In Cambodia, heat and humidity join forces in an unholy alliance causing air-conditioned reliant Westerners to leak sweat from pores long dormant. Sure, there are places in the southern United States that feature heat and humidity as compliments to their sweet tea, but there’s one major difference between Southern states and Cambodia: In the U.S. we can choose to enter air-conditioning. Most often we only experience this steamy betrothal as we walk from a building to our car. But in Cambodia, you can’t get away from the heat and humidity. Nor can you choose to get away from the poverty that lines the streets and fills the countryside.
Growing up, I was always challenged to make good choices. That’s not completely true. I wasn’t challenged to make good choices, I was expected to make good choices. Choice, I was taught, determined path. If you chose rightly, you ended up on a path that brought you success and happiness in life, barring the unfortunate events you cannot control (but for which you make the wise choice of having insurance for). However, if you chose poorly then life wouldn’t go so well for you. In middle class America, this thinking about the power of choice is pervasive. It is the orthodox American creed shaping our civil religion, politics, and humanitarian efforts. I’ve been apart of many conversations where people insist that getting out of poverty is as easy as choosing to step out of the heat and into an air-conditioned building.
Today, in Phnom Sruoch, I met Sokhen. Sokhen is a mother of four children with a swollen belly three months out from giving birth to her fifth child. Her husband recently immigrated to Thailand hoping better paying jobs will be available. The ever-present child in her arms was more than a symbol of Sokhen having to carry the weight of raising their children alone.
While it is currently the rainy season in Cambodia, the ground around the houses are rock hard, and the rice fields are considerably drier then normal due to a drought across Cambodia. Without the rain, work has dried up as well. Men are forced to choose between moving to a major city like Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, or to a nearby country, or stay with their family and starve. So they go.
Looking for work in other countries isn’t as easy as it sounds. Seeking work abroad opens them up to trafficking and being taken advantage of. That’s exactly what has happened to Sokhen husband. He found work quickly, but his employer has not paid him so he has not been able to send money home. Back home, Sokhen finds herself with a choice: starve, take out a loan from a middle man who will require repayment including an exorbitant interest rate, or work herself leaving her kids at home with her mother. The last time Sokhen was pregnant she worked in one of the garment factories until she was seven months along and the fumes became unbearable. Choosing not to do that again, she has chosen to borrow money from a middle man in order to buy food for her children, but the loan will make it that much more difficult to get out of poverty. In the near future the choice will be to keep the kids in school (which sounds like an easy choice. Education is always the choice with the long view in mind. And that’s true. However, today, when talking with the commune – the village – leaders, we asked what jobs there are for those who stay in school. The answer: none. If that’s the case, then why go to school?), or send them to the garment factory, rice fields, or construction jobs.
Notice how limited Sokhen’s choices are. Choices directed at the future, choices that most of us unconsciously make – like sending our kids to school – are weighed against eating today. But that’s not really a choice, is it? Don’t eat today and it doesn’t matter if your educated in the future. Choices, the kind that improve life and build for the future, exist only when and where resources exist.
Kheng, another woman we met, and her husband Pov are struggling to provide for their family. Even though they have a rice field, they’re only able to provide two months of rice for their family.
Years ago, Pov nearly died in a hunting accident when an arrow pierced his side, just under his right armpit, collapsing his lung. Complications and intestinal issues has made it nearly impossible to work since then. Kheng has had to work by making the journey to the forest to find wood to sell, weaving banana leaves, and working as a field labor to make ends meets. At forty-five, she wakes in the night with pain in her joints. They’ve had to sell land and part of their house just to pay debts, pay hospital bills, and provide food for the family. Sadness filled her eyes as she said, “I tell my daughters to get big so they can leave school and get a job to help the family earn an income.”
Poverty of this kind isn’t a result of choice. Nor is poverty simply the lack of resources, but it is a lack of choices. The more resources you have – whether those are resources you have (money, food, land, etc.) or the community has (education, healthcare, social security net, etc.) – the more choices you have.
So here’s your choice. Will you use your resources to help those in Cambodia? World Visions commitment to community development means more choices for families to get out of the cycle of poverty. It means irrigation for fields so fathers don’t have to leave their families to find work. Fathers staying home means mothers can stay with their kids, learn and implement simple hygiene practices, and garden. Mom and dad being able to provide for their family means children can stay in school. World Vision’s partnership with the community provides resources that provide choices.
If you want to choose to help, just follow this link.