By this point in the trip, I’ve noticed my critical thinking cap is fastened tight. Today we went to into the field. Driving through the countryside seemed picturesque until my thinking gap started asking questions. The group split into two groups, one stayed at a house to teach water sanitation and how to use the water filters, and the other went to go build a latrine. We were able to experience the first water filter distribution ever done by Kone Kmeng. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ya give his teaching lesson for the first time ever, but fortunately the opportunity presented itself to see him during the second presentation later in the day. Also fortunately, is my opportunity to witness latrine building. I’d never build one before or even understood the process.
As parts started to come together I thought in my head “Oh so this does this. Oh that goes there. OH!! HOW COOL!”. I know right, who knew toilets could be so interesting. BUT I LOVED IT! All of the fun and tomboy joy that presides inside of me began to come to a halt as I observed the scene analytically. If I could break it down into three main points it would be these:
1. How could I be filled with joy knowing that 1 in 5 children die of a waterborne illness, most commonly diarrhea? How could I be jittery when I notice that there’s 5 children here, one of which looks young and sick? How could I be smiling when the children are running around naked, dirty, and haven’t had anywhere to defecate until now? Well, hope. Now this family is just one step closer to living a healthy life and I was a part of that.
2. I said witness latrine building because much of it was done by the locals and homeowner, not us. When we arrived to the scene the hole for the latrine was near completion, a daunting feat to go through clay yet they performed it effortlessly. They let the boys hack away with an axe but laughed as they were not nearly efficient. They let me mix the cement, also laughing. It’s interesting how the gender stereotypes are so prevalent but more interesting is their eagerness to complete the work themselves leading to my last point.
3. Their inclusion of our work, much less our presence, really displayed their level of trust. To let white foreigners into their land is a huge act of hospitality. What’s important to understand is that we weren’t there to offer handouts. We were there to learn about latrine building, to understand how Kone Khmeng has been doing work with the community, and to observe techniques specific to that area.
After our first field experience, we head to the home where the first filter distribution was made to have lunch. This was probably the least enticing of my culinary cuisines but it was still an experience. Heather suggested we fill up on snacks and politely eat a small amount of the food. She noticed that the dogs, of course not immunized, were drinking from the cookware. I noticed that compared to Vietnam, Cambodians utilized more of their ingredients. Whole chickens, talons intestines, liver, and all were in a soup. A whole fish, eyeballs and skin were served for lunch. This isn’t the first time I’d seen a whole fish so it didn’t bother me. However, I think that whatever was in that food, or poor sanitation practices, got me sick.
I noticed while eating, that there was a huge divide between us and the locals, such a divide that we were sitting at different tables. Throughout the day I noticed that Brad and Josh, the Wine to Water representative, made continuous efforts to lessen that divide by being inclusive. Brad would teach the children of the village instead of taking pictures of them. Josh sat at the table with the locals during lunch. In doing so, they’ve already begin to break the boundary of stereotypes. We often feel the need to assist in international aid to fill a guilt void within us. When we do it for the sake of ourselves and not for the people who we’re there to empower, we strengthen the stereotype of westerners coming in with their money and power and providing handouts. Perhaps that’s why the ground partners didn’t want us too involved with construction.
Later we went to go to a second filter distribution site. I was very fortunate to have seen Ya deliver the instructional lesson. Keep in mind this is only his second time EVER doing it and the second time EVER for Kone Kmeng to deliver filters. He had me fooled. Speaking in Khmer, even I understood what he was saying because of the detailed pictures, his voice fluctuations, and pausing. I noticed how some members of the audience were more interested and enthused than others. It’s interesting to see how a few women of a village can spark a shared sentiment. Although I didn’t attend the previous distribution, the students said the women were far more eager than they were here. Why is that? Maybe it’s because there were more of us and it could have been overwhelming to them. But then we were told of a weather-related fear.
Lightning deaths are very common in the wide open fields of the countryside. Because of this fact, many people stay inside when a storm comes. A storm was brewing the entire time of the filtration system lesson and we noticed when it was time to pass out the filters, there were some people missing. It’s mandatory for whomever purchased the filter to attend the training, or else they can’t receive it. Many fellow villagers were trying to blame the lightning on lack of attendance and deliver the filters to their neighbors. Ya and Kone Khmeng wouldn’t allow that. There are several good business practices that have developed from trial and error in the past. This was one of them. They didn’t want to hand out filters and have them not know what to do with them or improperly use them. Another was that they wanted to follow up. To do so, they took a picture of the person while they received their filter. As I helped pass out the filters and they were taking my picture, I was originally uncomfortable. I felt like the locals were doing it to give me a good Facebook photo were only subscribing to the negative outcomes of volunteer tourism. But then I realized it was for follow-up purposes and it gave me a good feeling. It made me appreciate the sustainability of Kone Khmeng.
After dinner and a long day of learning, we ventured to another Kone Khmeng establishment. A dormitory just minutes from our hotel houses students who live away from home to receive an education. Ranging from ages 10-21, the students are given a chance to learn subjects like English, Math, Science, and History, that they would otherwise not receive from home. We sat and talked with the students, they taught us some Khmer, and we tried to teach them English. I think they were teaching us more though to be honest. I learned how to count from one to five, how to say “I love you”, and they taught us a phrase that I still don’t understand the meaning of. Whatever it was though, they laughed hysterically every time we said it. The children, all so very different in age, were tightly interwoven and warm hearted. They taught us more than just their language. The taught unconditional love and how to make the most of your situation. They were eager and loving. They were happy and joyful. We can all learn a lot from someone even if you can’t understand anything their saying.