The challenge with being a ‘back room’ girl is that it is easy to lose sight of the reason you are manipulating numbers, reading and editing a variety of documents, scratching your head over systems and processes, etc. etc. and whilst you know that you are working for a great organization and you believe in and enjoy contributing to their vision and mission, there is nothing like getting your nose out of the spreadsheets and seeing the real work being done! So, I invite you to join me as my Khmer colleague and I board the, thankfully air-conditioned, bus for Battambang and travel six or so hours across the basin of Cambodia with its gradually flooding fields as the rains finally begin to fall.
What were your main motivations and interests between the ages of 15 and 26? How much of your precious leisure time did you give up to volunteer to support your fellow citizens in need? To my chagrin, I have to admit in the overall scheme of things, I gave up very little, especially at the younger end of the spectrum and I was not working potentially six/seven days a week as well as studying and helping out on the family smallholding, taking cows and/or buffalo to water, produce to market, or coming to terms with being re-integrated into community living after a long period of institutionalization.
In Battambang, I joined a truly impressive group of young people from across the region, some of whom had also traveled the long distance from Phnom Penh to be here. They had given up their three-day-long public holidays to come for some training on Child Protection, facilitated by M’lup Russey staff, who had equally forfeited time with family over this period in order to make this training happen. If you know anything about Child Protection training you will know that it covers some quite difficult areas and I suspect that many of the youngsters there would have experienced some aspect of it or another, or perhaps be aware that they were not afforded the basic rights of a child when they grew up. The reason they are receiving the training is so that they can return to their communities and share it with others there, young folk and community leaders alike, as advocates and also as watchmen and women who can look out for and take appropriate action to report child abuse. Their questions were excellent and flagged up the kind of thing any of us would wonder: how do I know who to trust? what if the perpetrator finds out it was me who reported it? I was humbled to think about all they have chosen to process and pass on at such a tender age.
My second day involved observing a study tour for young people from Siem Reap, coming to observe and share experiences with a rural group just outside Battambang who pass on the knowledge they have received to local village children.
Children from the village, young Battambang volunteers and M’lup Russey facilitated youth from Siem Reap, all congregated together on the plastic-sheeted, concrete floor of the local host’s home. No air-conditioning, no power point presentation, no microphone, a single fan blowing (largely for the benefit of the two westerners I suspect), just a simple gathering. This is rural Cambodia – a world away from bustling Phnom Penh or even Battambang just a matter of a short tuk-tuk ride down the road. As the children sat quietly in rows, they were first taught about the prevention and symptom recognition of Dengue fever, very topical as the rainy season approaches and standing water becomes a magnet for breeding mosquitos. Secondly, the principles of general sanitation were covered, both topics being presented by a young woman from the front. Once again, key and vital information was being conveyed by volunteers on a public holiday and I was witnessing the next stage of the ripples of advocacy and shared knowledge.
Following the session, and with the children running off back to the village with their end of the session, half baguette, sandwiches in their hands, the two groups of youth were given time and opportunity to ask each other questions about their experiences. Once again, the M’lup Russey supported group asked really good questions about how long it took to prepare lessons; who to contact in the community to get permission to run sessions, etc. It was acknowledged that these kind of events are time-consuming to set up and run especially in the context of everyone’s limited availability, attendees included.
It is often hard to quantify in numbers and spreadsheet formulae the magnitude of these activities in reality. How do you measure the commitment of staff, trainees and volunteers alike, how can you trace the effect one morning’s training has on an individual – are they even aware of it themselves? How many different actors have played their part in bringing the volunteers to where they are and how many will play in the lives of these young children as they grow up? It is hard to quantify exactly what any one organization’s contribution is, but, what I can report from this particular trip, is that M’lup Russey is dropping pebbles of knowledge, training, and facilitation into the waters of Cambodian life and we watch in faith, praying that the ripples spread and have a wider and wider effect.