"The Only Source of Knowledge is Experience" - Albert Einstein
Updated: May 4, 2020
As my time in community comes to an end, I have started to reflect on the work we have done here. Being based in very rural community for 10 weeks really gives you a perspective of a completely opposite way of life to which I lead back in the UK. The people of Prasat Sambour manage to give off a very relaxed vibe, despite working extremely hard day in day out just to live. Most work here is found in farming or at the market stalls or at the police station. Farming in the UK is tough, but a lot of the farmers here work in the blistering 35 degree heat with limited or no machinery. I have seen a few combine harvesters here but most of the fields are harvested by hand! We have been met with kindness everywhere we go. The message of happiness is given by every Cambodian I have met, and their helpfulness is second to none – I have been saved many a time here by a stranger – fixing my chain when it came off, pumping up my tires, helping me when my bike fell over. Even their cupcake holders say ‘happy everyday’! I especially adore the reception I get from the lady who cooks and sells waffles on the side of the road, her smile when I would try to say 'arun sousedei' (good morning) and 'orkun' (thank you) was beautiful and she radiated happiness. Here, they live off of what they need – my host home rarely has any snacks or spare food lying about. Everything is brought fresh on the day or the day before eating. Snacks generally consist of fresh fruit off the trees in the garden if you get peckish (unripened mango or bananas usually). Almost everything I’ve eaten at home, give or take the odd pot noodle, has been completely locally sourced and grown! The other night I ate fresh local snails, which the family catch in local rice fields, with fresh cooked pumpkin and locally grown mushrooms (side note: none of which I’d have eaten 3 months ago). All completely fresh and caught that day. If in the UK you said to me I couldn’t just pop in the fridge and grab a piece of cheese or a packet of crisps when I fancy a snack I’d be gutted, but I’ve survived here just fine, snacking wayyyyyyy less than I do back home. Mainly because the only crisps you can buy locally are some from of fish or shrimp flavour and there's just only so many of them you can eat. I have however definitely had the odd dream or two about cheese…cheese on toast...mac and cheese...
The community vibe here is just amazing. You can leave your bike unlocked virtually anywhere and trust that it will still be there when you get back - couldn't do that in the UK, Vicky once had her scooter nicked from outside Saisburys local in Haxby. One day I was sat having tea and 3 women who I hadn't seen before wandered in with a bucket and just started cooking crabs in our kitchen. Another time me and Theavy needed some lemons and chilli so we just went across the road to another host home and she let us gather some of her home grown lemons and chilli. Such a great feeling that everyone looks out for each other here!
When I first arrived in community, I wasn’t sure how the next 10 weeks would pan out. I wasn’t sure if we would achieve what we wanted or how I would cope being around the same people day in day out with barely any freedom (as in I can't leave community without it being pre arranged and signed off) and although I’ve not really had a proper full day off – it has been an amazing experience. Now that we are finishing our cycle you can really see the impact the team has had, whether that is on the youth in their youth clubs, or on the volunteers themselves. Two of the best things that have happened have been community days organised by either my team or the youth we have worked with. We held a community action day about health, which despite a few challenges in the lead up to it, was very successful! We had two guest speakers speak about general health and sexual health and we had about 60 members of youth and community attend. This included youth who were not members of our youth clubs and also community members we had not previously worked with, showing that our work here has reached new people who were keen to learn and develop. We also held an inspiration event, 'Yesterday and Today of Me', which the youth in our 3 community based youth clubs worked extremely hard on. VSO sourced the 3 inspirational speakers who spoke about their experience in volunteering, employment and entrepreneurship but each youth club had a specific focus to work on to ensure the event was a success. Between them, they advertised the event to the local schools and community; set up the logistics and ensured the venue was ready the night before the event; each president wrote their own speech to discuss the working of the youth group and motivate others to join; sourced and provided refreshments for all attendees and MC’d throughout the event, introducing each speaker and facilitating the panel discussion at the end. They did us so proud and showed real leadership and confidence to hold a successful event, something which they do not get the opportunity to do at school – most students don’t get the opportunity to present to their class mates here let alone speak to over 100 people and representatives of VSO, and it was flawless!!! It was amazing to see and I hope that they continue to grow and use their skill and confidence to be ambassadors for youth development in their community and get the opportunity to go further afield!
I could not have survived the last 10 weeks without Theavy and Santana getting me through every day. And without Alice, Kate and Matt to talk through any challenges and struggles. I didn’t do voice notes before I came here but let me tell you, big fan of them now when you need to just get something said without writing it. The other UK team leaders are the only ones who completely understand every single thing I’ve gone through here and I am so grateful. If you’d have said I’d survive 10 weeks without a face to face rant before this I’d have laughed in your face but I have and that is solely down to the three of them helping me through literally EVERYTHING.
Team Leader is the biggest challenge of all out here, in a lot of different ways. Before I came my biggest worry was how lonely it would get. Being the only UK Team Leader in community means you can't and don't form the same kind of friendships with the volunteers as they do with each other. but I am lucky in the sense that I have not felt lonely at all, and a big part of that is Theavy. The Cambodian sister I will never forget. She has taught me something new every day here. Some things make me laugh, like eating too many noodles can make you sick, and that it’s bad to shower less than 30 minutes after your evening meal…but then she taught me how to properly hand-wash my clothes, make coconut bowls, how to say that there was no water for a shower and MOST of all, she taught me to think through a problem and how to respond to it instead of acting on impulse. Which I love her for and was so important here. She has reminded me of the simple joys in life - we watched Coco on her birthday because she had been saying she wanted to for weeks, we fried some pumpkin seeds to snack on and then lay down on our beds and watched it on my tiny iPad screen, we laughed the whole way through and it was so nice. She has also been keeping me alive by telling Ming what meals to cook and making me my favourite foods when she can - the other night she made me PROPER chips (on par with my mums) after a stressful few days and I could have cried because they were delicious. She made me them again on my birthday which topped up a very special kind of birthday. Santana taught me how to deal with situations I wasn’t sure the best way to deal with. He showed me what caring deeply about development work looks like. His heart and soul goes into his work here and he strives to make his team leaders and volunteers the best they can be. He works harder than most people I’ve met and when I say I’ve not really had a day off, he definitely hasn’t! He has dealt with every problem we have thrown at him in a relaxed and professional way which means I have 100% trust and faith in him!! He is also someone I have been able to sarcastic with and it not reflect badly on my team leading which I appreciated a lot! We had a particularly stressful few days in which he could not have been more supportive and caring of me and for that I will be forever grateful to him! I cannot wait to be in Phnom Penh and for him to give me a food tour of all the best food places once the volunteers have left haha we've already hit a good Indian and his favourite coffee shop so we will see what else there is!
I have learned so much, especially about myself and my abilities to lead a team. It has been the most challenging thing I ever done but it has been worth it. I hope with our handover documents the next team can pick up straight from where we left off and waste no time in continuing to achieve the project goals. The youth we have worked with have grown immensely and show so much potential that I hope the skills they have developed and lessons they have learned can be sustained long after VSO move on. The biggest worry about development work is that you spend so long working on a project, and then when you leave the work isn’t carried on. Our main aim here was to give youth the skills and ability to have a voice, and I think we have done amazing work to make this possible. Development takes time, and even if with everything you do you don’t see massive improvements, it can be the little steps that get you towards the big achievement. My Khmer volunteers have grown and grown with every week we have been here and I could not be prouder of how their English and confidence has improved. They are amazing role models to other Khmer youth and I hope they get the opportunity to continue doing great things within, and outside of, Cambodia. 10 weeks in community feels like a long time but in reality it isn’t. In our final 4 weeks I have really started to see the improvements in our youth and I will be very sad to leave them behind but proud of that they have and will continue to achieve in their community! This experience has only highlighted to me the importance of development work and how it really can make a difference. We leave community on the morning of the 14th December and the volunteers go home on the 15th. Team leaders have an extra 6 days in Phnom Penh to finish off paperwork and wrap up the cycle before we go home as well. I have loved my time in Cambodia but I am definitely ready for Christmas with my three favourite things - family, friends and food!!!