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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson

Written by Kristen Hamill
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"From riding my bike to work and being chased in the street by smiling children screaming “HELLO!!!” to seeing those same children play in a sewage canal around the corner from my house, my experience in Cambodia was a total emotional roller coaster. Every day I would think that I’d seen it all, and the next day something else would happen that would make me say the same thing."

Cambodia is one the poorest, least developed nations in the world, with over a third of its population living in extreme poverty. Ravaged by thirty years of genocide, war, and foreign occupation, Cambodia is struggling to get back on its feet while faced with a myriad of social, economic, and environmental problems. Cambodia relies heavily on foreign aid, and NGOs have had a strong foothold in the country since the 1990s, working on issues such as education, child welfare, microfinance, and conservation. Their presence has been both a necessary and politically controversial one.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillLauren Dickerson, a Massachusetts native and graduate of Boston College, took a chance in 2008 and moved to Cambodia to volunteer with a grassroots organization and NGO. She recently sat down with inTravel to share the experiences of her time in Cambodia, covering everything from the heart-breaking: visiting the body pits at the Killing Fields and jail cells at Tuol Sleng, sobering reminders of Cambodia's violent and all-too-recent past, to the uplifting: experiencing the warmth, openness, and incredible generosity of the Cambodian people, many of whom had close to nothing, but shared everything.

 

 

INTRAVEL: Could you give me a brief overview of what sort of work you were doing in Cambodia?

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom PenhI was volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, dealing with youth empowerment and environmental issues. I was given the illustrious title of “Advisor,” meaning that I helped out where I could — writing grants, strengthening reporting practices, reevaluating activities, organizing educational activities for young people interested in learning about the environment. I volunteered for six months before offering my services at an American NGO that incidentally was the main funder of the small grassroots organization.

I also conducted a research project for an NGO consortium on the accountability mechanisms for budget support projects sponsored principally by the World Bank and the British Department for International Development. This research project was a piece of a lobbying effort by the NGO consortium to engage international donors in ameliorating the way in which the Cambodian government used— or didn’t use — the money given to them for the purpose of conducting land reform and maintaining Cambodia’s natural resources — forests, mangroves, watersheds, rivers, etc. I was there for about 8 months and I lived about a hundred meters from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It literally was at the end of my street and I had to pass it on my way to work.

INTRAVEL: How did you get involved with your work in Cambodia? Is there anything that made you pick that country in particular?

I was working as a legal assistant in Paris and wanted a breath of fresh air from Parisian high society and the corporate law world. Also, I had always been interested in international affairs particularly with respect to developing countries and was becoming increasingly interested in environmental issues. I cast a broad net with all my contacts worldwide and was eventually invited to come volunteer in Cambodia by a friend of a friend of a friend. This was a huge risk, but it was also a huge adventure and I was ready to do it.

INTRAVEL: What were your expectations prior to arriving in Cambodia?

I really didn’t have any other than I expected to learn about environmental and political issues in Cambodia, as well as issues that I knew I wouldn’t be able to predict in advance. I don’t think I’ve ever been more right in my life.

INTRAVEL: Did you experience any major culture shocks?

Where do I begin? I couldn’t believe how people did not flinch at tossing garbage on the ground. A lot of the garbage was plastic bags, which are used for everything. When you go to a market for your fruits and vegetables, your tomatoes go in one plastic bag, your carrots in another, your mangoes in another, and another for your limes, etc. For such a poor country, I was blown away at the amount of waste with respect to plastics. I should add that Cambodians are amazing recyclers with respect to just about everything else, but plastic bags were totally expendable and consequently covered just about every landscape I saw in both urban and rural environs.

 


 

On a lighter note, I was shocked and weirded out to see that my male colleagues had beautifully manicured, long fingernails and exquisite hands. The reason for this is to show your class. If you have beautiful hands, then people know that you’re not out in the fields farming rice all day. I found it most strange and unsettling to see so many men with long (sometimes an inch long!) fingernails.

Another thing that was incredibly hard to get used to was the traffic. On a two-way street, you’ll see traffic going in four directions, so learning to ride my bicycle around town was a horrifying albeit character-building experience. People use their horn not to yell at you for doing something stupid, but rather to let you know that they are behind you. I’d be riding along, focusing on the road, and then all of the sudden, it seemed as though people would sneak up behind me, BEEEEEEEP, scare the bajesus out of me and then pass me.

Another huge cultural issue is that of face, which means that there is an expectation that no one should do anything to compromise or damage the image that another person tries to project of herself. As a strong-willed American woman who was anxious to work and be effective, I frequently encountered resistance by my colleagues who were intimidated and often times would tell me that they would do things without ever intending to do them. I also did not understand that my role as a foreign woman was to submit to the demands of my boss, a 5’ tall Cambodian Napoleon who assumed that I would allow myself to remain under his thumb. Because he had to save face in front of me, he could not tell me to stop taking initiative because then he would have had to admit that his management skills were insufficient. Face was something that I had to figure out on my own.

INTRAVEL: How did people perceive you and the work you were doing?

I was working with university students – young people between 18-23 years old. I think that the majority of my students were afraid of me. We spoke a word here and there of Khmer — I took Khmer lessons and tried to speak in Khmer whenever I could, but my language skills weren’t up to their level in English — but for the most part we communicated in English. Cambodians are incredibly shy and afraid of being wrong or embarrassing themselves in front of their peers. Also, Cambodians show an unbelievable amount of respect to their superiors. Most of these students saw me as their teacher, creating a weird power structure whereby I was given total authority, but could not solicit much action on the part of the students due to their lack of understanding or fear of failure.

After a few months, I realized that I needed one of their peers to do my job, so I took it upon myself to designate one of the students, who was interested in improving her English and learning about environmental issues, as our group facilitator. She did an excellent job organizing her peers in activities that interested them. And we did manage to have some fun. Cambodians love to laugh and be silly. I gladly learned their dances, games and songs in order to try to break down some of the walls that existed between us.

Also, in Cambodian culture, children are very infrequently empowered to do things. Parents are more likely to tell them “no” than “yes” when they ask for permission to learn or try new things, particularly for girls. It is very possible that I could have been one of the first people to ever ask them to do something and to tell them in a very direct and clear manner, “You can do this and you will do this.” I refused to accept the phrase, “Ooo, Miss Lauren, cannot – too difficult!” and I’m sure that I lost some of the students after being too demanding.

At the end of my stint with this organization, I attended an event put on by my intern that was designed to be a public educational show on plastics. Through a skit, a recycled art competition, a trash fashion show and a musical demonstration with recycled percussion instruments, these young people publicly demonstrated what they had learned in an effort to show other people how they can do something positive for themselves and the environment by limiting plastics in their life.

INTRAVEL: Living for any length of time overseas, especially in a third world country, comes with its highs and lows.  What were some of yours?

I experienced them every day. From riding my bike to work and being chased in the street by smiling children screaming “HELLO!!!” to seeing those same children play in a sewage canal around the corner from my house, my experience in Cambodia was a total emotional roller coaster.

On the one hand, I absolutely loved learning about Cambodian culture, history and politics. On the other hand, these topics were incredibly depressing, all the more so considering the potentially catastrophic consequences that the country could endure if current “development” projects relating to land reform and extractive industries continue at the current pace. Since I worked with these subjects on a daily basis, I was constantly reminded of the future that this country could face sooner rather than later.

 


 

INTRAVEL: What did you learn about the country’s recent and tragic past?

Cambodia has had a particularly tragic last 50 years. The most obvious example of this difficult history is that of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 and the genocide that happened during that time. During this time, a totalitarian dictatorship took over the country led by a French-educated math teacher named Pol Pot. The regime’s intention was to launch Cambodia to the heights of civilization through an agricultural revolution facilitated by a purge of all individuals considered tainted by foreign, religious, educated or wealthy influences, and a massive relocation of all citizens to agricultural communes in the countryside. Anyone with any kind of education was killed, including those who knew how to farm rice. Consequently, a massive famine ensued.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillAs for the genocide museum, there were actually two. Tuol Sleng was a high school that was turned into a prison for traitors. Some 12,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng and only seven were not killed. Tuol Sleng was essentially a torture center where prisoners were electrocuted, water boarded, interrogated and coerced to confess to state treason. They were then transferred to Choeung Ek, aka the Killing Fields, a mass grave about 15 kilometers outside the city. People were led to the edge of giant holes, asked to kneel facing the holes and then bashed in the skull by a shovel or metal pipe, causing them to fall in the holes and eventually die. I went to both sites to learn about the Khmer Rouge and the way in which they operated.

I found the contents of the museums shocking and sobering, but what almost seemed more shocking to me was what was happening outside them. Genocide has become a foreigner tourist attraction in Cambodia. Outside Tuol Sleng, there are a few particularly pathetic characters who try to guilt tourists into giving them money. At Choeung Ek I saw people picnicking in the grounds that were still being explored for skeletons; children treated the place like a play ground. This illustrates perfectly the lack of reconciliation that occurred after the genocide. People are encouraged to continue their lives as if nothing had happened, which is understandable considering that the Prime Minister and many other people in the government are ex-Khmer Rouge. I found Cambodian society to be very violent behind its peaceful Buddhist façade.

INTRAVEL: What were you most surprised to learn during your time there?

I was surprised to see how willing older people were to talk about their experience during the Khmer Rouge, and amazed at the generosity and hospitality of Cambodians of all social classes. People were willing to share everything with me, especially food, regardless of how much they had for themselves. I was always treated as a guest of honor where ever I went, which was not necessarily what I expected to encounter.

I was shocked to learn about the level of corruption within the government that then trickles down to every level of society— teachers demanding bribes from their students for grades, police demanding bribes from motorists for using the road, forest rangers poaching endangered species and cutting down trees in protected areas.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillI was appalled to see the living conditions of poor people in urban areas, who frequently lived in garbage dumps, over sewage canals or mosquito swamps festering with infectious diseases. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a 30-storey building being supported by bamboo scaffolding. I was impressed and sometimes horrified to see what people transported via motos (piglets in rattan cages, ten geese tied by the feet draped over the backseat of a moto, people with IVs riding down the road, women breastfeeding their children on the back of a moto, up to seven people on a motorbike, everything from mattresses to mirrors to gas cans).

Every day I would think that I’d seen it all, and the next day something else would happen that would make me say the same thing.

INTRAVEL: Where else did you travel in Asia? What were some of your experiences in the places you visited and how did they compare to Cambodia?

I went to an island off the coast of Malaysia called Pulau Tioman. I went to Singapore, Bangkok and spent about three weeks in Vietnam. All of these places were leaps and bounds ahead of Cambodia in terms of just about everything – technology, roads, electrical infrastructure, agricultural techniques, education, medical facilities, law enforcement, you name it.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillAt the same time, since Cambodia is less developed, I found it to be more charming and more beautiful as there are still places in Cambodia that have yet to be touched by human hands.

 


 

INTRAVEL: What are some of the habits or lifestyle changes you have picked up while living in Asia?

I cannot wear shoes in peoples’ houses anymore. I also never remember to wash my toothbrush in tap water anymore because I got used to avoiding tap water as much as possible in Asia. Before going to Cambodia, I considered myself to be a very friendly person. However, in Cambodia, where ever I went, people wanted to talk to me due to the fact that I looked different. Now, whenever I’m amongst strangers, I cannot help but make eye contact and smile at them as if they are going to engage me in conversation.

INTRAVEL: From your experience, what sort of opportunities are there for people wanting to travel to Asia to volunteer or work for an NGO?

There are tons of opportunities, especially in the realm of education and children. If you have any concrete skills or expertise, particularly pertaining to medical, infrastructural, educational, legal or human rights, there will probably be someone willing to use you in their organization. At the same time, I strongly recommend volunteering in Cambodia only if you are willing to commit a good amount of time and energy to volunteering. In order to be effective, you really need to throw yourself into the experience. You need to be willing to learn about Cambodian culture, history, current events, language, etc. You also need to be incredibly patient and flexible with your goals. The longer you spend there, the more you’ll be able to get done.

INTRAVEL: What advice can you give to tourists in Cambodia interested in responsible tourism/giving back to the community?

Be friendly. Cambodians are incredibly warm and sweet and do their best to please. Don’t give money to beggars, especially children. You’ll only propagate their problems. Support social enterprises. Do your research before going to Cambodia. Do your very best to see as much of the country as possible. Go off the beaten path and check out remote areas in Ratanakiri, Mondolkiri, Koh Kong, Preah Vihear, Kratie, Kampot. The Cambodian government seems to be interested in pursuing a development strategy based on dismantling its natural resources. Consequently, in a few years time, these natural resources could be unrecognizable.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillCambodia is an unbelievably beautiful, seductive, interesting place. Go, take pictures, talk to people and find a way to get involved in something going on within the country.

©Kristen Hamill

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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