In never left a meeting with villagers with tears in my eyes. But today it happened. I am in the province of Pursat, on the west side of the Tonle Sap lake. In the afternoon I went with two other members of the team to a pagoda at 30 km from the national road to Phnom Penh. We thought he meeting was for ten to twelve people. We arrived in the pagoda ten minutes early. We entered the sala, the wooden meeting room built on stills typical of Cambodian pagodas. The statue of a sitting Buddha at the end of the room decorated with plastic flowers, candles, and incense sticks brought by devotees. The colorful pieces of fabric decorating the ceiling along metal lines. Suddenly a young monk start to bang the big drum which is normally used to call for emergencies or important meetings. After 15 minutes we had 60 villages: men, women, elderly people, children, babies. We are the foreigners who cam with the four wheel drive car from Phnom Penh. A group of young men dressed only with a kromah around their waists arrives first. They sit on the floor looking at us. Then they stand us and get from a nearby room some straw mats on which to make me sit, as we are the guests. More people arrive. The translator sits next to me, but it is clear that given the number of people coming he will need to be a facilitator. But I know he can do that.
More people arrive. They are all very poor. The pagoda is very poor as well. No large bodhi trees, no shaded places, just few simple wooden house as accommodations for the monks, the very simple main temple and the sala where we sit. The fields around the pagoda compound are all dry and duty.
Sixty people staring at am. Waiting of the questions. I look at my paper sheet to the first question, a question now I do not want to ask anymore: what the main problem in your village? A question which seems utterly inadequate. It is so evident that they all need basics such as water, food, opportunities. They need to improve their livelihood.
The meeting is starting in one minutes and I notice a small child a couple of meters on my side, sitting on the floor in front of the first raw of people. He is naked. After a couple of seconds I realise that he does not have the two harms. I need to start to talk, but my eyes are getting wet.
I start. I speak. The translator has not noticed the child yet. I cannot avoid to look at the tiny child who must be two or three years old, sitting there naked. Without harms. On of the young men dressed just with the kromah who arrived earlier on, takes him on the lap. He must be the father. I look at the one hundred and twenty eyes looking at me while asking my questions and waiting for the translation. God, these people are poor.
The meeting is not long, just twenty minutes. A thunder and black clouds announce the rain. I want people to get home before the rain starts. The meeting is over. Clapping of hands.
I need to go and give a caress to the child. Some candies appear to be distributed to the people. The little child gets one of those jelly sweets. He tries to open it with his feet, but can’t. I open the cover for him. People gather around us. He tries to squeeze the plastic cone with his feet. I try to help him by bringing the jelly sweet to his mouth. The people around us say that he can do it himself. But it is too hard. So I help him again. He first tastes it to see if it is good. He has a running nose and dark eyes. They tell me his name is Diph or something like that. He is two years old. He still tries to eat with the feel to his mouth. I help him to finish. Give him a caress and stand up to leave. The father looks at me and in that Khmer way with hands in front of his chest moved up and down asks me to help him and then point at his son.
They all need help. Some more than other. They did not participate in the decision of being part of this project. But the simple fact of coming here and ask questions rises expectation that we would help with their most basic and urgent needs. We are here to ask them if they participate in local governance while what they are asking are wells and food. What expectations do we rise what hope do we carry with us? Are we aware of the disillusionment we can cause by not addressing their most urgent needs and demands? We did not speak a word for the first twenty minutes on the car back to Pursat.
One often reads that blogs are for the most part just personal diaries that do not carry any relevant message. Well, I wanted to tell about that little child. And hope somebody will read and think about him.