Sunday, May 8, 2011

365 days, week #18.

Poipet. I spent Thanksgiving last year in this seedy border town. I usually can find some pleasure in most places I visit, but this city may be one of the few exceptions.

The day after I arrived back from Koh Kong, I was back on a bus to this town. Our team spent the week there. These were long, tiring days. We baked under the unforgiving May heat, finding temporary relief in the occasional short showers that cooled temperatures, but also exacerbated some of the unsanitary conditions in these villages. This was a week of talking -- talking to affected households to learn about the impacts of the ADB-funded Railway Rehabilitation Project, talking to widows, talking to a mother of ten children, who fears her family will not have a home to move to, talking to people dismantling their homes.

Again, I'm afraid this local grievance mechanism appears to be broken. Deeply impoverished, people in these communities are generally afraid to complain. That's just Cambodia. Overt coercion and, in the absence of that, a general culture of fear of complaining against "the powerful" abounds. And again, as in other communities, many people cannot read or write, let alone draft complaints and access mechanisms created for recourse.

An impromptu legal aid clinic/training took a few of our evenings. We worked not in the villages, but in our hotel rooms, where those brave enough to lodge dissent shuffled in and out of air-conditioned carpeted rooms, in the hopes that they could pore over their words on paper with the help of a friend, a father, or a daughter who could write.

But, there were other good moments. The children. They run barefoot on the ground in these slums, amongst a trickle of dogs, motorbikes and bicycling children. One stole cookies from my bag. But that's fine -- I eat too many Bonne Maman treats anyway. Their laughs and smiles are infectious.

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