The Meanderthals

Teaching a Man to Fish

My colleague, Siratha, asked me last week if I could help him write English captions for the photos he was displaying at the Indigenous People’s Day event in Siem Reap.

Since I only had 30 minutes before heading out to my language class, I swiftly ran through the photos, asked him about the subjects and wrote brief descriptions for his display board.

Siratha smiled broadly. “I could not have done this without you,” he said, as I dashed out of the office.

It felt good help but, later on, realized there may have been a better way. If I’m not around the next time he needs help, he’s on his own. My purpose, and the purpose of this time in Cambodia, is to help people like Siratha so that, next time, he can help himself.

It reminded me of the vision of DPA, the organization where I work, —  “To empower and support poor and vulnerable people in rural areas in order to improve their quality of life through sustainable development.”

Empower and support” was the phrase which got me and reminded me about my role, since I’m really only here for a limited time and can be using it by passing on ways for my colleagues to write and understand English better once I’m gone.

One of my duties, I’m told, is to teach English grammar and report-writing to team leaders at DPA who regularly put together multi-page reports for their donors around the world. I’ve been having fun editing them and, a couple of times,  have cracked up reading some of the sentences I find.

For instance, there’s probably the longest and most confusing sentence in history which reads:

“In June 2010, there were seven active literacy classes with total of 117 students, among whom were 74  women, who conducted the examination and the result was that 108 students or represented 92 percent of total 117 regular attended students out of whom 71 women students had involved in examination and only 99 students of 84 percent among of them 65 were women students had passed the exam successfully.”

And then there’s this one, which practically had me rolling on the floor: 

“In the meeting, participants discussed internally very seriously on methods poling the CF pole by following the points set up by GPS and dividing group of people for poling and measuring the hole before putting the pole into the hole. There were totally 200 CF poles for putting on the CF territory in Teun commune.”
My temptation is to completely rewrite everything (which I often do in the interests of time) but I’m also now in the process of putting together an agenda along with writing exercises so that my colleagues are able to write better themselves and learn from one another.

As we gradually peel back the layers of this fascinating country, we’re learning so much about how Cambodians work together and help one another. For instance, when our tuktuk driver gets lost, he generally pulls over to the side of the road where a handful of other drivers and motos rush over and help him figure out how to get to his destination.

And, when one of the drivers recently broke down in a blinding monsoon storm, a group of people swarmed around him, knee-deep in water from the flooded streets, patiently helping him to get his vehicle up and running again.

I’ve also never seen so many socially-responsible businesses in my life. It’s as though everyone wants to give back to the impoverished, homeless and less fortunate.

There’s the shop selling crafts made by victims of landmine explosions, restaurants which save kids from the streets and train them to cook, businesses that donate proceeds to homeless people and many, many more.

My favourite (for personal reasons) is a bakery named Bloom just down the road from our apartment which is run by an Australian couple who employ victims of sexual harrassment and human trafficking and train them how to make the most beautiful cakes you’ve ever  seen.. Yes, I’m afraid there is a wee bit self interest here as the cupcakes are the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. But my indulgence does go to a good cause so I believe my interest is not purely selfish.

I’m also finding that everyone has a challenge to deal with. One of my colleagues – at the age of 25 –  supports his four brothers and sisters since his father doesn’t make enough to care for the family. He also studies Chinese and Japanese after hours.

Another (also in his 20s) takes care of all the medical bills for his mother who is dying of cancer and living in his home. He has two young sons who he rarely sees as he studies community development in the evenings and teaches at a local college on weekends.

And yet another gets up every morning at 4:30am to cook for her children while she’s saving to complete construction on a plot of land she bought to build a house.

Yes, it is humbling.

And yes, we want to do what we can to help.

But, by the same token, we’ve never seen more smiles or heard less complaints. The people we’ve met who have the least are often the first to give, and those who are struggling to survive never display a moment of self pity.

Which often makes me wonder…..Who’s really learning from whom?


  • Lillian

    That last question is an important one to consider. I’d love to discuss with you over a cup of tea and a cupcake in about 8 months 🙂 Thanks for the reflections.

  • fbk

    You’ve found the golden nugget of your time there, Gabi. THEY are teaching YOU!!!!! Perhaps your next job will be to let the world know that there is indeed a place where self-pity takes up less daily time than an orientation towards others …. Americans could well use this lesson, eh?

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