities at that time.

Then, in early June, there are commune elections – where there is likely to be strong campaigning by the different parties, as these are important elections, and the forerunner to the national government elections in 2018. It also means that other activities are restricted at this time, as in most countries in the run up to elections.  There are often concerns that any large community meeting might be a cover for one party to hold campaigning meetings. So, it is going to be a period of time, having ears close to the ground in terms of project activities.

This is the news from me so far, as I continue to melt in the heat and pray for the rainy season to come early!