April 5, 2011
Dear friends and partners,
Happy Khmer New Years. Yes, we are fortunate here in Cambodia, we get to celebrate several New Years but for us, this is the best one. Next week, we close for a whole week; everyone goes home to celebrate with family and friends the year that was and the year that is just beginning.
Of course with New Year approaching it is also traditional to clean your house in preparation for the celebrations at hand. Tabitha cleaned its house metaphorically. We changed to a new and better system of handling our finances – we went cashless. Now for those of you living in developed countries, this may sound rather ho hum but in a third world country – a cashless system brings about all kinds of emotions - from great fear to happiness.
Over the past two years, The ACELEDA Bank in Cambodia has opened branches in almost every district of the country. When we talked, they assured us that they can handle all our cash transactions. That was the easy part. Over a period two weeks, we opened almost five hundred accounts. It started at the office with staff and workers. My explanation of what was happening was met with disbelief until I explained that they no longer had to be afraid of where they kept their money. The next two days were filled with questions like; can my children get my money? Will the bank give my money to someone else by accident? Lots of assurances and explanations later, the banks arrived to enroll everyone – staff arrived from up country, workers milled around the office, weavers filled the corridors. Then the inevitable happened – the electricity went out – the generators went on but not with enough power to keep everyone cool. The bank employees sat in two different rooms, each group handling three people at a time. Of course, those awaiting their turn, crowded in to see what those who were being enrolled were doing. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself with all the mayhem but when I saw what was happening to the bank workers, my pity for myself got displaced very quickly to those who were handling the applications.
I restored a bit of order but mayhem quickly developed again as it became clear that most of our folks had an identity with a completely different name by which we knew them. This is a throwback to the Khmer Rouge regime where being known by your own name was never safe. Suddenly, none of us knew whom we are talking about. This took several days to clarify and make good.
The bank returned several days later with passbooks in hand but not all was well. We had several basically illiterate staff and workers – people who never signed their name before – people who didn’t understand that your signature had to be the same each time. One poor fellow had to return 4 days in a row to give his signature before everyone was happy. I just shuddered!
Once the immediate Tabitha people were taken care of – it was time to work with those who dug our wells, constructed our house frames, built our schools, merchants from who we purchased building supplies, etc. Mayhem reigned yet again – how these people kept such large sums of money safe before was a mystery to me – banks were a mystery to them.
Finally it was all in place and we tested the system. We did our first electronic payroll! The next day several hundred workers and staff descended on a small bank branch near the office. What a morning that was – thankfully, the bank staff were used to first time account holders – the noise decibels crept higher and higher and the laughter started. I looked at more bank books, laughed with more people and received more hugs in those few hours than I have in the past ten years together. Happiness reigns and I am ready to take a holiday!
Yesterday, I went back to Prey Veng – back to see the results of the challenge of the field wells. What a magic day it was. I arrived in time to see the last of the harvest watermelons. 36 farmers had harvested in the past week – their average earnings was over a $1000.00 US dollars for two months work. It was the men – the men who were all there – men who normally had to work far from home – their pride, their joy was indescribable. And the children, the children were home. They all wanted to give us watermelons and more melons – and then there were the cows and water buffalo – it was a big day for them as well – they got to eat the leftover greenery – what a celebration! What a way to start the New Year.
We visited so many families, all with pride, and lots of children. The food sustainability – the income earned – none had made such money before. It is so good! Did they meet the challenge of 200 hectares – oh yes and a bit more. Then Pat and Cheoun turned to me and said, but we would like another 100 field wells – why not – 3 more villages waiting – let’s do it.
I am so privileged – I thank my God for the lives that touch mine and the lives that I touch – I am humbled by all of you who make this possible. Happy New years to each of you – thank you for making this New Year a happy one for so very many for whom New Years was formally a time of sadness. It is so very good.
March 5, 2011
Dear friends and partners,
A few weeks ago I was asked a question – are you sure there are 8 people in a family that Tabitha serves? It’s a fair question and one that I thought deserved a fair answer. Over the past two weeks I have made project visit to our projects in Kep/Kampot – Kampong Channang, Pursat and Battambang. It has been an education in so many ways.
As with all project visits, I get to see the latest and the newest. Field ponds and wells are having a huge impact on our families, house building, schools and savings – are all very strong with high impacts. In Pursat, I met with 30 families who are about to receive houses – I asked how many children there were in the families – giggles started – this lady has 12 – she has had 4 sets of twins , said one mother, I have 10 children and on it went. In village after village, it was the same. We visited a school in process – the director and teachers were so excited – more than 900 children will attend as I looked at an 80 pupil grade 1 class. How can they learn? Then the big question – how many kids in a family – again the laughter broke out – 9 said, the director – and then he indicted from small to tallest – a universal answer I was getting.
In Banaan, Battambang – I visited with 50 plus families – there is no road into their community – walking through uneven fields, looking at plots and plots of vegetables and fruit trees – these people had been waiting a long time for my visit. It was a good community – with young married couples and middle aged families. Size of families was consistent – those just married had 2- 4 children, those between 30-45 years were more varied – on average – 30% of families had 10 or more children, 30% had 8-9 children, 25% had 6-8 children – 15% had less than 6 children. In all our areas, 70% of the families were raising an additional child or two that were not their own – usually from relatives who had died and left orphans or from relatives who needed to be away from home to work.
We had a wonderful time just chatting. A young married man of 27 said that every year he had to leave his home to find work. With the field well he no longer had to leave – in fact he said, I don’t have to buy food, I can pay my expenses and I have money left in my pocket – he was so delighted. The parents of 7 children re-iterated how good this all was – the only thing we buy now is a bit of meat or fish. Everyone said, they felt much better physically. I, of course ended up with cabbages that weighed 2 kilos, spring onions and long beans – all very delicious.
So I came back to number of children and the reasons for this. I asked the women how they felt – all of them had a similar compliant – all of them had an infection that resulted in a vaginal discharge, that smelt bad, left them with sore bellies and caused them to be hot inside. Some had gone for medicine but it was too expensive and didn’t clear up the infection. I asked about family planning – medicine to stop having babies – the women were unanimous in their answers – we tried the medicine they said, but it didn’t work. We bled heavily, our bellies really hurt and we were hot inside. In my mind, I thought perhaps the infections were the cause of some of the aftereffects but - I don’t know. Whatever the reason, none of the women were interested in this medicine any longer.
In discussion in all these project areas it became clear that 90% of all rural women over the age of 16 have some form of infection that cause vaginal discharge and pain – sometimes this would clear up when the husbands were away for work but would return when the husbands came home. I can’t imagine spending my entire adult life with a sore belly – I am a wuss and not very pleasant when I don’t feel well – it is no wonder the women say they are tired much of the time and not strong enough to do heavy labor.
I have learned to present some sensitive questions in the form of a joke – so I said to the ladies, perhaps the next time your husband wants sex, you should just close your legs? Pandemonium broke out – the women said, no way but now the men spoke up for the first time. No, they said, we want lots and lots of children. When we are old, our children will take care of us. Our brightest children we will put into school, the rest will help us with the farming. The vehemence was there – I was straying close to a sensitive area – for the women, sex with their husband would hopefully ensure that the husband would not leave for another woman – for the men, children were seen as a form of social security in their old age. It was the one clear incident of thinking ahead. It was not the time or place to start talking of cost of raising children – perhaps the next generation – it was also clear that family planning had been talked about and tried and failed.
So to answer the question how many people in our families – our answer remains the same – 6 children and 2 adults – that is what we think is a fair average. I thank my God for the privilege of working with these families, of sharing a small part in our respective lives; I thank God that I am not a Cambodian woman with a lifelong infection. I thank my God for each of you, who make this possible.
Dear friends and partners,
I want to share with you the beginning of our latest outreach. It’s Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital. I know there are many of you who ask, “Now where did this come from?” I would love to say simply from my own journey with breast cancer but that’s not true – the breast cancer is the catalyst of a turning point of the journey – not the beginning.
Over the years of Tabitha a number of people have approached me about preventive health care. I have a problem with prevention because it often teaches people about their problems but in our work, there is often no cure. When the AIDS epidemic took hold in Cambodia back in 1997, those of us working in the field were told to educate people. But education is not enough – at that time - there was no treatment available – and people discovering that they were in the process of dying, really hurt.
I am happy about teaching the simpler ones like clean water, good nutrition, etc but anything more in-depth has always brought me a shudder for there is really no where to send folks who are suffering. It haunts me.
This past year a number of women have died in our program – women who could have been saved or at least comforted in their own life’s journey. Sowanta is a woman who lived in Savy Rieng province. She developed breast cancer – by the time the breast was engorged with disease, it was almost too late. Her and her husband sold their land – the land that fed their seven children. She went to Vietnam and had a mastectomy – her lymph nodes were removed and she returned home. As a woman she was expected to carry out her daily tasks – they lived in a thatched hut – they had a few farm animals and within a few weeks, her surgical sites were infected. She had no money to return to Vietnam – she had borrowed and received help from all those she knew – but there was no more. It took her 2 months to die – 2 months of indescribable pain – 2 months to say good-bye.
Every time I go on a site visit, I am confronted with women who are in pain. Last week, I met Sina – a young mother with four children. She had asked me for help a few months ago and I had told her to go to a hospital for the poor in Phnom Penh. She came and waited for three days – that’s all the money she had. Her number never came up. She went to a local doctor – he said she had a severe vaginal and uterine infection – her womb and her uterine track are full of cysts – he removed three of them – told her not to worry – but the oozing is still there and the number of cysts keep growing. Her younger sister works for us at Tabitha – she too, has an infection and cysts – their mother died a few years ago from this same ailment – they look to me for help but there is little I can do – they are so afraid that they too will die – they are too young – only in their 20’s.
Then, I find a breast lump and with hours everything is prepared for my care. People are distraught – why you? My response, why not me – I, too, am just a person. But my question to myself is different, why do I get all the care that I need? Why am I so special? I am no different – different circumstances, yes, but the same as all the women that I meet. The same desires, hopes and fears. I too, want to live.
In my personal faith, my God says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To do so means that I either love myself less and take no medical care or I love myself the same and provide medical care for the women that I live amongst – for they are my neighbors!
So I dreamed a dream –I want to have a hospital for my neighbors. I shared my vision with Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi – an extra ordinary woman who happens to be the Minister of Women’s Affairs. Her response was immediate and simple. I have always wanted to do this – this is my dream. Phavy’s life has been anything but easy – like so many here she suffered under the Khmer Rouge, became a refugee, ended up in France where she finished her education, became a medical doctor, and practiced for ten years . In the early 90’s she returned to Cambodia, lived in the forest for 4 years fighting her battles for freedom. She became a staff of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and ten years ago became the Minister. She is a woman of extra ordinary integrity and courage – highly respected by all who know her. Phavy has a daughter, Mony who contracted thyroid cancer a few years back – she was treated and Mony is a survivor. Both of us treated by the best in Singapore. Phavy’s husband, Trac Thai Sieng is an extra ordinary man. He loves his wife, his country, the dream – he stands with us as we move forward to accomplish our dream.
We have 2 hectares of land in the midst of women who work in factories – women from all over the country – who live meanly – 12 to a small room, work 12 hour days – 6 days a week – women who send what they earn, home to their families. They are so young – their youth is eaten away with the burdens they bear – they are our neighbors. Their mums and sisters live poorly – perhaps we can bring some comfort, some meaning to their lives when they are tired and ill.
Our hospital is called Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital. It is a vision, a dream that includes prevention and education, that includes research into the most common of women’s illnesses here. Our vision is not cheap – it will cost 5.5 million to build and another 5.5 million to outfit because women’s cancer is part of this dream – and the machines required are expensive. It sounds impossible but not if the burden is shared by many. To build we only need 120 people to donate $50,000 each or 240 people to donate $25,000.00. each. To outfit we need to do the same.
For our poorest neighbors – treatment will cost very little – perhaps a dollar – for our neighbors who can afford more – we will charge more. For all women, we will have an open door.
I have shared this vision with a few of you. Your response has helped us to clarify our vision – to dream big dreams – to make sure we do it right. To share my personal journey as we do this process – I have created a blog that contains some of my reflections – its jannenokortep.blogspot.com A friend is working on a formal web page – I am limited in IT skills.
I thank my God for the privilege of dreaming dreams – of showing me the way forward – I thank my God for each of you who share this journey with us. It is so very good.
Dear friends and partners,
It’s been a week of mixed emotions. Pat, our manager in Prey Veng, asked that I come. Pat is one of our senior managers; he has been with us almost from the beginning. Pat’s area is one of our toughest. In the areas we work, the poverty is rather stark. Pat wanted me to see Prek Komdieng, an area we have worked in since 1998. It was always frustrating to visit because, despite a lot of effort, very little has changed.
As we drove into the area, Pat had us stop. I was looking at a lot of barren fields with splashes of green, here and there. A number of people were working in the fields and came to meet us. The first man to reach us didn’t smile; instead I got a look of utter defiance mixed with pride. Touk looked at me and stated bluntly, I have all my children back from the border. Touk has five children and like so many in the area, when life got too difficult, he would get a loan in exchange for one of his children. The 3 girls and 2 boys had been at the Thai border for two years, the girls in the sex trade, the boys as carriers for heavy loads and of course, the occasional appointment with a man. What Touk did was not uncommon in this area – many families used the practice. Touk was waiting for me to say something.
I looked at Pat who was excited – he shared the story – last year he had asked Touk to be a model for the village. Pat would put in a field well and together they would grow rice and vegetables. It was unheard of in this village – many of the men had gone off to find work, many were too ill to do work – primarily because of malnutrition. Touk agreed and in the past year grew 4 crops of rice and 2 crops of vegetables. He earned enough to get his children back. They don’t need to work anymore, he said. Other men had joined us and the talk began – there were now 12 field wells installed – they needed 20 more – and then what, said I. Come back in March and you will see. We will have rice and vegetables covering 150 hectares. And the children, I asked. And the children they replied, will all be home and in school. March is not a long way off – it’s quite a challenge.
Touk was watching me intently. He was expecting me to pass judgment on his past behavior. All I could think of was who am I to judge these people – what do I know of hunger – I see it but I eat whenever I want and whatever I want. What do I know of being ill and not having medicine? What do I know of having to chose which child is next to go? I know nothing of this – I just know pain when I see it – and hope when I see it. I agreed and so in the latter part of March I will come and see. The challenge is on.
Yesterday I went to see Thary’s projects – she is near to Phnom Penh and easy to get to. Our first stop was at Preah Put village – we walked into the fields – 80 hectares of dry season rice was growing, all from Tabitha wells. The families grow year round food for the first time and their lives are changing rapidly. The husbands and the children are all at home. The smiles are wonderful to see.
We went to the new are of Duang. What a different story. I met 18 of 50 families who have been deeply affected by AIDS and by malaria. In this process the families have sold off their farmland and all have less than 5 square meters to call home. There are lots of children – it seems that this is the one thing in life they can do. None of the children go to school – they cannot – they need to scavenge whatever they can in order to eat each day. Each small shack has two families living in them – 3 square meters is not a lot for 15 or more people. These families had heard of us and asked us to come and work there. The estimate is that there are 1000 desperately poor families in this area – half of them are ill. Some still have land and so the pressure is on to put in wells. One young husband is growing mushrooms in a space 10 meters square. His income for the next 6 months will be $600 a month but then the rains will start and the mushrooms can’t be grown. So he planted another small field with cucumbers and another with trakun, a type of spinach. He gives us the energy to hope and to do as much as we can. For those who no longer have land – the problems are much greater – I pray that the children don’t become the victims.
It’s been a week of sadness – it’s been a week of hope. I thank my God for all that I have, for the choices I can make, for His goodness to me. I thank Him for each of you – for standing with us as we go through these cycles of sadness and hope.