Mission Notebook

Random ideas, comments, reflections, and information on mission and life in a mission country.

2000-2001   2002   2004

International Day of Disabled Persons 2003

Celebration in Phnom Penh

3 December 2003

International Day of Disabled PersonsDecember 3rd is the day countries around the world celebrate the International Day of Disabled Persons each year.  The worldwide celebration was inaugurated twenty-one years ago, and this was the fifth time that Cambodia has organized its own celebration.  About thirty NGOs and International Organizations set up booths at the celebration venue, and officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs took part in an opening ceremony in the morning and an awards ceremony in the afternoon.  Here ministry officials and VIP guests wearing IDDP T-shirts release helium balloons into the sky as part of the awards ceremony.  Come back for a full presentation of the IDDP activities.

Thanksgiving Day, 2003

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

27 November 2003

Maryknoll Thanksgiving gathering

The American Thanksgiving Day is a work day in Cambodia, but every year the Maryknoll community gets together along with other Americans who don't have families here to celebrate with.  This year the food was especially good although John Tucker didn't get the chance to bring his coleslaw.

Just a week since the rainy season...

and it's already too dry

6 November 2003

The rainy season ended about a week ago, after a week or so of really heavy downpours, and now already people are complaining about how dry it is.  It's particularly notable at the Maryknoll house because the next street over is being paved and all the traffic is through our dirt street and raising heavy clouds of dust.

New PCLM Missioners

Swelling the Maryknoll ranks

10 September 2003

New PCLM lay missioners arrive in Phnom PenhMaryknoll helped start the Philippine Catholic Lay Missioners about 25 years ago, and today three of their experienced members came to join the Maryknoll community and work in Cambodia. Several other PCLM members are already in Cambodia working with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society. In this photo (L-R) Doy, Kathy Tucker, Bong, Ayan, and Lisa Pirie introduce themselves at the airport.

Lay Missioners in Cambodia

Creating community

8 September 2003

Lay missioners at the Phnom Penh Water ParkThere are about 30-40 lay missioners working in Cambodia. They come from about 10-12 different countries and are members of mission groups that vary quite a bit. Maryknoll has the largest numbers here (currently six, with five more to come between now and January). Most of the lay missioners are looking for some sort of community and support, and a gathering is held on the first Sunday of each month for reflection, fellowship, and socializing. Yesterday a smaller group than usual met at the Phnom Penh Water Park for a mainly social gathering, although because of the smaller numbers present this time, there was actually more time to really talk and get to know each other. In this picture, Lisa, Judy, Dolly, and Betty check some information.

Lost E-mail

E-mail destroyed by anti-virus program

22 August 2003

Tuesday I had to remove the Blaster virus from a computer in the deaf office. That night I was working on e-mail on my computer at home, and suddenly all the e-mails in all the folders disappeared, 900 MBs worth! I had just updated both the F-Prot and McAfee anti-virus programs that I use, and I scanned the system but could find no trace of anything nefarious. Finally, after three days of harried tinkering with the problem, I did a search on Google about disappearing e-mail folders and found a reference to older versions of McAfee causing that problem. I had changed one switch when I updated McAfee Tuesday, so I went back and toggled it off again, restored the mail files from my backup, and, viola!, my mail has remained in place for the past four hours! I can't believe that McAfee, which is supposed to protect my e-mail, actually deleted it! Thank goodness I had a backup so that I lost only two days worth of mail! (If you wrote me something earlier this week and didn't get a reply, please send it again!)

Bangkok Hospital Care

Sure beats the U.S.

16 August 2003

Yesterday I had to fly one of our staff from the Deaf Development Program to Bangkok for medical treatment. She had awakened Friday morning in a great deal of pain and our local medical service in Phnom Penh, an evacuation service with foreign doctors, decided that she needed treatment in Bangkok. We hastily arranged a flight and I came with her to provide any assistance that was needed. We arrived in Bangkok last night at 8:15 PM and from the airport called her insurance company in Australia as directed, and they told us which hospital to go to. When we arrived, they were waiting for her, and she quickly saw three different doctors. After examination, they decided on surgery, and she was operated on at 6:30 this morning, and is now recovering very well.

It was amazing to me how different the hospital care is in the Bumrungrad Hospital from that offered in most U.S. hospitals. Granted Bumrungrad is a top-level hospital, the first internationally certified hospital in Asia, but the care has just been tremendous:

  • The insurance company called the hospital and the people in the emergency room knew we were coming.
  • We were amazed when we drove up in a taxi that there were five to ten white-uniformed attendants offering free valet parking to people driving cars to the hospital.
  • We didn't wait at all but were taken straight to an examining room.
  • Liza saw three doctors and each of them talked to her at least ten minutes. Two of them spoke to her and examined her for 20-25 minutes each. (When is the last time you talked to a doctor for twenty minutes?)
  • The last doctor came to her room at 11:00 PM and fully explained what they had found and planned to do in the morning.
  • When I arrived at the hospital this morning, the nursing staff were so very helpful and ready to give information. I didn't feel like I was intruding or bothering them as I usually do in the U.S.
  • All of the staff wear uniforms and they also seem to have a uniform attitude of helpfulness and real caring. Each one was so pleasant and always smiling. They must have tremendous training.
  • One of the doctors telephoned Liza this afternoon to check on her and see how she is doing.
  • The mezzanine floor of the hospital has a McDonald's, an Un Bon Pain (bread shop), a Japanese restaurant, a bookstore, a health needs store, and a general restaurant. The first thing we saw in the lobby when we arrived last night was a Starbucks Coffee outlet.
  • The hospital has big wide corridors and very large sitting areas with real furniture on each floor where families can wait and visit.

I suspect part of the good service and care Liza is experiencing is due to her insurance company in Australia. They made all sorts of arrangements for us before we arrived, and one of their staff also called today to make sure everything was going OK. It is just so reassuring and pleasant to find companies and staff who really seem to care and don't feel they are doing you a favor to be professional, to be nice, and to smile.

St. Thomas Seminary

Ham radio operators--1959

10 August 2003

Ham radio operators at St. Thomas SeminaryOn my last trip to Kentucky, I brought back to Cambodia two old photo albums with pictures especially from St. Thomas Seminary where I went to high school and junior college. This is a shot of the other ham radio operators--there were five of us--with the small station we would set up in the general science classroom. Given the strict rules of seminaries in those days, I'm still surprised the rector allowed us to get on the air and talk to outsiders. (L-R: Wayne Sandefur, Joe Leitsch, Dan Onley, Steve Marstall)

Duk-gai with an attitude

"In your face, barang (foreigner)!"

6 July 2003

About two months ago, I mentioned a duk-gai that lives in my room. Duk-gais are BIG lizards, 10-15 inches long, that bark somewhat like a small dog--and just as loud. Well, the one in my room--which I never saw for the first 2½ years--has suddenly developed an attitude. I don't know what I did to irritate him (her?) but the last three days he has left a big pile of poop on the floor. I've never even seen any deposits before, in all this time, but this week the grape-sized piles have been right out in the open where they couldn't be missed. I think he's sending me a message but I'm not sure what it is.

The Fourth of July

Another work day in Cambodia

4 July 2003

Andy (left) examining generator with staffThe United States Embassy had an Independence Day party this afternoon and Sr. Regina, our country representative, was invited. But for the rest of us, it was just another work day. One high point was the return of Kathy and John Tucker who arrived back from their home leave in the U.S. Four or five of us met them at the airport and then scattered for afternoon meetings.  I went to the town of Oudong, a little over an hour north of Phnom Penh, to visit a program there for training teachers how to teach computers to Cambodian children.  My Australian friends, Ming and Andy, who run the program, have had to install a generator because the school doesn't have continuous electricity supplied to it. In the photo, Andy (left) discusses the generator with two of the teaching staff.

Things learned in mission and living overseas

Motordupe Drivers

21 June 2003

Motordupe driverMotordupes--small 50cc or 90cc motorbikes used as motorcycle taxis--are the main means of transportation in Cambodia. There are 300,000 of them in Phnom Penh alone, and about half of them come rushing up each time a person steps out onto the street. They are dirt poor, often making nothing at all all day; at best perhaps getting several rides equal to a US dollar or so. The average trip is 500 to 1500 riel (about 12 to 36 cents). The learning: motordupe drivers will never have any change if you offer them a big bill in payment for a ride. Riders need to be prepared with small bills or have to pay too much when the driver says "No change!"

Plenty hot

...but it's better now

19 June 2003

One of the nice things about the recent trip to the United States in spring time was being able to sleep at night without a fan. It was never cool enough, even in New York, to use a blanket, but it was delightful even though I never got the snow I was praying for.  Coming back to Phnom Penh, I was struck by how hot it was. May is the hottest month of the year here, but it seemed hotter than I remembered in previous Mays.  The first two or three nights I had the fan aimed at my bed set on "high," and I was still wet with sweat. But then we had a rainy day--we're starting into the hot and wet season as opposed to the rest of the year, the hot and dry season--and the past few nights have been much more bearable. I even had the fan set on "low" last night.

Happy Easter!

Ecumenical Service in Phnom Penh

20 April 2003

Ecumenical Easter service in Phnom Penh The overflow crowd on the floor

Five of the largest Christian English-speaking groups in Phnom Penh sponsored a combined Easter service in a hotel ballroom on Easter morning. (Left) The Filipino choir from the Roman Catholic group sings. (Right) We had 350 people in the chairs and another 120 stood or sat on the floor.

Happy Khmer New Year

It's #4 for 2003

14 April 2003

Today is the first day of the three-day Khmer New Year celebration, the fourth time we have celebrated a new year in 2003. First there was the Western new year in January, then the lunar new year in February, the Bahá'í new year in late March, and now we celebrate another New Year's Day in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Laos, countries that share certain aspects of their cultures.

It's officially a three-day holiday period, starting today, but most government offices and many businesses were not working last Friday and will not starting working again until next Monday or even Tuesday. At the Deaf Development Program, the staff chose to use three of their fifteen public holidays for this occasion, but many of them have added two days of annual leave to enable them to take the whole week off and go to visit their families in the provinces, a very important part of the traditional celebration here.

The War in Iraqi

Unnecessary Suffering

13 April 2003

  1. From the very beginning of the conflict, every commentator has noted that the outcome of the war was never in doubt. It was just a matter of how fast the U.S. forces would manifest their superiorty. Given that, why is the U.S. so unprepared for the looting and breakdown of law and order in the aftermath of the fighting? The reconstruction of Iraq has been set back by months, maybe years, because of the unnecessary destruction of records and infrastructure and because of the looting that has taken place. And the rebuilding and re-equipping of all the government ministries will require additional millions of dollars.
  2. There are said to be thirty-three hospitals in Baghdad, only one of which is functioning at a limited level because of the looting and the lack of medicines, water, and electricity. Why doesn't the U.S. just fly thirty-three generators to Baghdad and tons of medicines? That seems like a relatively simple task for a military that can fight a war halfway around the world so effectively.

Phnom Penh's NGO Fair

NGOs show their stuff

7 April 2003

DDP booth at the NGO FairOne of the local Khmer newspapers has sponsored an NGO Fair the past two years, creating a place where NGOs working in areas such as disabilities and human rights can set up booths for displaying their work and anything they produce. The Deaf Development Program has participated each year and generally draws a good number of visitors who are attracted by the sign language.

Forum on Iraq War

Ambassadors meet opposition in Phnom Penh

3 April 2003

Public forum on Iraq war in Phnom PenhA few days ago, the US Ambassador to Cambodia, Charles Ray (in dark coat), and his British counterpart, Stephen Bridges (in pink shirt), joined a panel of two Cambodian public figures and an anti-war activist to talk about the Iraq war at the Foreign Correspondents Club here in Phnom Penh.  There were no surprises and the two diplomats reiterated their government's stance. Several of the audience were far less restrained and polite and offered frequent heckling to the ambassadors.

The light's green

but he's not going anywhere!

1 April 2003

Motorcyclist stranded by floodingWe had a forty-five minute downpour this afternoon and it left several parts of the city flooded. That was no surprise because they flood with every big rain. But today I happened to be going in that direction and had my camera so it gave me a chance to take a few pictures of part of the daily trials of Phnom Penh people in the rainy season. It has rained three times this week after several continuously dry months, but it's still too early for the rainy season (it starts in May) so we must be under the influence of some tropical storm.  (Come back for more pictures.)

The education system in Cambodia

Barely functioning

28 March 2003

The educational system in Cambodia is barely functioning.  Addressing the problems of education here is the only hope for Cambodia, but trying to make a difference in the system is so difficult and so depressing.

Cambodia desperately needs good teachers. A whole generation of teachers was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.  And yet when teachers do graduate from a training facility here, they are not paid for the first year "to test their commitment"!  Can you imagine a system that would even think that way?  With that thinking at that top, no wonder things are in such a mess!

The buckle goes in the center!

Get it right!

26 March 2003

Belt buckleI'm not sure why but an off-center belt buckle drives a lot of people crazy around here! Three or four times in the past several weeks, I've had my belt just loosely buckled, and either I didn't center the buckle or it slipped off to the side, and, boy, did I find out about it! Each time, when I got to the deaf office or appeared at a meeting, one of the men would come over to me and very helpfully move it to the center of my pants. They would move it themselves, perhaps not trusting me to actually correct this shocking situation if they just told me about it. I'm not sure what it is in the culture that amazes or offends them about my life not being centered, but they feel they must take action!

The Bahá'í New Year

The third new year celebration for 2003

22 March 2003

Yesterday, the first day of spring, was also the first day of the new year for the Bahá'í religious community.  It wasn't a widely celebrated occasion in Cambodia, but it was the third new year festival we've had in 2003. There was the western new year on January 1st. Then in February we celebrated the Lunar New Year with the onset of the Year of the Ram. Now March has Naw Ruz, the Bahá'í new year. And there's still another to come! The Khmer New Year will be celebrated in mid April!

Mirror, mirror on the wall...

...helps the dancers perfect their art

21 March 2003

Traditional Khmer dancers at the deaf schoolAn interesting photo of deaf students performing a traditional Khmer dance for the opening of a workshop on integrating deaf and blind children into society. The workshop is being held at the Krousar Thmey deaf school in Phnom Penh, and the venue is a room set up to teach the students dance as a part of their culture. The wooden floor conveys the beat of drums to guide the dancers and large mirrors on both walls help them learn the intricate steps and hand movements.

Kim Mom

A pause in her mission career

17 March 2003

Kim MomToday Kim Mom finally left Cambodia after five years as a Maryknoll lay missioner. Most of that time was spent at the Maryknoll Wat Than Skills Training Project. Kim became director there about three years ago and initiated an unrelenting program to improve the quality of the education offered there and the quality of the handicraft products that Wat Than produces. She succeeded. More importantly, however, she was able to instill in the young men and women in the program a real sense of self-worth and pride in themselves and their abilities. Being Khmer herself, Kim could speak their language both literally and metaphorically and pushed them hard to develop an identity that would guide and sustain them through life. Again, it seems she has succeeded.

St. Patrick's Day Celebration in Phnom Penh

with an anti-war candlelight vigil

16 March 2003

Kathy Kremer preparing the St. Patrick's Day party Anti-war vigil
New lay missioner Kathy Kremer hosted a St. Patrick's Day gathering at her apartment this evening, bringing together the Maryknollers and her neighbors. In the first picture, Kathy works in the kitchen with her Khmer landlady. In the second picture, Jim Noonan (green shirt, back to camera) explains to the Khmer people the short anti-war candlelight vigil that began the evening's celebration.

Kim Mom, MMAF

The end of a remarkable mission experience

15 March 2003

Kim Mom receives a giftKim Mom, an MMAF member in Cambodia for the past five years, is finishing up her extended term here and preparing to return to the United States. She has done extraordinary work building up the Wat Than Skills Training Program for physically disabled people. Tonight after our liturgy with the international English-speaking Catholic community, the Maryknoll crowd and some of Kim's friends and colleagues gathered at the Maryknoll house for a dinner to say goodbye before she gets on the plane on Monday. Here she accepts a gift from the son of Siphal, our office manager.

Maryknoll Cambodia

The whole mission team, March 2003

12 March 2003

Maryknoll Cambodia mission team

(Back) Charlie Dittmeier, Mary Little, Len Montiel, Bill Burns, Rachel Smith, Kathy Kremer, Ed McGovern, Jim Noonan, Fran Kemmerer, Luise Ahrens, John Tucker
(Front) Cho Hae In, Kim Mom, Hung Nguyen, Lisie Pirie, Kathy Tucker, Regina Pellicore, Judy Helein


The meaning of fasting for today

10 March 2003

What does that fasting look like? It can be different for various ones of us, but it is something that the adults of this community embrace. Fasting from food--just one kind of Lenten fasting--may bring us down a notch or two on the food chain. We may explore the diet of the developing world. We may explore a diet that abuses the earth less than our usual ways.

We all know some of the numbers. We Americans, 6 percent of the earth's population, control half the world's wealth (and use up 40% of the world's resources). One of us uses up what 50 people in India use up. Thousands die each day from lack of enough nourishment. But for us, even a modest salary opens up what is impossible to billions. Lent's question for those who believe the gospel is: What right have we? Maybe when we fast, we will come at last to believe the gospel. What right have we?

And what are we to do? Lent's fasting has us deal with these scary questions together, and not so much in our minds as in our stomachs. What right do we have?

--From Celebration, by Gabe Huck

International Women's Day

DAC Celebration

8 March 2003

DAC celebration of International Women's DayToday is International Women's Day which may be more celebrated among the westerners here in Cambodia than in their home countries because so many women work in the NGOs here and are involved with issues like human rights. Each of the Maryknoll projects gets to choose 15 of the 23 official government holidays which they want to observe. Three Maryknoll projects are observing Women's Day by taking Monday off.

The Disability Action Council, where Rachel Smith and I work, is taking Monday off also but had a luncheon (photo) for all the staff women at a restaurant across the river last Thursday.

Opposing the War

A Letter to the Editor

18 February 2003

The prospect of a war with Iraq is truly horrifying, especially if the United States attacks unilaterally. The human and political consequences will be immense and disastrous. Each of us needs to do anything we can to persuade the Bush administration that war is not the answer at this time. One way is to write letters to the editor. Here is one I wrote today to The Record, the Catholic weekly of the Archdiocese of Louisville:

To the Editor:

It is wonderful that so many countries and peoples around the world have united in their opposition to war, as evidenced by last weekend's demonstrations around the world.

It is unfortunate that the words and actions of the Bush administration have united so many people AGAINST the United States.

The US government needs to listen to what good people the world over are saying. And we the US people must continue to tell the White House that war is not the answer at this time.


Rev. Charles R. Dittmeier
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Things learned in mission and living overseas

Seminary Preparation

11 February 2003

The six years of Latin, four years of French, three years of Greek, and one year of Hebrew I studied in the seminary were absolutely NO help in preparing me to learn Chinese or Khmer!

Don Bosco Anniversary

Traditions Catholic and Khmer

8 February 2003

Mass for the anniversary Khmer dancing
The Salesian priests and sisters have been long established in Cambodia (that means ten years or more) and they are doing the great work here that they have done all over the world, educating young people for meaningful work. The Salesian school is outside the city of Phnom Penh so not a lot of other NGOs and church groups went out there, but Maryknoll was represented by Kathy Kremer and Judy Helein (blue dress above) and me.

I find it a little disturbing that Catholics tend to be too traditional in their spirituality and religious expressions around the world. Basically that means having a mass for every and all celebrations. In this context, I don't think any of the students who attended the mass were Catholic so they didn't even go to communion. That's hardly a celebration that is attractive to young people, just sitting and listening to readings from scriptures that probably don't make a lot of sense to them. At least after mass they had a chance to eat together and then there was some music and informal dancing in an outdoor covered area. Most of the dancing was traditional Khmer style although a couple rock-and-roll numbers managed to get into the play list!

The New MMAF Cambodia Group

Our first photo together

7 February 2003

MMAF Cambodia (February, 2003)

When our three new lay missioners arrived on 4 January, they increased the number of Maryknoll lay missioners to eight, the largest our group has ever been. We meet on the first and third Fridays of the month, and tonight we took the first photograph of our new group all together. (Left to right: Judy Helein, Rachel Smith, Kim Mom, Kathy Kremer, Lisa Pirie, John Tucker, Kathy Tucker, Charlie Dittmeier)

Wat Than Graduation

...the last one with Maryknoll

28 January 2003

Wat Than graduation Graduations are always noted as being bittersweet, but the graduation of the nine students from the Maryknoll Wat Than Skills Training Program today was especially so because it will be the last graduation under the sponsorship of Maryknoll. As of February 1st, World Vision is taking over the administration of Wat Than because we don't have any personnel who could replace Kim Mom, our Maryknoll lay missioner who is finishing her time in Cambodia and returning to the US. Wat Than was Maryknoll's first project in the early 1990s when church people were first able to return to the devastated country.

Death in Cambodia

Never too far away

24 January 2003

Maryknoll has a group of motorcycle taxi drivers who have been with us for years. We have trained them to drive sensibly and safely, following what should be good traffic rules here, and they have not only transported us well over the years but also become our friends, and even our bodyguards.

While we were in Hua Hin at our meetings, we were notified that Vuthy, the driver for Sr. Mary Little, was hit by a car near our skills training project and was near death. He hadn't been wearing his helmet and sustained severe head injuries. This morning his wife decided to remove the life support systems keeping him going and he died within minutes. His funeral was this evening, a cremation at a local wat. A group of Maryknollers was there along with many motordupe drivers to offer support and comfort to his wife and her three daughters, the eldest five years old. Cremations are difficult in cultures like this because there are no cover-ups as in western cultures. The body is in a simple wooden box with no top, and when a large door to the oven is opened, the body is slid in and set alight while everyone watches. Tomorrow when the ashes have cooled, the family will go back and pick out pieces of bone and teeth and put them in an urn.

Sign Language Workshop

A Difficult Day

10 January 2003

Leading a workshop on sign languageIn most parts of the world, sign language becomes a matter of dispute and contention, and Cambodia is no exception. We don't have the problem here of the battle between the oralists (lip reading and speaking) and signers, but we have had different NGOs arguing over whether to use American Sign Language or the just developing Khmer Sign Language. The Disability Action Council has a sign language committee that today held a workshop to discuss some of the issues involved. As chairman of the committee, I led the workshop, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and it was a difficult day!

Methodist Church Evicted from Its Land

Former Church Member Claims Title

3 January 2003

Michael Collins at Christmas ecumenical serviceAnother case of the complexity of life in Cambodia, especially due to lack of a proper legal system and judiciary, arose this week when the Cambodian Christian Methodist Association was evicted from its buildings and property in Phnom Penh. Michael Collins, the Methodist pastor and a friend of mine (here pictured ten days ago at our joint Christmas service), had purchased the property and registered the church as an NGO with the Ministry of Cults and Religions.

Only Cambodian nationals are allowed to own property, so the title to the land was put in the name of a Khmer former church missionary. Now he claims the land belongs to him and not to the church even though 1) he could provide no written documentation of his ownership rights, 2) he signed a letter in 1998 saying that the land belonged to the church and not to him, and 3) the Supreme Court overturned an earlier eviction notice. But now suddenly, in a private meeting with the former missionary, a judge signed a new eviction order which was carried out this week by military police.

The US Embassy commented that they are unsure if the law is being followed and noted the caution that must be exercised by potential foreign investors. The Catholic Church in Cambodia has several similar agreements where church property is listed in the name of a church member. Some church leaders have expressed concern about this in recent years.

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