I have been back in Cambodia for just over two weeks now. Last week was my students’ first week of their community health practicum. We have chosen three different communities for them to go into in order to apply their knowledge of community health care. I gave one group an assignment for each student to get to know at least one family in their community. Then they had to introduce me to their family.
Walking around that community I heard so much, saw so much, experienced so much. All of my senses were on overload. I have had days to try to wrap my head around everything, but even still, I can’t stop thinking. I can’t stop praying. I am moved and troubled deep within my spirit.
Here is my recount of Thursday 08/14/2014.
Women playing cards, betting, and squandering away what little earnings came from the days work. Not just 5 feet away, their children are doing the very same thing. With 100 riel notes in their hands, they throw chips and kick two flip flops back forth seeing which one can get closest to the chips or which one can knock their opponents flip flop out of the way. The winner snatches riel from hands unwilling to part with the practically worthless- but so dear to them- pieces of paper. Who knows how long they had to walk around collecting rubbish or begging in order to gain what they had.
A naked baby is standing on the stoop to his stilted house. Maybe not even two years old. His back and bottom covered in small pinkish white pustules. He is holding onto the ladder leading up to the entrance. He is wailing. Murky, thick black water is just inches below him as the whole bottom floor of his house is completely flooded. Feces and garbage of all sorts cover the water’s surface making it practically impossible to see the water itself. Such a stench that assaults the senses rises from the hot, standing muck. Crying uncontrollably it looks as though this little man could tumble in at any moment. A man comes to the door, looks down at the child listlessly, and in blank apathy turns around and walks back into the depths of the house. Just then a woman comes along mouthing off about parents who just abandon their kids and leave them crying. She jerks the little child up by his right upper armpit and shoulder, his feet hardly able to touch the ground as she practically drags him into another stilted wooden shanty about 10 meters away.
I have never seen such a head. His hair was shaved. Three large bright red and purple fleshy wounds ooze yellowish brown serum. The back of his head is covered in yellow-green puss-filled sacs. The worst bacterial skin infection I have ever seen. Itchy, painful, crusted and oozing. He is only about three years old. His mom asks me for medicine. I ask her how long his head has looked like this. She says for a long time. When she has money she puts medicine on it. It heals, but then comes back. A cycle. She asks me for medicine. I tell her she could put medicine on it, but he is getting infected by the bacteria in his environment. She asks me for medicine. I tell her it is better for her to keep her house very clean, and to wash his head three times a day with soap and clean water, and do not allow him to scratch it. She asks me for medicine. It’s very important for every member of the family to wash their hands often. She asks me for medicine. I try to reinforce the fact that medicine will only help in the short term. She needs to wash his head, and keep their home environment very clean. She asks me for medicine. She does not even acknowledge the things I am saying to her. She asks me for medicine. I do not have medicine to give. I walk away saddened because I am not able to do anything for her- not able to do what she wants me to do for her. So many people with the mind-set of just wanting the quick fix. Not life change. Not betterment for ones self in the long run. Just the quick fix. Not change of habits, or change of lifestyle. Just a quick fix.
We are met by a woman in hysterics. Large fat tears roll down her face. She wants us to follow her to her house. Her mother in-law and husband think that my students are members of an NGO- an NGO, they think, she has petitioned the service of in order to help her divorce her husband. FEAR is the most obvious thing coming across this woman’s face. We are led through several narrow streets to a back little out cove, dead-end alley of little cinder block houses. The road is uneven rock, gravel, and mud, soiled and rank. Each house consists of one dingy little room about 12 feet by 12 feet. In Vietnamese she tells her daughter to run and find her grandmother. A little while later a short, gray headed woman with short hair and glasses arrives. We explain to her that we are not an NGO and we do not work on social cases. We are simply here to evaluate the health of the people of this community. Her superficial smile is plastered on her face as she nods in our direction. She smiles at us, but as soon as she looks at her daughter in-law her smile fades. I lean my head into the dark room. A tiny little infant is laying on a blanket on the dirty tile floor. 14 days old. We give a nod to the mother in-law. We turn around and leave. I ask our students as we exit the little alley if they believe the mother in-law and husband were violent towards that woman? Without hesitation, before I could even finish my question my student quickly responds nonchalantly, yes. Then turns around and it is never mentioned again. It’s so normal, even for my students. I later find out this woman has six kids. Two of which have already been sold or given away to someone, anyone (no one knows exactly who) coming in search of children. I ask another one of my nursing students if she knows what type of people come around asking for children to be given away or sold. She answers that those children will most likely be used as servants for sexual acts. She knows. They know. That’s it, there is nothing more to it. Reality. The issue is dropped. I walk on in silence. I am trying to wrap my mind around a mother who gives her children away already knowing what their horrific fate will be. These children are just given away or sold for enough money to support the rest of the family for a month. And when the money runs out, so too their memory is swept away.
We walk to another house where we meet a gentleman sitting on a wooden bench outside his house. He offers us a seat. I would have liked to put my focus on him completely. I try. I really do. But not more than 5 meters from me is a mother and a child. The child is crying. She is sitting in the middle of the road. She has plopped herself down there apparently. She is probably no older than 3. Mum is wielding a wooden stick. There is no compassion nor understanding in her eyes. There is not even an attempt. Mum swats the child on the left side of her back. When the child tries to shield herself she swats her on the right. The child keeps trying to shield herself, twisting and turning, while the mum moves from one side to the other swatting as if trying to kill flies. Finally she gives up, the child is still crying and not making an effort to rise, so the mother just yanks her up by the arms and carries her off down the road.
Afterwards we meet the most beautiful lady. A Khmer woman in her late thirties. She is a seamstress. She sews together cotton pajamas which are popular among all Khmer people and often worn during midday as everyday wear. She sews twenty pairs a day- shirt and matching pants. She starts early and usually does not finish until 7 o’clock in the evening. She introduces us to her children. Her daughter is at the sewing matching next to her. She helps out between school classes when she can. Her son is playing on the floor. I ask him questions to which he responds non-sensically with gibberish words. She tells me he can’t really speak. He only started saying “mom” and “dad” within the last month when he turned 5. I question her further about her son’s behavior. He has classic mannerisms seen in children with Autism. Mum unfortunately has no idea how to help him. She just knows that it is best for everyone if she does not interrupt his daily routine. It’s difficult to work, she says, trying to sew twenty pairs of pajamas in one day when she has to care for him, go to the market, and cook for everyone. If she is able to sew all 20 pairs together she will receive $4.50 for her day’s work.
We are invited into the home of a woman in her late 50‘s. First off I notice thick scars on both of her legs. On her right leg there is an X shape starting from the side of her knee and winding around her calf to the front of her shin. Her other scar is directly over her patella of her left leg. Her left leg scar is the result of a motor bike accident. Her right leg however is the remnant from the days of the Pol Pot regime. Her leg somehow got infected back then and she said, “There was no doctor, there was no surgery. All we had were the knives we cut the rice with . . . So I cut myself to open the wound that needed surgery. There was no medicine for the pain,” she said. It stayed open for a long time, she stuffed it with leaves and herbs. Eventually the wound healed, leaving behind wide and thick bands of scar tissue. This woman also tells us the story of her nine children. Two of which are dead. One died in the womb, and I try to keep my emotions from leaking out onto my sleeve as she describes how she went to a chinese hospital where they pulled the baby with forceps from her womb through her vagina, bit by bit as they cut him/her into pieces to get him/her out. That was child number 6. Child number 7 was born about a year later, but within a week also died. As we left her house, my nursing student who had interviewed her tells me what the woman herself could not. About thirteen years ago when her youngest child was 9 years old, her husband left her with all 7 children for another woman. My nursing student says, when we first asked about her husband during our interview her face immediately dropped and she began to cry. It was 13 years ago, but she is still very hurt by it, he says.
Finally we have finished our visits in the community and we are walking back to our central meeting location. I am looking down at the ground and I wouldn’t have looked up. I wouldn’t have noticed or been interested if it wasn’t for the sound of the CRACK! My head jilts to the left and I see an infant old enough to be on her tummy and hold her head up, but not yet able to crawl- moving her arms and legs as she lays on her tummy near her mother. The movements of her arms knock over the mother’s plastic cup of bubble tea onto the ground and her mother’s immediate response is to hit her. The infant starts crying immediately after her mother’s hand lands heavily on her lower back, and once again without any compassion or remorse, with complete indifference in her eyes the mother bends down picks up the cup and continues eating and drinking while the little one just screams, flailing her arms and legs, tears rolling down her cheeks. The mother doesn’t give her another look.
By the time we reach our meeting location, I have no physical nor emotional energy left. I ask the students if they have questions. I remind them what time to show up to class tomorrow. And then the only other words I mutter . . . “Just go home. Try to rest.”
I think I was saying it more for myself than for them.