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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Life in the Countryside

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.



Rural Setting
Celebration Inaugurating a New House
Ever Present Boom Boxes
The New Houses

9 comments:

Albeiro Rodas said...

Dear friend, thank you for visiting the rural areas of Cambodia. I wish that more foreigners from NGOs, companies and other offices in busy Phnom Penh will do it.

Statistics are statistics and they help us to understand the results of any particular reality. First, they cannot be assumed as a total vision of the reality, but at the same time, they cannot be dismissed as an relative tool. Relative is of course the reactions of those who find statistics in favor or against their particular interests. Therefore, statistics are object of manipulation. Monitoring must come always from very neutral sources.

As educator of children and youth from farm communities since 1999, I am at the side of the farmers everyday and I know very well what is to live in a Cambodian farm. We know that 90 % of the Cambodians who live under poverty, are in rural areas. It is true, even if we want to underline the romantic point of view of a country life. Then, we have to meet the concept of poverty and how relative it could be.

Children from most rural areas have not access to education. Many of them walked for kilometers to attend a school that is rather not well furnished for education (have you studied in the classroom of a tropical country without a fan?) Then at midday children should walked kilometers back to look for that food you are suggesting is everywhere.

Farmers depend also from the jumping of prices in the market. They are particularly susceptible to harvest production (floods, dry season, typhoons like the last one of Kompong Thom, etc. can let them without that abundance of food.) It is enough you do a visit for farmer families in Kompong Thom now, the ones that suffer the consequences of the last typhoon.

Even if they live a peaceful rural life at the side of their pagodas (it is not true either in many other rural areas,) farmers are cut from the stream of telecommunications and then living in ignorance of what happens in their own country and world. You know that ignorance makes a population at the mercy of ambitions from rural powers.

Health is out of reach of farmers. Even if you suggest that the villagers you knew go to the nearest big town (Kratie?) there are villages too far and without proper roads, where a doctor is a very strain, far and expensive guy. Natural medicine is their health service and - with the due respect to ancient traditions - several natural practices are the main cause of death tolls, including that of the friendly mid-wife.

If Cambodia wants to reduce poverty, it has to attend urgently the rural areas: infrastructures, telecommunications, electricity, running water, schools and agricultural projects. In Phnom Penh there are enough funds to do so. However, to do so, we need that the air-conditioning-office officials and private employees from departments, NGOs (most of them settled in Phnom Penh) and companies, bring their so expensive (?) cars to the dirty roads of the villages of their country in order to proof how true statistics can be.

Greetings in the name of my children and young people from farms.

Albeiro Rodas said...

Dear friend, thank you for visiting the rural areas of Cambodia. I wish that more foreigners from NGOs, companies and other offices in busy Phnom Penh will do it.

Statistics are statistics and they help us to understand the results of any particular reality. First, they cannot be assumed as a total vision of the reality, but at the same time, they cannot be dismissed as an relative tool. Relative is of course the reactions of those who find statistics in favor or against their particular interests. Therefore, statistics are object of manipulation. Monitoring must come always from very neutral sources.

As educator of children and youth from farm communities since 1999, I am at the side of the farmers everyday and I know very well what is to live in a Cambodian farm. We know that 90 % of the Cambodians who live under poverty, are in rural areas. It is true, even if we want to underline the romantic point of view of a country life. Then, we have to meet the concept of poverty and how relative it could be.

Children from most rural areas have not access to education. Many of them walked for kilometers to attend a school that is rather not well furnished for education (have you studied in the classroom of a tropical country without a fan?) Then at midday children should walked kilometers back to look for that food you are suggesting is everywhere.

Farmers depend also from the jumping of prices in the market. They are particularly susceptible to harvest production (floods, dry season, typhoons like the last one of Kompong Thom, etc. can let them without that abundance of food.) It is enough you do a visit for farmer families in Kompong Thom now, the ones that suffer the consequences of the last typhoon.

Even if they live a peaceful rural life at the side of their pagodas (it is not true either in many other rural areas,) farmers are cut from the stream of telecommunications and then living in ignorance of what happens in their own country and world. You know that ignorance makes a population at the mercy of ambitions from rural powers.

Health is out of reach of farmers. Even if you suggest that the villagers you knew go to the nearest big town (Kratie?) there are villages too far and without proper roads, where a doctor is a very strain, far and expensive guy. Natural medicine is their health service and - with the due respect to ancient traditions - several natural practices are the main cause of death tolls, including that of the friendly mid-wife.

If Cambodia wants to reduce poverty, it has to attend urgently the rural areas: infrastructures, telecommunications, electricity, running water, schools and agricultural projects. In Phnom Penh there are enough funds to do so. However, to do so, we need that the air-conditioning-office officials and private employees from departments, NGOs (most of them settled in Phnom Penh) and companies, bring their so expensive (?) cars to the dirty roads of the villages of their country in order to proof how true statistics can be.

Greetings in the name of my children and young people from farms.

KJE said...

Mr. Rodas
I do agree with your comment 100%. This post was not meant to romanticize life in rural Cambodia. As I said above it is limited in scope and not representative. It is a glimpse, nothing more, nothing less. That should be clear from the article itself.

Albeiro Rodas said...

Thank you KJE. Yes, the article is clear itself. The comment could be a complete of that insight and this is a good space to reflect on the development of Cambodian rural areas where the Khmer traditions must be protected and give the opportunity to generate unity in the nation. Regards. :)

កុលបុត្រមហានគរខ្មែរ said...

“If you understand, things are just as they are: if you do not understand, things are just as they are.” Zen proverbs

Jason Webb said...

Dear KJE,

I found your article about Cambodian rural life very interesting. It struck a note in my heart. I have been teaching English in Japan for the past 15 years. Although I am sincerely devoted to educating children here in Okinawa, Japan, I often feel that my job is unsatisfying and meaningless. The Japanese are not hungry for knowledge (at least not in English). The reasons for this are many.

Within the next 2 or 3 years, my dream is to move to a rural Cambodian community and build a school to educate anyone with the need and desire for knowledge not only English but math, science, social studies and so forth. I hope you don't think I'm crazy or naive but I really think that this is my destiny and the destinies of those who I try to help.

If there is any information or advice you could give me, I would greatly appreciate it. I am not looking for recognition or riches. I just want to do work that has value and meaning and help people who truly need it.

Best regards and good luck to all.

KJE said...

Hi Jason,
Thanks for your comment. I do not have any experience in the educational sector. However, I do know that public schools are of poor quality, especially in rural areas. Often several grades are lumped together in one classroom. Besides reading and writing and arithmatic they normally don't teach any other subjects. From what I read and know from experience most rural students drop out of school after grade 5 - elementary - or sometimes 9 - middle school.

So to open a school teaching more than the absolute fundamentals would be a great idea; but you would need to speak Khmer in my opinion. Although there are private English leassons available in rural areas as well, their standard is mostly not up to the level that students could follow classes taught in English. You would probably also have to find more teachers (foreign?) to be able to teach a full curriculum.

Furthermore, the school needs to be approved by the Ministry of Education; probably not a simple process. The question of funding also arises. I can't imagine that this would be an inexpensive undertaking.

umbertostagnitti said...

Hi Jason,
thanks for your comment.I hope to move to asia pac. in next 3 -4 years.
I have some experience teaching math,
science and electronics.Your dream could be a chance to make last pat of life worthy,so let me know if you need help to make your dream to become true.

may 31,2011

reasathea said...

I completely agree with the author. The stats dont just lying, they don't provide all the information required. Actually according to my own observations farmers are quite well off than urban poor. What most people don't get with an "adequate infrastructure" that as soon as they all connected into a single electrical network or supplied with mandatory education or other "mandatory" shit from the Government they get hooked up on all endless fess and bills and in this case, integrated into the economy they will become real poor. Now at least they're self content, but with all the guys bringing English and Math and other pointless modern education they will find themselves into the dire shithole, pardoonez mon Francais.

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