"Oh Maggie, I am so very happy right now!" exclaimed Peter; an NGO ethics consultant, and farming enthusiast originally from Germany, as he kneeled on the ground in his khaki pants, dug his hands into the dark soil of a small vegetable garden and glanced around the property near a wooden home on stilts in Svay Chek, one of Cambodia's many rural villages.
* I met Peter, and embarked on this particular trip to the Svay Chek, thanks to an impromptu invitation by one of the first expats I met upon my arrival here in Siem Reap - a fascinating man who sat topless in the back corner of an amazing little shop, working on his computer as he seems to do on most of these hot Cambodian evenings when I happen to pop by. He is a man whose story needs to be told - which, with a little convincing, I am hoping it will ;) Fellow Canadians - trust me, Rick's story is indeed a good one!
"This is wonderful!" Peter continued, wide-eyed, while hammering out a series a questions to Rouen; the kind owner and keeper of the garden, grandmother, landmine survivor, basket weaver, and the tireless caretaker of her immediate and extended family.
From her crops, the composting area, to the nursery, Peter was smitten with what Rouen had achieved on a plot of land that many would have deemed infertile. "The land here is normally so hard" he said while stomping his foot on the ground, "you don't see this often in India. What Rouen has done here, is truly wonderful!" he exclaimed again in his soft German accent.
I mention Peter, and his experience during our visit to meet with Rouen and her family, simply because it touched on several aspects that I, for one, think speak volumes (not to mention that his honest enthusiasm and raw reactions to what he was seeing were spectacular to watch)...
Peter, as I quickly learned during our early morning drive away from the bustling streets and well-known attractions of this ancient capital, is a longtime globetrotter who had spent many of his recent years living and working with his wife in India. He had come here on this particular week, to Cambodia, in large part to observe, assess, discuss, and share his thoughts on fair trade practices and ethics in the region...in a country where much of the local economy is fuelled by the production of goods for foreign markets and, more specifically, in a city where daily life appears to be sustained through the buying power of US dollar wielding tourists who flock to the area for its renowned temples and heritage sites.
There's a clear thread of a well-established marketing strategy here in Siem Reap...one that promotes cultural heritage, the beautiful crafts and workmanship of local artisans, and products that are often inspired by the country's complicated and turbulent history. (This, however, I will write more about in a separate post because there is indeed - a lot to be said about that.)
We drove past endless stretches of rice fields, children on multi-kilometre bicycle treks along red dirt roads on their way to and from school, clusters of small palm leaf covered villages, grazing livestock, and just about all the other wonderful things that conjure up the beautiful images we have in our minds, of rural Southeast Asia - but more specifically of course, Cambodia.
Visible too, however, was the unfortunate degree of poverty. But it is within that reality, that we also saw the purest form of human resilience and ingenuity.
And so it was, on this particular day, that by observing a German man's enthusiasm and reaction to the work and dedication of a modest soft-spoken lady that I began to feel alive, intrigued, and inspired once again...
What inspired me the most, is something that for many years now has continued to fuel my curiosity, something that I've had the privilege of seeing over and over again throughout my travels to some of the most impoverished and neglected regions of the world.
Namely, once again; amazing human resilience, strength, ability and ingenuity...and in this case, of women.
As is common in many communities and cultures around the world, women are tasked with great responsibilities. From being the predominant nurturers and caretakers of their families, to ensuring the daily functions necessary to attain healthy and prosperous lives. From feeding their children, siblings, spouses and elders, to maintaining and harvesting crops, producing products that can generate income (hand woven baskets - in Rouen's case), and overcoming great personal hardship that could otherwise threatened their wellbeing and, therefore, that of their families.
Rouen, like thousands of other innocent victims in this country, is a landmine survivor. She is also a woman, who like many others like her, overcame excruciating pain and horror, and today serves as an inspiration and thrives as a highly respected woman in her community. Her strength is truly captivating...
Peter, had come to meet with Rouen to assess her situation as a basket producer for Genevieve's Fair Trade Village, a fair trade business in Siem Reap. He came to see whether she was being treated fairly, to get a firsthand account and perspective of the daily realities of a family contributing to a profit-based industry, and to provide suggestions on what, if anything, could be done to improve that mutual collaboration (thanks in large part to Rick's initiative, invitation, and tireless efforts to improve the lives of people he clearly cares about the most).
"You don't have electricity here?" Peter pondered outloud as he looked around the wooden and traditionally Cambodian structure of her home. I paused...didn't say a word, and waited to hear where his thought process would go next...
"There is the option of exploring solar panels...." he said, I waited..."but, I don't think that's needed or even wanted here."
Rouen's home, was built in a style that has existed and sustained families in rural tropical regions for centuries. Heating is unnecessary, bountiful fruit trees (and in Rouen's case - a vegetable garden) and livestock provide the food and nourishment that is, when desired, cooked over fire, clothes are washed by hand and hung out to dry in the sun, bedding ranges from mattresses to hand-woven floor mats, and thanks to the support of NGOs that visited the region in recent years, wells and filters have been installed to ensure a clean and safe source of water for this community.
Peter's initial assessment, during his very brief visit, was a positive one. One, however, that raised the dire need for a more in-depth conversation with respect to the community's access to healthcare and education...which, in a country like Cambodia - currently stuck in a questionable and complicated political and social landscape, is a critical but challenging one.
It is without question, therefore, that much needs to be done to improve the lives of the people of Cambodia. To allow them the freedom, health, education, and ability to truly prosper. In the meantime, however, women like Rouen, serve as beacons of hope and reminders - that rural, and the often most neglected members of this society are in fact, the strongest ones.
HERE IS A BRIEF VIDEO OF THE IMAGES I CAPTURED ON THE DAY OF OUR VISIT
(Just to give you an idea):
I wasn't sure what to expect the day I tagged along on as an observer during this particular trip, but I am again humbled and filled with hope. Thank you all so very much Rouen, Naret, and Mia Lin for being the strong, beautiful, and inspirational women that you are!