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I did it the wrong way round. For five months I have been trying to accompany my colleagues as they go out to work on their different projects. My job is to write up the entire project from beginning to end. I have to break it down into a manual so they have it in written form to replicate in another village. To do this I need to have a very deep understanding of the project and how it is implemented.

I decided that the best way to do this was to shadow each of my colleagues and then interview them about their particular project. I thought it would be best this way as they would know me better, and I would understand how their project works before interviewing them.

But it just never worked properly. At first I kept being given documents to edit, then my colleagues would go out, forgetting I was to accompany them. Other times I was told I would be bored, and that I should stay in the office. Sometimes I felt in the way, and sometimes someone would completely forget to pick me up. I was getting fed up, and not a little bit depressed. I had come here to work, to learn, to help in whatever way I can. I was feeling completely useless.

An outside party has shown some interest in a particular project of ours, and I was asked to prioritise this project and write a small manual on it. So I travelled to the village, and spent an afternoon visiting houses with C (see previous post). The next afternoon I sat down with C and another colleage, S*, and interviewed them about the project for three hours. It was unbelievably productive. About ten minutes in, S looked at me in a way that said ‘oh, so this is why you’re here!’

I’d done it all the wrong way around. I had thought that by watching and spending time with my colleagues I would learn about the project in a practical way before examining it in an academic way. But while I built good friendships with my colleagues, I think I left them completely confused as to my role here. They couldn’t understand why I was doing that. To me it was the natural way to approach my work, but it was completely foreign to my Khmer colleagues.

Let’s hope that from now on it all works much better.

*Not his real name

Note: I have spent the last week trying to decide if it should be ‘The Wrong Way Round’ or ‘The Wrong Way Around’. Does it matter? Have I wasted all my mental energy on a trivial matter, or was this anguish warranted?

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C* is a very quiet man. I’m not sure if he’s shy, or if it’s due to his lack of confidence in English. He’s younger than me, always smiling, and has a very graceful way of moving. I’ve not spent much time with him as I’ve been concentrating on writing up another part of the project. But outside parties are interested in the work he does, and so I tell him I need to spend some time with him to write some of it up.

I tell him, through T** the volunteer coordinator, that I would like to shadow him for the next few days, see how he works, and learn more about his particular project. He smiles and beckons to me to climb onto the back of his moto. I’ve just arrived from Phnom Penh and so still have my very heavy backpack containing my clothes, toiletries, and computer, but think I’ll survive carrying it around a little longer.

At first he takes me to the CVTC (Community Vocational Training Centre), where the house I sometimes stay in is located. I realise he thinks I want to be dropped there and I try to explain in my very broken Khmer that I want to stay with him to watch and learn, meul neung rien. He understands and we jump back on his moto and spend the next few hours visiting ten different households spread throughout the village, it’s a very large village spread out over a lot of space, and it’s so lush and green.

At the first home we visit I recognise some of the children from the last time I visited the school. They stand with their parents, all staring at me, while C tells them that he would like them to go to the CVTC at 2pm the next day to collect some free school supplies for the children (I was very excited that I understood it!). They quietly nodded, still staring at me. One of the naked children being held by his mother wees onto her clothes. She ignores it, still staring. C turns to me and says I may now ask my questions. I panic a little and say again ‘meul neung rien’. He seems to understand and we get back on the bike.

We visited houses in the middle of rice fields that required balancing between the different fields to walk from the road to the house. I nearly lost my balance a few times, but the worst I suffered was some spikes from a large bush embedded in my thighs and calves. They came out easily enough, but itched for a few days.

Some of the roads were so potholed and precarious that I nearly offered to get off and walk quite a few times, but he always managed to navigate them. At some houses they happily talked with me, or just smiled. Others eyed me nervously and distrustfully.

After five months of traveling between the office, the CVTC, and The vine (the hotel where I now stay when I’m in the village), it was wonderful to get out and see a lot more of the village and the beautiful countryside I live in every second week.

*Not his real name
** Also not his real name

When I was 15, or 16, somewhere in my mid teens, I went to Fiji to build a house. We stayed in a village for just under two months and worked everyday on this house with some of the local men. Before leaving for Fiji we underwent about two weeks of training in brick laying, mixing cement, hammering nails, digging holes etc… We also ran an obstacle course every morning. I’m still not sure how that helped our house building skills but it sure was fun.

I really enjoyed working on the house, particularly laying bricks, or rather large blocks. But I found that often my jobs were taken from me by the FIjian men we were working with. On one occasion each time I lifted the hammer to pound in a nail a man would take the hammer from me. This happened so many times I became fed up and decided all the men must be sexist. That was the only possible explanation.

I have spent the last two or so days in a village in Kep where I will be spending about half of my time in Cambodia. Originally I was supposed to live in this village for the duration of my year here. This was changed and I was asked to be based in Phnom Penh, which I was happy to do. But after seeing the village I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to live there for the whole year. It’s beautiful, lush and green. When I do visit I will stay in the local volunteer house, awake with the roosters, walk to work with the cows, and pick a mango for breakfast on the way to the office (by the way, the house below isn’t the main volunteer house, although I may get this one).

The volunteer house is not just for long termers like me, but also for groups of high school and university students who travel to the village with my NGO to do practical community development work. Build houses, dig latrines and so on. Yesterday I was asked to accompany a group of four Canadian university students building a latrine for a local family. The first step was to lay bricks for the walls. There were only four trowels available so the students were the only ones able to work (I got to stay clean and be the photographer). It was awful. It was so obvious to me that the very well meaning volunteers only got in the way. The men had already started on the walls and had done a pretty good job and now it was being butchered by these Canadian students. The bricks were laid at all kinds of angles, some with too much cement in between, some with too little. The Khmer men followed anxiously behind each of them tapping the bricks to correct the position. One man even tried to take over the job but then had to give it back to the girl he’d stolen it from. She looked very unimpressed.

It left me wondering what the point was. Why were these volunteers here to build houses and does it actually have any benefit for the community? The whole process is clearly meant more for the volunteers. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the experience will influence future decisions made by the participants that will benefit another community. I certainly had a good experience in Fiji. Most of the men actually seemed to find it amusing and not long after we arrived a group of workers on the nearby train line gathered around to watch and laugh.

So yesterday I learned that the repeated theft of my hammer as a teenager had nothing to do with my gender. It was probably just because I was doing a terrible job and the man stealing it had to live there and didn’t want his house to fall down. I am told that the families who participate offer to do so and are most likely aware that the whole process will be laughable. And I guess that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but think, maybe volunteers shouldn’t build houses.