Statistics on developing countries make for grim, if not outright depressing, reading. Cambodia is burdened with a poverty rate of officially 35% (CIA World Fact Book). Poverty is determined by income, and the threshold in Cambodia is $3 per day, sometimes it is put as low as $2 a day, which, of course, would translate into a lower percentage of poor people. Comparing this with the U. S., where the poverty rate is 12% and the line is drawn at around $12,000 p.a. for a 4-person household, one must logically come to the conclusion that life in Cambodia, especially in the countryside, is permanent economic distress and marked by deprivation and hunger on a large scale.
I cannot nor do I want to contradict those statistics. I assume that they are close to the truth. But the question arises whether all these people, especially the rural population, live a life of deprivation and hunger. I am pretty sure this holds true for the urban poor. After all most of them came to the city to find the jobs they couldn’t find in their villages. A lot of them end up on the streets, living in ramshackle huts in unsanitary, and by modern standards, subhuman conditions (what we then call slums). Especially in times like these jobs have become even scarcer. Even the people having a job, working in the garment industry, for instance, can’t be the envy of the rural people when eight or more girls share one room.
But what about the rural population? My frequent trips to the countryside give me a different impression from what one could read from statistics. Naturally, these impressions are subjective, limited in scope and by all means not representative. On my recent trip to Kratie province, I visited several villages along the Mekong River. I got into closer contact with the people there as many families are my wife’s relatives – some closer, some not so close.
What struck me the most was the cohesion of those families, and their relative happiness. Sure, not one owns a car, but they all owned a motorcycle. They live in traditional wooden houses on stilts (the stilts are nowadays mostly of concrete). They till their fields, planting rice, corn, vegetables, and sometimes cassava. Many of them own at least one cow, a few own pigs, and chickens, most of them of the scrawny variety, are ever-present. Closer to the house the ubiquitous mango trees and other fruit trees round out the rural setting. If somebody needs help, the neighbors, whether family or not, are there to help. Crime is almost completely unknown along that stretch of road from Kratie town to the 100-pillar pagoda; certainly no major crimes like murder, rape, burglary, etc. No one knows of any those having happened in their lifetime. Of course, there is the occasional theft, but generally, it is really only petty offenses. Second wives, a widespread practice not only among better-off men in the city, are not tolerated. They had better leave the community.
Whomever I met, they all have enough to eat; one just needed to look at them. In contrast, an uncle who is not as fortunate, having been a city dweller who is now retired and lives in Siem Reap, hardly scrapes by. He took with him about 100 kg of rice his rural relatives had given him.
The villages are without electricity or running water. For power, they make do with batteries. There is a central charging station that runs a generator where they take their flat batteries and exchange them for a fully charged one. Water is collected in those big earthen jars or in drums. Cooking is done on a small wood-fired stove. In all respects they are pretty much self-sufficient. They grow their own food, and as such prove the fact that 60% or so of the rural population lives on subsistence farming. Any surplus is sold on the market or bartered for other necessary goods. Odd jobs provide extra income. Young mothers give birth with the help of the local mid-wife, and for illnesses that are more serious, they have to go to Kratie town, of course.
Despite this rather basic life-style they are a happy lot – at least the one I encountered. Laughter is heard often and no occasion for a celebration is left out. If a family member from the city comes to visit this is grounds for a big family feast, which may be attended by half the village, since somehow they are all related, either by blood or by marriage.
Am I propagating that country life is good and we need not worry too much about these people? Of course not. But one really needs to second-guess those statistics. These people still live a happy and contented life. It has been like that for ages and in that sense that they are accustomed to it. Naturally, they would like to have only a few of the amenities a city dweller enjoys. But given the past of the country, what they have now is a far cry from what they had when they were still children. They – for one - do see this as progress, as slow as it is. But it will get better. About that, they are very sure. So why worry about it now when life is comparatively good now? They have a roof over their heads, enough food to eat, and a good family. To them this is more than enough for now. Their Buddhist belief additionally fortifies this attitude. I asked many of them whether they would like to live in the city. Not a one wanted to leave their village – to visit, yes, but to live, never. But, of course, given the right job they might change their minds, especially the younger generation. But even they have heard by now that life in the city is pretty hard. So for now, they mostly stay where they are.
Celebration Inaugurating a New House
Ever Present Boom Boxes
The New Houses