A few days ago while shopping in Siem Reap, a few of us were scammed by a pregnant mother with her toddler. She approached us in the marketplace (I was visiting Siem Reap with the Northwest Team), with her toddler on her hip and a just-empty sippee cup in her other hand, begging for someone to buy her some formula to feed her child. Of course, we saw the child and felt compassion for her, and we reasoned that if we purchased the formula for her then at least we knew where the money was going. When we asked where we could buy formula, she turned around and marched us over to a nearby shop, where she pointed out cans of formula behind the counter, which were all priced exhorbiantly, given the prices of everything else in Cambodia. Two of the Northwest Team members that I was travelling with fumbled through their wallets and asked about the prices of different formula cans, and I meanwhile tried to strike up a conversation with the mother in Khmer. I told her that she had a beautiful child, and I commented on how she had another baby on the way. I cooed at the toddler while we waited for the shopkeeper to retrieve the can of formula from the top shelf. The mother shifted uncomfortably and avoided my eyes as she stood there. I was confused by her behaviour. Usually locals responded with surprise and delight at a foreigner attempting to communicate in their own language, but this woman responded as if I had just accused her of something. We handed her the small tin of formula and, without opening it, she bowed her head and thanked us a few times. Ian, one of our team members, said, “God bless you,” before we parted ways and she began crossing the road. As we walked back to join the rest of our team, we turned and watched to see what she would do. She kept looking over her shoulder to see if we were still watching, and when she saw that we were, she ducked behind a car. It then dawned on me that this was all an organised trick. The mother would give back the unopened can of formula to the shopkeeper, the shopkeeper would give the mother a small commission, and she would then go out and approach the next foreigners with the same sad plea for help. When Ian and the team realised this, they seemed to simply shrug it off, saying, “Oh well, it was only a few dollars.” Only, I didn’t shrug it off. I thought about it over and over. She was apprehensive towards me because she feared that I’d figured her out. I had clearly been living here in Cambodia for more than a week, as I’d spent enough time here amongst Khmer locals to be able to talk to her in complete Khmer sentences, unlike most of the tourists in Siem Reap – and this meant I’d more than likely be a lot less gullible than most foreigners visiting this city. I was kicking myself for not opening the can for her, or asking to try a different shop for a cheaper price, just to catch her out. I hated that she tricked us. It wasn’t just a few dollars to me. I felt humiliated and robbed. The more I thought about it though, the more I was challenged with the question of why I was even upset. What right do I have, as a rich foreigner with so much more than I need, to get upset when someone who has a lot less acquires such a small amount of that money? Was it ever mine to begin with? Sure, she didn’t acquire it by honest means, but this was a mother with several children and another on the way. It upset me that she had to resort to dishonesty in order to make ends meet, but how sad that I still struggle with my sense of entitlement to wealth. A lot of our team were struggling with the ethical dilemma of being a wealthy foreigner in a country where the average earnings of Cambodian citizens is less than $2.50 a day*. We had just left the dusty city of Poipet and sat in cramped taxis for a few hours (a luxury which most Cambodians cannot afford), which made the contrast even more dramatic as we pulled up outside Sokhalay Angkor Resort, accommodation we were only able to afford because we’d taken advantage of a coupon discount offer. We were ushered into an enormous air-conditioned lobby with clean wooden floors, and treated to ice-cold facecloths soaked in what smelled like lemongrass, and mocktails of honey and tamarind. Then as we were waiting for our rooms to be ready for us, we were transported by golf buggy to the outdoor resort pool and bar. Coloured lanterns hung from well-manicured frangipanni trees, and we felt out of place as we put our bags down on the outdoor table and looked out across the crystal-clear pool, whilst pulling our t-shirts out of our armpits and rolling down the cuffs of our shorts, still caked in dried Poipet mud. We had been checked into an air-conditioned villa-style hotel room, which was cleaned at least once a day and which gave us complimentary bath robes and a wide-screen television with cable channels. How do I respond to that kind of blessing? I know I’m not particularly rich by Australian means, and this hotel came at a heavily discounted price, but I have always had the incredible privilege of a roof over my head and I never come home wondering how I will afford food that night (although I often struggle to decide what I want to eat). If I have enough money to be able to make those kinds of choices, I have a lot more money than the majority of the earth’s population. I’m also currently sitting in the loungeroom at the Windus family’s house awaiting the official news on the results of the election that was held on Sunday. If you’ve been paying attention to the recent news, you may have heard that there has been a lot of tension in Cambodia in the days following their election, and the opposing party is particularly unhappy with the alleged unfairness of the election. I’ve heard that the polls were shut down late yesterday afternoon and now people are protesting as they haven’t been allowed the chance to vote yet. Others are claiming it is easy to remove the ink marks indicating that they had already voted, so they can go and vote again in another province. Both parties are also now claiming victory, and election results have varied dramatically depending on who is counting the votes. I am thankful that I come from a country like Australia, where I have so much of a voice over how the country is run (and although I sometimes feel ignored by our government over issues such as the poor treatment of asylum seekers, I have the freedom to express disagreement with authority at home, which is an incredible privilege) while here in Cambodia there is a constant concern about causing offence or getting oneself into serious trouble by creating a stir. What do I do with this kind of responsibility? I have done little to deserve everything I have, and to argue that I have worked hard for my money in Australia is almost irrelevant when I look at the millions of people in the world who work so much harder and produce barely enough food and income to support their family or even themselves. How do I respond to this? If I can write a simple letter or make a phone call to dispute a government decision that I don’t agree with, what is stopping me from doing this more often? Why am I so apathetic? As followers of Jesus, we are ambassadors for him, regardless of who we are or where we live. I’ve been living in a country where I have seen followers of Jesus like Phaly, the sports coach and referee (and now a grandfather) who spent a large amount of his earlier years in refugee camps, and who went on to follow his passion for sport by getting training as a sports coach. He now spends his days bringing up children as team players in volleyball, soccer, futsal – and disciples of Jesus. His sports teams have become his church. He tells children to turn up at 8am on Sunday so they can sing songs and learn about God, and after that they will practise football – and the kids turn up, and they sing their hearts out, and they understand what Phaly and his sons preach about, and they then have the choice to take it on for themselves. Phaly doesn’t have a huge concert hall for his church services, he doesn’t have a minibus to pick his football team up every Sunday, he doesn’t have a lot of the resources that we would take for granted in a more westernised culture. Some of the children live with Phaly and his family because their family situation at home may not be ideal, and a few have nowhere else to go. I see Phaly’s journey and think of obedient faith, and I see how God has blessed this man’s steps and provided exactly what he needs, and I wonder how I have been blessed with so much more and yet I do so much less? In the wake of the past few days, I have been contemplating the incredible privileges I have again, and I have been reading about how we are stewards of our blessings. The bible says we are blessed so we can bring God’s love to others. And above this, if I cannot show my love through whatever I am doing with the privileges I have been given, then it is useless. How do I let my light shine where God has placed me today? In the past few weeks I have been blessed to travel with the Northwest Team, who were visiting Poipet as part of their Global Xposure Trip with Global Interaction. I got to spend a lot of time with them as we taught children at MMF Pre-School, as we ran English classes at ABC School and the team handed out fliers for their school holiday promotion, as we dined together under the bridge outside a casino on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, as we visited Phaly’s church and some of us kicked a ball around with the soccer teams afterwards. The Northwest Team also got to see some of the House Repair projects (I mentioned these a few posts back if you would like to get an idea of what they saw), and learn more about the work that Samaritan’s Purse does in Poipet and the rest of Cambodia. More recently we all travelled down to Siem Reap together as part of the team debrief, and I tagged along as a kind of half-team mate and half-interpreter (I felt grossly underqualified as interpreter!). Many of you who know the Northwest Team personally will hear wonderful first-hand accounts of what we did and saw together, but for those of you who may not get the chance to talk to them, here are some photos from some of the things we did together.
Right now I am visiting Scott and Janelle Windus and their two children, Rosie and Isaac, in Phnom Penh for a week’s break before I return to Poipet to begin teaching art classes at MMF Happy Home. I’ve been gracefully loaned the use of Isaac’s room, and Rosie has loaned me one of her teddy bears. There is an Australian flag hanging on my curtains to remind me of home (very thoughtful), and my bed has a number of maps and guides to Phnom Penh so I can get around if I need to. Yesterday was a fairly quiet day as we have been keeping a low profile since the election, and hopefully today I can get out for a few hours to do some shopping at the market to pick up some supplies for the art camps I will be teaching. Janelle has told me of the many shops that are worth visiting for the good work that they do in Cambodia to give people fair-paid employment and practical assistance, and hopefully she will be able to take me to a coffee shop this afternoon called Sugar and Spice, which focuses on helping female victims of trafficking. Please pray for Cambodia in the coming weeks, as it begins to work out what life will look like now that there has been a shift in the balance of leadership power. There is hope among the younger generation for change, and I believe that this is happening for Cambodia, but in the meantime I am not sure what it will be like to live here. I have chosen a particularly interesting week to come and stay in Cambodia’s capital city, and although I don’t feel unsafe in any way, I have been advised to be careful (and I am taking the appropriate precautions). Please pray for safety for the locals as well as the expats, both here in Phnom Penh and also in the provinces. Pray that God’s hand of protection will be over this country and that he will bless Cambodia with good leadership and a spirit of peace. Please pray also for Australia, as they go through their own political turbulence. I’ve been horrified to hear that Kevin Rudd has recently made the callous decision to send all asylum seekers arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea, and I’m angered that he has no intention of granting residency to people fleeing persecution, simply on the basis of how they had to arrive here (the percentage of people arriving by boat who are found to be genuine refugees is up around 90%, whereas those arriving by plane are only found to be genuine refugees 60% of the time). I am praying for a strong conviction in our government to show compassion and hospitality to those in the greatest need, and I am also praying for Australians right now who may also disagree with this policy but, like me, have felt too apathetic to do anything thus far. I encourage you; you have the incredible gift of a voice in your country, please use it on behalf of those who do not have such privileges. I have drafted a letter which I will be sending to our parliament this week, and hopefully when I come back to Australia I can make the effort to attend the rallies that have been running in protest of this decision. I pray that together our voices will be loud enough to change the attitudes in our leadership, and I also pray that in doing so we can spread the good news of Jesus, who loves the least fortunate and feels compassion for those who can’t help themselves. I haven’t got reliable access to internet this week, and I’ve had to limit the amount of photos I’ve uploaded because I’ve been using this cafe’s free wifi for too many hours to be polite, but hopefully I will have more updates soon about what is going on. I will also go back and add more photos to this post once I’m back in Poipet. I have kept in fairly regular phone contact with my family, who are naturally worried about me, and so far I’ve felt no need to panic. I believe also that God has all things under his control (the bible study we did yesterday morning with Rosie and Isaac was talking about the sovreignty of the Lord, which I believe was a timely reminder for me). God has placed me here for a reason and I believe that he has his loving hand over this situation, and I am thankful for this. In His peace, ‘Leesh
* data taken from WorldBank.org