First, my apologies -There is no way I can share this experience in a few words so get ready for installments. And there is no way my writing, my vocabulary and the limits of language can truly relay the power of this experience.
Tonight just at the edge of sunset I headed out with Scott Neeson (founder of CCF) and his two trusty sidekicks (the A Team as he calls them) for my first Stung Meanchey walkabout. Although Stung Meanchey, Phnom Penh’s city dump which was the original terrifying inspiration for Scott to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund has closed the ghetto which has grown up around the edge continues to house the poorest and most desperate families here in the city.
We set out on foot from one the CCF community centers where CCF students are serving food to a hundred or more community children who stop in for a meal, a good shower and some companionship and play. The children feel so safe and taken care of. Many of them rush to greet us as we step out of the familiar van. I am with the A Team so I am immediately accepted and surrounded with my own little mini crew.
They are simply adorable and much more interested in getting to know me than rushing over to get in line for a meal.
A gaggle of the little locals tag along us as we walk down a familiar street and turn the corner into a dark world made darker by the setting sun.
It’s difficult to describe in Western terms. This is not an urban American project ghetto with apartments stacked high, bars on the windows and fear locking every door. This is a developing nation ghetto with one tiny flimsy metal and cardboard shack stacked up against another. Most have no doors and nothing but piles of junk inside so there is little to steal and not many possession that need safe keeping.
It’s a byzantine maze of hopeless poverty and families clinging to the edge of 21st century civilization. The lucky ones have shacks built up on skinny poles to keep them from flooding in the rains; the less lucky on ground level are used to wading through water that rushes in when the heavens pour down.
It is a Charles Dickens’ style world where the children roam like the orphan tribes of Oliver Twist or the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, where adults find solace in drugs and alcohol, and where the “good” parents struggle against impossible odds.
Everywhere the children and families know “Scott”. And our little escorts do not want to miss a minute of being part of his entourage. They are fearless and friendly taking my hand to guide me along my way.
A little one with curly locks, red pants, shirtless and wearing a pair of adult sized found flip flops that are huge on her tiny feet is glued to my side along with a slightly older girl proudly wearing an “angry birds” T shirt. With Scott and the A Team leading the way and my two very personal escorts I feel confident.
An older volunteer dressed in CCF T shirt has our only flashlight and lights the way as we wind through the maze of so called streets, stopping every once in a while to let the motos go by. Making sure the children are clear of the narrow roadway.
And the road. More of a trash filled obstacle course really. A carpet of compacted trash, mud, broken pieces of tile and cement and cardboard boxes worn thin by the rain and weather. Anything of value like plastic bottles, cans or metal have been picked clean by the scavengers – Parents who make less than a meager wage collecting and selling trash of value in hopes of feeding their families.
Everywhere we go the children call out his name. “Scott” “Scott” the wee voices can be heard in the night. He seems to know all of them by name. His team has a big envelope full of photos he has taken and when he spots one of the little stars we stop to dig through the pile of photos until we find the match. Handing them out the kids squeal with delight as they hold their prized copy close to their chest.
I feel like I am on Mr. Toads Wild Ride. I know I am more than safe in my little group but there is one crazy, unpredictable turn after another as Scott remarks we must go see this person because the husband has injured his finger or we must stop to see this mother as she is struggling. And – his famous saying “just one more” which I quickly learn means another ten visits or so.
And so we snake our way down narrow alley ways and across small empty lots with mounds of trash and short cuts through friendly neighbor’s homes with dozens sleeping together on a single platform.
I am scurrying a bit behind. Slowed by my own entourage of girls but always in earshot of the leader. This is no random walkabout. There is a serious purpose known only to Scott.
Pictures courtesy of CCF http://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org
Find more stories from Ardice Farrow’s experiences in ‘Ardice Abroad’.