Mission Notebook

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

2000-2001   2002   2003   2004

Christmas is in the air...

Not really, but we had a concert!

13 December 2001

A Christmas concertWith a 98% Buddhist and Muslim population, Cambodia does not celebrate Christmas very extensively. Probably close to 90% of the people wouldn't even have heard of Christmas. But tonight the Bella Voce choir had a short concert of Christmas carols in the lobby bar of the Cambodiana Hotel. It lasted only about an hour but the room was jammed and the overflow sat on the floor. Our own Dr. Helene Morhan who works in the Seedling of Hope AIDS project was one of the 13 singers. They were accompanied by two musicians from the University of Phnom Penh's School of Fine Arts. An enjoyable evening!

Priesthood Ordinations

A great event for the church in Cambodia

9 December 2001

Click here for photos of the ordination ceremony and the reception

Lay Missioner Gathering

Dialogue with the Bishop

2 December 2001

Lay missioners meet with the Phnom Penh bishopCambodia is probably unique in the Catholic missionary world for the mixture of different sending groups which have lay missioners working here.  Recognizing a need to get together for growth and support, most of the approximately 25-30 lay missioners meet on the first Sunday of each month.  Today's December gathering, planned by the Hong Kong lay mission group, saw the bishop, Emile Destombs, meeting with us for a discussion about the role of lay missioners and then a liturgy together followed by dinner in a Chinese restaurant.  In this picture three lay missioners from the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Argentina listen to Bishop Emile.

Thanksgiving Day

Even in Cambodia, much to be thankful for

22 November 2001

The Maryknoll community celebrated a glorious Thanksgiving Day here in Cambodia with lots of guests! Click here to see the pictures!

Pray for our dead

And for all those who have died

28 September 2001

A few days ago, at our mid-week liturgy, during the prayer of the faithful a Belgian woman prayed for all the dead and missing victims of the New York and Washington attacks on September 11th--and for the 27,000 children who died of hunger on September 11th.  And tonight on the news, a young refugee from Jordan observed that the whole world has noted the Americans who were killed in the US two weeks ago but few people are concerned about the hundreds of Palestinians who have died in the past year since the most recent Palestinian-Israeli troubles intensified.  We do need to remember all the people who are suffering and dying.

An Effective Response to Terrorism?

Non-escalatory, astonishing

23 September 2001

A commentator in the Bangkok Nation wrote today about the US government's response to the terrorist attacks:

..."We would hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory. It should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish. A utopian example: the crippled and benighted people of Afghanistan, hunkering down for a winter of famine, should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE-USA."

Lay Missioners

The church needs them

18 September 2001

This afternoon when I went to the airport to return to Phnom Penh from the Maryknoll meetings in Thailand, Rachel Smith, a Maryknoll lay missioner in Cambodia, went to the airport with me. She was returning to Baltimore for her first visit home since coming to Asia in January, 2000. Talking with her before her flight left made me realize how blessed we are to have young men and women like her to be the church's ministers in so many diverse settings around the world. The day of the priests and sisters doing everything is over. It's time for the whole people of the church to take their place in ministering to others in the name of the church.

Sweet Baby James

The Battle Is Over

17 September 2001

Fran and Sweet Baby JamesA year and six days ago, a little boy was born to a mother with AIDS who died a few hours later. With no other family and possibly infected with AIDS himself, the baby--who weighed just two and a half pounds--faced a difficult future. Fran Kemmerer, a Maryknoll lay missioner who works at Seedling of Hope where the mother was being treated, took in the boy who was nicknamed Sweet Baby James. Fran took wonderful care of James and gave him all the love a baby should have, but his body never was able to catch up with his spirit. Hospitalized last week, it was determined that the IVs he had were only prolonging the inevitable and Fran took him home to wait for the end. It came last night. This picture shows Fran and James the night before we left to come to Thailand.

Ed McGovern

Welcome to the MMM

15 September 2001

The newest member of Maryknoll Cambodia is Ed McGovern, a Maryknoll seminarian beginning his Overseas Traiining Program. He will be living and studying in Cambodia for the next 2 1/2 years, living at the Big House with Jim Noonan and me. Here he receives part of a welcome gift from me at a ceremony on the opening day of our meetings at Hua Hin, Thailand.

Bad News

Travels Fast and Far

14 September 2001

Tuesday night I was preparing to leave for Bangkok the next morning when a visitor watching television alerted me that a plan had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I went down to see and spent the next two and a half hours watching that unbelievable tragedy unfold.

The next day I was in Bangkok, meeting with the Thailand Association of the Deaf, and as I was leaving a group of deaf men asked me to sit down with them. They had question after question about the WTC attack and the attack on the Pentagon. What had happened? Why had it happened? Who did it? I was really impressed by their desire to know all about this, here in Thailand far away in both distance and culture from what was going on in New York.

And now that we are at a retreat center four hours south of Bangkok, there is still continuous 24-hour coverage of the events in the US now 3 1/2 days after the attacks took place. It's a different world we live in.

Education: Badly Needed

But Hard to Get

11 September 2001

Each year as many as 25% of Cambodian children of school age do not sign up for school, according to the government's own figures. One big reason is the burden of the many different fees demanded by their teachers in order to supplement the meagre teacher salaries. The last census found that only 25% of the country's population had finished primary school (grade six). Now all unofficial school enrollment fees have been prohibited by the government and a four-week media campaign begun to encourage students to come to school because it's free. How free it will actually be, though, remains to be seen since there are no plans to raise teachers' salaries and they will need the supplemental income in the future as much as they always have.

Learning Khmer

Age Takes Its Toll

6 September 2001

In discussing the arrival of Sambath, the young Khmer man who has returned to Cambodia to teach for a year after finishing his PhD, someone noted the advantage he has, as opposed to ourselves, in not needing to learn the Khmer language. One of the Maryknollers noted that for many young foreigners learning Khmer, it's like their brains are covered with velcro, and they seem to retain every new word they hear. For those of us learning the language as older people, it seems like our brains are coated with Teflon and everything slides off!

One of Cambodia's Sons Returns

Bringing the Gift of Learning

5 September 2001

What Cambodia needs most at this point in its history is an educated generation that can move into leadership in business, industry, government, and education. Today, Sambath, a young man who survived the Pol Pot regime and then fled to the United States, returned to his birth country as a new PhD in biology. After attending Yale and then finishing his doctorate at Rutgers, he decided to give a year of his life teaching at the university here in Phnom Penh where his offered was accepted with great enthusiasm. He will be living with us here at the Maryknoll house for a while until he can find his own place to live. He is a delightful sign of hope in a culture that needs them. And he doesn't have to learn Khmer like the rest of us!

Cambodia's Garment Industry

A Snapshot View

1 September 2001

"Cambodia's apparel industry was created almost overnight in 1996 by a bilateral trade agreement with the US that cut tariffs on most Cambodian goods to 4 percent from 17 percent. Flights to Phnom Penh soon filled with investors from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore eager to build factories.

From seven garment factories in 1994, there are now roughly 300, employing 170,000 people, mostly women. The industry earned $965 million last year, three-quarters of it exporting to US companies like Gap, Nike, Levi Strauss, and Sears Roebuck.

Though it means 11-hour days of monotonous toil six days a week, a job in a garment factory is highly coveted. In a good month, with overtime, an average worker can take home $70, three times the national average. Workers often pay up to $50 in bribes just to land a garment job.

An excerpt from an article in The Cambodia Daily

Casey Leaves

An Empty Room for a While

26 August 2001

Casey SterrThis summer, Casey Sterr, a Maryknoll seminarian, was with us for almost three months. He studied Khmer language a few days a week, and jumped energetically into exploring all the projects of Maryknoll and of other NGOs in Cambodia. Because of his energy and desire to learn, he got quite a full picture of the situation in Cambodia in a relatively short time. Together with the the two students from Notre Dame, Amy Braun and Whitney Thompson, he was a very welcome addition to the Maryknoll team here. But today he headed back to the US to resume his theological studies in a few weeks at Chicago.

Banteay Srei, the Women's Temple

Under Threat from the Tourists

25 August 2001

Banteay Srei, the Women's TempleBanteay Srei is a small jewel of a temple ruins about 15 miles from Angkor Wat. Because of the factional fighting in the area up till 1998 and because of the extremely bad road leading to it, very few visitors found their way there in past years. A US woman was shot and killed on the road in a grenade and rocket attack in 1995. But now that the mines are gone and the road repaired, the tourists are starting to rediscover this site with some of the most exquisite stone carvings in Cambodia. "Srei" means "woman" in Khmer and the temple itself is a special pink sandstone and the carvings extremely delicate and well-preserved. We visited there early last year (that's Rachel Smith and I near the central core of the complex in the photo), but now since airlines are allowed to fly directly to Siem Reap, the number of visitors has doubled in six months. And those are the foreign visitors. The local people are rediscovering Banteay Srei also; last year during one three-hour period during Khmer new year, 7,000 people visited the complex. The human traffic is starting to take a toll, and so in June of this year the central core was roped off and visitors are no longer allowed inside. Fortunately the scale of the Banteay Srei is rather small so that even with the ropes, visitors are only a few meters from the carvings, but now they cannot touch them.

The flood waters get high marks

The teachers get moved

22 August 2001

Boating through city streetsThe land given by the government to Krousar Thmey, a French NGO, for their deaf school and blind school here in Phnom Penh is along the river and prone to flooding. So at the deaf school, the buildings were built up on concrete foundations that are higher than the normal flood levels. The problem is that last year's annual floods were the worst in 70 years and this year's floods are already above the normal mark with a month or more to go. Krousar Thmey has a month-long training session for their deaf teachers every year during the summer vacation, and it was supposed to start yesterday at the Phnom Penh school. But the flood waters went into the buildings ahead of the teachers, so the whole program was moved to KT's school in Siem Reap today.

Click here for a related story on flooding in Cambodia.

Slow, and not always too sure

and mines are only half the problem

21 August 2001

Now that the Khmer Rouge are no longer a political force in northern Cambodia, many people who took refuge in border camps are now slowly returning to their former homes. Waiting for them are the millions of landmines scattered by all the different armies. The official mine-clearing agencies work painfully slowly, a team normally only destroying fifteen to twenty mines a day, so the returning farmers often take their hoes and their lives in their hands to seek out the mines themselves so they can plant crops. The number of mine related deaths and injuries has been steadily dropping but there were still more than 550 casualties so far this year. And malaria, very prevalent in the mined areas, takes a heavy toll on the clearing crews. When the crews first came to the area, half of them contracted the disease and five of them have died.

Nice Idea

But Not Too Practical

19 August 2001

NGOs and professional groups here get a fairly steady flow of requests from researchers and university programs around the world wanting to test their thesis proposition or some new experimental therapy or application they've developed. The problem is that they usually want someone here to translate all their materials into Khmer, set up a test group, etc., and they're asking people here who are already up to their ears in just surviving day to day with the workload they have already.

Recently an Australian research project wanted someone here to try out their new techniques for rehabilitation of head injuries. Of course right off it would require someone to translate their manuals into Khmer, but some trauma people here quickly dismissed the whole idea, noting that there really isn't much need for that kind of rehabilitation here because people in Cambodia don't survive head injuries!

AIDS in Cambodia


15 August 2001

It is estimated that between 2000 and 2005, the AIDS epidemic will produce 145,000 orphans in Cambodia.

Workshop: Accommodations for Orphaned Children with Disabilities

One Option: Reuniting

13 August 2001

At the workshop today, in one small group discussion, we considered the various options that are possible for providing a home for children with disabilities here who have been orphaned or abandoned. On one list, I saw "reuniting" and asked what that meant. I was told that sometimes an attempt can be made to reunite or reintegrate abandoned children with their birth families, if the families can be located. Often a child is abandoned in a crisis situation, and once the crisis is past, the family may consider accepting the child back. The obvious problem is that abandoned small children have no idea where they came from so it is not often that this option can be pursued.

Children with Disabilities in Cambodia

A Difficult Situation

12 August 2001

Background information from a workshop on children with disabilities in Cambodia:

Children under the age of 18 years comprise 40% of the total population in Cambodia. During the past decade the overall situation for children has improved but many challenges remain. For example, rates for infant mortality remain the highest in Asia. For many women, care at childbirth is also inadequate or inaccessible so, as well as high infant mortality, infants are more likely to become disabled through childbirth.

At least a quarter of primary school-age children have little or no schooling. Half of the children in the country are malnourished and many suffer childhood diseases to a greater extent than occurs in other developing countries in the region. Children are also involved in dangerous occupations and live in hazardous circumstances that put them at greater risk of disability. Also the incidence of domestic violence is high in Cambodia. In addition, Cambodia has one of the highest number of landmines in the world.

We all eat...

...but at different times

9 August 2001

Today we were planning a high-level meeting to discuss accommodations for orphaned and abandoned children with disabilities in Cambodia. Along with government officials and heads of NGOs, a high-ranking Buddhist monk has been invited. That is good because the monks can sway opinion in this Buddhist country, and it is helpful to have them supportive of an idea. A complication of inviting the monk: monks cannot eat after 12:00 noon so we have to make sure food is available for him late in the morning but well before the rest of us break for lunch.

From the bright lights of Bangkok...

to the few lights of Phnom Penh

7 August 2001

I just flew in from Bangkok an hour or so ago, leaving the Thai capital just as it was getting dark and the expansive city's lights were appearing. Fifty minutes later I was landing in Phnom Penh and the contrast was startling. There are so few lights in Cambodia's capital. A few major streets are easily visible, but where there were row after row of houselights in Bangkok neighborhoods, there were only isolated points of light visible in Phnom Penh's darkness. A good portion of the city's people don't have electricity and still use kerosene or candles or a single small fluorescent light hooked to a car battery.

20, 30 Years Later...

Families Are Still Separated

29 July 2001

Last Friday at the disabled people's organization where I work, one of the staff of the deaf program was bouncing around excitedly because her sister who had fled to the United States 20 years ago had come back and they had been reunited for the first time in two decades. She was just so happy.

And then today I received a request from the US from a mother whose adopted Khmer son has discovered that he still has two brothers alive here in Cambodia, one of them deaf. The family is looking for possible ways of assisting him.

There are so many stories like that. Almost every family has had a similar experience. Each one is a similar thread in the sorrowful fabric of modern Cambodian society.

The next best thing to being there...

...except for the echo

26 July 2001

The MMAF has a leadership group called the ALT+5 that consists of the two-member Association Leadership Team in New York plus the five Area Representatives around the world, two in Latin American, and one each in Africa and Asia. The ALT+5 has the responsibility for decisions on strategic planning, placement of personnel, and budgeting, so tonight we had an international conference call with callers in Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Tanzania, and the USA. It was a first for us and it worked quite well although there was a terrible echo during the whole hour we talked. Still, combined with discussion on an Internet mailing list, it was a lot cheaper and simpler than flying five people back to New York. We'll have to evaluate the process when we do have the next meeting in November, but it seems to have been successful.

A Little Animal

with a Big Voice

22 July 2001

A feature of tropical Asia is the geckos, the small (3" to 4") lizards that are part of every house. They live inside and usually are seen on the ceilings and upper walls where they sit and wait for insects to come by. They are basically harmless although they have a tendency to poop on the most important piece of paper you leave uncovered on your desk.

Their larger cousins are something called "deuk-gai" in the local language. They are lizards also, but BIG lizards, 8" to 12" long, and they are not so visible. But they are certainly noticeable because they are loud and noisy. They have a complex noise starting with a series of four or five low growls and ending with six or seven actual barks. The bark is two-tone and two-syllable, and might be sounded as "DUCK-guy" in English. It's as loud as a dog bark which really startles people when they first arrive and hear such a loud noise so close when no animal is visible. I have heard lots of deuk-gais during my time in Asia but have only seen two of them in all that time.

I have a deuk-gai living in the air conditioner in my bedroom now, and he (she?) is driving me crazy. We don't normally use the air conditioners even though it's plenty hot, so they make good nesting places. This particular deuk-gai barks every five to seven minutes, and it's especially bothersome when I'm trying to go to sleep at night. I've tried beating on the air conditioner, flipping it on, etc., all to no avail.

Signs of hope...

in the Khmer people (Part 2)

19 July 2001

In the second incident about the innate goodness of some people that was related in our Maryknoll meeting yesterday, Kathy Tucker, one of our lay missioners who runs a quilting project to give employment to men and women with AIDS, told us how two of the women asked if they could leave work early on Tuesday and Saturday. It turned out that they want to go to one of the hospitals where AIDS patients are treated and volunteer to help the sufferers there. Having AIDS themselves, they know how it feels and what to say and do, and while they are still healthy enough, they decided to give to others worse off than they.

Signs of hope...

in the Khmer people

18 July 2001

In our weekly Maryknoll NGO meeting, we often focus on our projects and what we're doing, but today some MMers related two instances of the hope and resilient spirit of the Khmer people. In the first, one of our sisters went into the bathroom to clean off her hands before leaving their village health program and found a little boy there taking a bath, Khmer-style, pouring pans of water over himself. One of the teachers came by then and said that he does that every day before leaving because he has no place to bathe at home. The teacher was returning from the second-hand clothes market with some new shorts and a T-shirt for the little boy. The teacher, who makes little enough herself, had noticed the boy had worn the same clothes the last ten days and decided he needed another set, and had gone out to get them with her own money. It's those little acts of love and generosity that we often don't get a chance to see.

It's the Rainy Season...

..but We Still Have Dust Problems

7 July 2001

It's a constant source of amazement to me how here in the rainy season in Cambodia, we can still have dust problems. It rains every day now, and last week we had an especially large amount of rain. Only a few streets in the capital are paved, so I was negotiating large puddles and patches of thick mud all morning on Friday. But then on Friday afternoon, without the sun ever appearing, I saw a woman sprinkling water on the the street near the language school to hold the dust down. I still haven't figured out how the dust can appear so quicly after a rain.

Fourth of July in Cambodia

No holiday but fireworks

4 July 2001

John Tucker at the barbecueThe Fourth of July is not a holiday here, of course, so all of us went about our normal jobs before our regular Wednesday afternoon Maryknoll meeting. Then we had our usual liturgy which was followed this week by a special cook-out organized by John and Kathy Tucker, borrowing from some of their Texas BBQ traditions. John had had a BBQ grill made--it just arrived today--and he took personal charge of cooking chicken, hamburgers, hotdogs, and ribs for us and four or five friends from Australia, France, and Belgium. It was great! Sr. Luise Ahrens smuggled in some sparklers on her last return trip here. But during the afternoon there were some real fireworks, too, as supposedly a dissident group set off bombs in two hotels. We still don't know much about what happened, but I heard one of the bombs go off.

Capacity Building

..but not using the capacity

1 July 2001

One of the buzz words of international development the past few years is "capacity building," developing the ability of a country and of individuals to maintain themselves without massive infusions of technical and financial aid from abroad. It's giving people the knowledge and tools to run their own lives. Yesterday I spent several hours with an international economic consultant who spoke of his many contracts here in Cambodia and elsewhere around the world where his job was "capacity building." He said that working in Cambodia is different from every other place he has worked. In other countries, once the contract was finished and the local people had been trained, he was out of a job. Here he said, government officials want him to continue on after the contract has been completed. Local people have been trained and acquired appropriate skills to function in various levels of the bureaucracy, but their bosses don't want them to. The high level positions in the different ministries are often political appointees and friends of higher officials. They know nothing about the ministries where they work, and now having newly trained, capable people below them is a real threat. So they opt just to ignore the newly trained people and ask for foreign consultants to stay on since the foreigners will never be after their jobs. Really sad!

Dengue Fever

...Alarming Outbreaks

28 June 2001

Dengue fever is a serious mosquito-borne virus which causes the walls of blood vessels to break down, allowing blood to leak throughout the body. If not treated early, it can lead to death. Young children and foreigners who have not built up immunity are most at risk. It is basically an urban disease because the tiger mosquitoes (known by their distinctive black and white stripes) do not travel far and thrive where there are large populations. This year, however, Cambodia's health authorities have been alarmed by dengue outbreaks in remote rural areas of the country. One medical authority blamed improved roads for the increases in infection, observing that the roads allow both infected people and the mosquitoes to travel to remote areas. The fact that the mosquitoes will often bite several people several times each increases the chance of infection. To counter the increased number of dengue cases, the health department has sent teams into the rural areas to spray against the mosquitoes which have infested those areas.

Americans Think They Are So Generous

...Not So

20 June 2001

Americans are often characterized as open, friendly, and generous people. And as individuals we are. But when it comes to nations, we are the most stingy of the industrialized countries, giving as foreign aid the lowest percentage of GNP of the developed countries. We really should be ashamed of how little we give to the rest of the world. And even the little we give usually has strings attached to it. We might give $100 million to a developing country and then expect their support in the UN or force them to buy products only from the US or maybe force them to borrow $200 million dollars in order to receive the grant of $100 million. The USA gives little in foreign aid without political and economic strings attached.

Today in our weekly Maryknoll meeting, we were discussing that it is important for us to be here and to be witnesses of the niggardly way that the US shares its over-abundance with the poor and needy of the world. We plan to develop strategies for combating the stinginess of the American government.

Too much violence...

...too close to home

25 April 2001

A certain level of violence is understandable in Cambodia given its past history, the abundance of small arms, the corruption and inefficiency of the police and the court system, and the strong-man tactics of the ruling political party. Everyone acknowledges that Phnom Penh is not safe at night and allows for it. Yesterday, though, as I was coming home at 10:15 AM, just as I closed our gate to the street, our neighbor's daughter arrived home on her motorcycle and two men armed with a gun stopped her and took the vehicle. That gets a little more scary. If you stop to think about it, though, we're probably lucky there isn't more daytime crime since there are few defenses against armed crimes like that. The police do not carry weapons, and the mobs that regularly beat and kick petty thieves to death because the police won't prosecute them would be afraid of someone with a gun.

Guardian Angels

...with Khmer characteristics

24 April 2001

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to Cambodia in November, 2000, he unveiled a gift of a new legislative office building. As part of the site preparation, a century-old fig tree on the National Assembly grounds was cut down. Not long afterwards the National Assembly ordered a special Buddhist ceremony to placate the guardian angel spirit that the tree had hosted. Assembly members know it is irritated because four legislators died in the past year and many others are in poor health. A researcher for the Committee of Astrology and Khmer Culture, a part of the National and International Committee for Festival Organization, approved the move, noting that belief in the power of "tree spirits" is firmly embedded in traditional Hindu and animistic traditions that are part of Cambodia's heritage.

Holy Saturday

They do it differently here

14 April 2001

Today was Holy Saturday and the city of Phnom Penh had a different look and feel about it. That was not because of Holy Week, however, but because of the Khmer New Year--today was the second day of official celebration--when all the people leave the capital to go home to their native villages. The city streets were practically deserted.

Tonight the English-speaking Catholic community had the Easter Vigil service, but it started at 5:00 PM in broad daylight. The city is too dangerous at night so most things start early and end early. The Khmer church does not even have a vigil service but only the Easter Sunday morning masses. About 200 people came to our service, a little less than usual, because many people are out of town on short holiday trips due to the extra days off because of the conjunction of the Easter holidays and the Khmer New Year.

Saying goodbye...

Maryknoll's farewell to John Barth

13 April 2001

John Barth receiving a gift from Siphal's familyOn Monday, 16 April, John Barth will return to the United States to work in the development department of Maryknoll in the New York area. His new duties will include school talks, weekend presentations in area parishes, interviewing prospective recruits, etc. John has been in Cambodia ever since his ordination nine years ago so his leaving now is difficult. His friends and colleagues have kept him busy saying goodbye the last couple weeks. Wednesday was Maryknoll's turn to bid him farewell and we took a boat ride on the Mekong as a leisurely way to spend some time with John. Here he is accepting more of the gifts that have come his way recently.

Poverty Leads to Disability...

and Disability Leads to More Poverty

4 April 2001

Student participants at workshopThis week, April 3-6, the Disability Action Council is sponsoring a workshop--funded by UNESCO--on Education of Children with Disabilities. Yesterday, in one of the small groups, one participant pointed out one of the vicious circles of life in Cambodia. Many people suffer disabilities because of the extreme poverty here. Families cannot afford pre-natal care or care after birth and so children are susceptible to all sorts of preventable disabling conditions. Even programs like vaccination against polio have only been partially carried out here so that Cambodia still has new cases of polio. Then when a family has a child with disability, they must spend money they don't have for transportation for services that are mostly unavailable and often not that good anyway; for medicines; and for all sorts of hoped-for cures and relief that is often pure quackery. In the search for help, families borrow money, are unable to repay the loans--usually just a few dollars--and then must sell their land to make the payments. Then they have joined the growing class of landless impoverished people who have nowhere to turn.

The Khmer year has three seasons...

...but which one is now?

27 March 2001

The Khmer year officially has three seasons, the cold season which we are just finishing (November to March), the hot season (April to June), and the rainy season (July to October). The hot season is just that, beastly hot, but without any rain. Then the rains come and the increase in cloudiness cools things down a bit although "cool" is relative. The cold season never gets cold by US standards, not much below the mid-80s normally.

This year has been strange. We are just ending the cold season and it never even cooled off much this year. And on top of that, it has rained almost every day for the past two weeks, the kind of precipitation that shouldn't come until July. What worries people now, besides upsetting their traditional expectations, is that because there has been so much rain, some farmers have gone ahead and planted their wet season rice crop. But if the all the rains are coming early--and ending early, then there won't be any water for the rice later in the season. And on the other hand, if the rains continue through this present hot season and on through the normal rainy season, we'll probably have extra severe floods like we did last year. People are unsettled by the unsettled weather.

Bizarre affliction

Tapeworms in real life

24 March 2001

Last week one of the former Maryknoll lay missioners, who finished her term here in Cambodia but then stayed on with her husband and children to continue working in Cambodia, collapsed in an aerobics class and seemed to have a seizure. The evacuation service that is part of the cost of living here took her to Bangkok. There an MRI determined that she had indeed had a seizure--caused by the larva of a tapeworm that had reached her brain! She's back now. The doctors recommended letting the larva disintegrate naturally while she takes an anti-seizure medicine till it's gone. Not your normal problem in US suburbia!

The nation will be known by its laws...

...bad news for Cambodia

21 March 2001

The first scripture reading for this third Wednesday of Lent is from Deuteronomy where Moses speaks to the people: "Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe.... Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, 'This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.' For what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"

At our Maryknoll meeting this afternoon, we were reflecting on this reading and one of us commented how sad it is for Cambodia, to have no just law to turn to, no wisdom in law to protect the people and to build up society. Just the opposite of what Moses was speaking about.


A different type of logic

16 March 2001

For over a year now, I have been marveling at the Phnom Penh traffic and the total chaos on the streets, from my point of view. Again and again I would wonder to myself at the apparently erratic movements of vehicles in any direction in any lane. Suddenly it dawned me a few days ago that I was basing my interpretation of their system on my own sense of a right-of-way, that is, that in any given traffic circumstance one or the other of the vehicles has right-of-way and the others would allow that vehicle to proceed first.

But my realization now is that right-of-way is a totally western concept, probably based on our emphasis on individual rights. There is no right-of-way in Cambodian traffic. Or rather everyone has what we would call right-of-way.

For example on every road the motordupes and cars and pedestrians must navigate around the potholes and obstacles. Often there is only a ten-inch or maybe a two-foot wide smooth stretch between a set of potholes. By western right-of-way thinking, the vehicle closest would be allowed to go first and the others would wait their turn. Not so here.

Here the presumption is that everyone--five motordupes, two pedestrians, and a car all aim for the two-foot smooth place between potholes at the same time and the assumption is that someone will give way. In western culture, we know in advance who that should be. Here they will get there and let it work itself out. In the west it would be the breeding ground of road rage. Here it's just the normal way to do things.

A Change for the Better

..But Maybe not Nearly Enough

2 March 2001

Dramatic shift found in Americans' views on foreign aid

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A new poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes shows that Americans are far more supportive of U.S. foreign aid than they were five years ago and would strongly back U.S. participation in a global campaign to cut world hunger in half by 2015. The Vatican has backed that campaign and Pope John Paul II has several times linked the campaign against hunger with jubilee-year efforts to reduce poor countries' debts. The poll found that substantial majorities of Americans support emphasizing humanitarian aid in U.S. foreign aid, focusing such aid programs on the poor, and channeling aid through religiously run and private charitable organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service and CARE.

This change in attitude is very welcome. The American people have generally perceived themselves and their government as very generous. And as individuals, Americans are generous. As a nation, however, we rank very far down the list of developed nations in the percentage of foreign aid that we give, based on GNP. We are the wealthiest nation on earth, and it seems along with the wealth we have developed a miserliness about holding on to it.

Cambodian Children with AIDS

Not a Pretty Picture

1 March 2001

"Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, trying to recover from three decades of turmoil and conflict. With over 50% of the population under the age of 18, Cambodia has a high dependency ratio. Since government spending is still focused on the military, and the NGO sector still in its infancy, there are few resources beyond families and communities to feed, educate, and care for the more than 5 million Cambodian children and young people. The situation of vulnerable children is compounded by one of the most serious HIV epidemics in the region.

...Cambodia along with Thailand currently has the highest proportion of AIDS orphans (one or both parents dead) in Asia. It is estimated that by 2005, approximately 3% of all children under the age of 15 in Cambodia will have been orphaned by AIDS. It is also predicted that by the end of 2000, over 5% of all HIV infections are likely to be in children under 18 years and that some 7,500 children will have died of AIDS.

--From the report Children Affected by HIV/AIDS by Khana (the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance)

The cost of education

It's all relative

27 February 2001

Yesterday I had to pay in advance for my Khmer language classes in March. I study two hours a day now and pay $4 an hour. By contrast, my motordupe driver has asked me to pay for English classes for him. He goes to class one hour a day, five nights a week, and for that I pay $5 a month. And in Boeung Tum Pun, the village where Sr. Regina works in community health and basic education, her program has consistently calculated the cost of keeping a child in first or second grade for a year at $16. And that's for everything, including the child's uniform.

Mosquitoes decrease...

...other bugs increase

22 February 2001

Even though this "cool" season has been anything but cool, the mosquitoes seem to still be following the seasonal pattern and are noticeably less obvious these days. I just noticed a couple days ago that that was the first day that I had not seen--or been bit by--a single mosquito. All is not good news, though. It seems this is the swarming time for roaches so they've been much more in evidence. The flies, too. Luckily for us, though, the roaches have not been nearly the problem for us in this house that they are in some buildings here.

What I miss most...

Add fudge to the list

21 February 2001

When I am in the United States, people often ask me what I miss most living in Asia and especially in Cambodia. Usually I tell them baked goods because people in Southeast Asia and southern China don't bake. They don't have ovens and baking is not part of their traditional cooking. I miss the pies and cakes and cookies I grew up with. Now I think I'll add fudge to the list, the kind mother used to make. A visitor here recently made some fudge and it was super! Brought back great memories of Mom in the kitchen! Actually when I lived in Hong Kong, one Fr. McKeirnan's friends (he is the old priest I lived with) used to send us a box of homemade fudge every year, and it was great, too. But it cost the woman who made it about $30 to send it through the mail! Fudge is heavy! So I just add it to the list of one of those things I enjoy when I am in the US!

Eye to eye with Lenin

A disapproving stare

3 February 2001

Cambodia is different in many ways. The English-speaking Catholic community uses the Russian Cultural Center for its weekly Saturday evening liturgy. That's unusual enough, but if you happen to be the priest at the altar and look toward the back of the hall, you can see into the projection room where films are sometimes shown. There on a back wall shelf is a bust of Lenin, staring down these Catholic interlopers!

Working all day

...but never getting ahead

2 February 2001

I eat breakfast every morning standing by the window where I watch the flow of Khmer humanity, most of it on foot, as it goes along our narrow potholed dirt street. This morning it struck me again how desperately poor the people are here. First a young boy of eleven or twelve turned the corner, carrying a woven-reed tray with some kind of vegetable for sale. Then following him came a woman with a large basket, on her head, of bamboo tubes filled with something to eat or drink. Then came a dilapidated pushcart with white and green syrups in old whiskey bottles for mixing some sweet drink on the spot. And going the opposite direction was another pushcart with a rack of eggs on top, ready to be fried on a kerosene-fired griddle for any prospective customer. These aren't the exceptions. These are the mainstay of the Cambodian economy, people who, if they're lucky, will profit a dollar today for walking the streets for ten to twelve hours.

Living and dying with AIDS

Everybody suffers....

13 January 2001

Today was a rough day for many of the Maryknollers here, because of their involvement with people with AIDS. In the past two months, two little babies were orphaned within a week of birth when their mothers died of AIDS. The fathers had already died of the disease. One baby boy, only 2 pounds at birth, has been raised by one of the Maryknoll women. It's not known whether he has AIDS or not because he's too young to be tested, but now he's developed pneumonia and there's a good chance he won't make it.

The other baby--just as small at birth--was taken in by a Maryknoll couple, themselves grandparents, but last week was strong enough to be turned over to the Missionaries of Charity who have a hospital for kids with AIDS. It seems now that baby will be adopted and the couple is grieving for that impending loss. So today they took the oldest of the five children with AIDS home with them for the weekend.

She's a beautiful ten-year old girl whose mother, father, and brother died of AIDS. She herself is positive but is not showing any of the clinical signs of AIDS yet. But she was thrown out of the orphanage where she was as soon as they learned she was AIDS positive. The grandparents took her out today and bought her new clothes and brought her to mass with them tonight. I don't know what the little girl thought of being with all those foreigners--she's Khmer--but she seemed to handle it well. Basically the couple said this weekend they're just spoiling her with a lot of attention.

The other four children at the sisters' hospital are from 3 months to 2 years old so this 10-year old is rather isolated even when she's there with the rest of the group.

Smallness sometimes an advantage...

10 January 2001

The bishop and his guests at a dinnerOne of the advantages of being part of the Catholic church here in Phnom Penh is that we're small enough to get together and really know each other. On Sunday night the two French bishops invited the priests and sisters and lay missioners to a dinner at their house, an informal but really enjoyable opportunity to meet new faces and renew acquaintance with friends who may be scattered over the country.

One more priest...

...CAN solve some problems

9 January 2001

Today I was eating lunch with the Jesuits at their house after a meeting, and Kike, the new prefect apostolic for Battambang, was there. I was explaining that Archbishop Kelly in Louisville has allowed me to prolong my stay in Asia, with his observation that "one more priest back in Louisville isn't going to solve the priest shortage there." Kike immediately chimed in that one more priest would certainly solve a lot of his problems. Counting himself there are only three priests in the diocese of Battambang, and the growth of the life of the church there is severely hampered by the lack of manpower. His situation would most certainly benefit from one more warm body, of course, but that is also why my bishop allows me to stay here. He has noted that it's relatively easy to find someone to work with the deaf people in Louisville but a lot more difficult to find someone to work with the deaf people in Cambodia.

Submitting an Application

Nothing is easy in Cambodia

8 January 2001

One of my Khmer language teachers learned that Japan is providing 25 scholarships for study in Japan and decided to apply. Just gathering the required forms and certificates was a major challenge. His high school said that the records from 7 years ago, when he graduated, had been eaten by termites so no transcript was available. A university clerk wanted $20 to provide a record that should have been given for free. He finally got it for $10. And then when he went to submit the forms at the Japanese program office, there were more than a thousand other applicants. He waited from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and finally just had to leave his application in a stack with all the others who were not able to be seen personally by the staff that day.

Children in the Fishing Boats

They don't have a chance

6 January 2001

Yesterday I took a high-speed boat back from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. It would never be allowed in the US, but here half the passengers ride in the cargo rack on top, partly because of the view and partly because they don't want to be trapped inside the cabin if there's an accident.

I rode outside the last three hours of the trip, observing the mostly Vietnamese fishermen (and women) in their small boats on the Tonle Sap River. Many of the boats had children in them, some of them infants in their mothers' arms and some of the boats fully crewed by children. The kids were of school age, and I wondered what sort of a future they have, growing up in fishing boats without ever going to school.

First of all, they are Vietnamese, despised by the Khmers, and they live in their own fishing villages on the river bank with little contact with the local population. So they don't learn the Khmer language. That in itself would keep them out of the Khmer schools. If there were any schools for the fishing villages. There aren't. And in addition, the poverty-level families need the children to help with the fishing so there is no time for schools anyway.

So the kids grow up strangers in the country in which they were born, not knowing the national language, and with no opportunity to go to school or learn anything other than fishing. What kind of future can they have?

They can't add and subtract...

...Better understanding what it means to be unschooled

28 December 2000

Yesterday I was at the deaf center at the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization and talking to some of the deaf people in a literacy class there. As a foreigner, I'm always an object of curiosity and they were asking me how old I am. I jokingly signed that I was 95 years old, and although one or two had a quizzical look at first, they all accepted my stated age as correct. That confused me, but I just attributed it to the idea that they would accept anything I said as true, even if--I hoped!--it didn't look correct. But then they started telling me their ages. Some of the figures they told me didn't seem to match their obvious physical ages. One young woman asked me to check her age. She told me she was born in 1978 and wanted to know how old she was so I wrote the simple subtraction problem on the board:


She seemed happy with the answer, and then asked me in sign language how old she would be next year. That really surprised me, but made me realize fully that she couldn't do simple math. Thus even though they might know that 95 is a bigger number than, say, 10, they don't know how much bigger, and so 95 years old for my age could be possible in their mathematical world.

There has never been a deaf school in Cambodia until three years ago so no deaf adults have ever been formally educated. I never realized what that meant until this morning's exchanges demonstrated to me the problem of doing simple addition and subtraction if you've never been taught how to do it.

And that experience also made me understand why it is useless to tell a motordupe driver that you want to go to Street 360, and then expect him to go in the right direction if you are starting at Street 278. Only 30% of Cambodian people are literate, and so the same problems of not being able to read and write and do simple math would apply to them as to the deaf people! It was a real revelatory moment for me!

Lowest Car Ratio in Asia

..but did they count the motos?

26 December 2000

Asiaweek reports that of all the major cities in Asia, Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh has the lowest ratio of cars to people.  That would be reason for some rejoicing except that there are hundreds of thousands of motorbikes and only four or five paved main roads so that the traffic density is unbelievable.

Christmas in Cambodia

Safe to Travel

25 December 2000

This morning we had our Christmas liturgy for the English-speaking community in Phnom Penh. The hall we use at the Russian Cultural Center was just about full but there were a number of empty seats visible although we normally have people standing in the aisles for Sunday masses. Talking about the smaller crowd on a day when most parishes in the US and the western world experience big increases, one of our group noted that in addition to the ex-pats who always go "home" to Europe and other places for Christmas, there are now people traveling to other parts of Cambodia for a holiday weekend away from Phnom Penh. Before, those people would have just stayed in the city because of the danger presented by the Khmer Rouge, bandits, armed gangs, and landmines, but now that the country is more stable, people feel free to spend Christmas in one of the coastal or mountainous areas.

Reflections from Our PTR

Jubilee Year Nears Completion

13 December 2000

Our Maryknoll group in Cambodia meets every Wednesday for several hours, normally for a business meeting which keeps us all up-to-date, but once a month for a PTR session (pastoral theological reflection).

Today's PTR had a theme of Jubilee as we near the end of the Jubilee year. We prayed Psalm 85 which has a jubilee theme, and then reflected on What have been Jubilee events for you or the people of Cambodia? and When and how did you experience reconciliation for yourself or for others?.

One of the first comments was that it is hard to find examples of reconciliation in Cambodia, but examples of jubilee, of God "restoring the fortunes" of the people, of mercy and truth embracing, did emerge:

 »   Recently a man's mother died at home with the family around. Most of the rest of his family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he was comforted and found peace because his mother had died "the right way."
 »   Every year the one Catholic parish in Phnom Penh builds a manger scene on the church property. But they build a simple Khmer house of the type used by the rural poor. And when Christmas is over, they dis-assemble and give the house to a poor family.

Sign Language Classes

Cultural Differences

5 December 2000

I have begun some sign language classes with the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization in order to acquire enough Khmer sign language to be able to work here.  Today we were going through a list of objects and demonstrating the proper sign for each. I was doing OK until we hit "hand board," and I had no idea what that was.  It turns out it is a small hand slate which students use in schools because they don't have pencils and papers for writing.  They write their answer or math problem on the small chalkboard and then hold it up for the teacher to see.

International Day of the Disabled

3 December 2000

Internation Day of the Disabled Today was the International Day of the Disabled and Phnom Penh had a celebration in a park near the royal palace. Maryknoll was well represented: Rachel Smith works for the Disability Action Council which organized the event; John Barth and other Maryknollers trained the blind musicians who provided the music; Kim Mom and others set up and run the Wat Than Skills Training Workshop which had an exhibit there; and Charlie Dittmeier works with the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization, one of the main participants in today's activities.

A New Context for Hinduism

Insights from our inter-religious workshop in India

1 December 2000

The Hindu god RamaEven when I lived in India and was in daily contact with Hindu believers, the Hindu religion always seemed rather strange to me, almost like a Saturday-morning cartoon with its blue gods and many other deities so bizarre to western eyes. But during our workshop on inter-religious dialogue in India last week, we were able to learn what Hinduism really teaches and believes, and that really helped in understanding it. We saw the difference between the spirituality that Hinduism espouses and the sometimes strange (to us) religious expression that is practiced by so many millions of Hindu faithful. Much of Hindu religious practice is still strange to me but I got a new respect for and understanding of its spirituality.

Dedication of LaValla School

"They're lucky they're disabled..."

28 November 2000

Charlie with LaValla studentsThe Marist Brothers of Australia are one of the groups that has strong links with Maryknoll here in Cambodia. The two or three brothers in Phnom Penh come to the Maryknoll house for liturgy and supper on Wednesdays, we see them on Saturday evening at the international English mass, and when it came time for them to build a new school for disabled children, Maryknoll helped with money.

Today the new LaValla School at their new site in Takmao was blessed by Bishop Yves and four Maryknollers attended. The new school is beautiful, built for the 70+ physically disabled children who attend there. The campus has two dormitories, a residence for the brothers, a kitchen and eating area, classroom blocks, and an activities building plus an assembly area.

As we were driving back from Takmao, passing hundreds of local Cambodian children getting off at 11:00 AM (!) from their school day and going home, probably having learned very little at school, even if their teachers had shown up today, we commented how fortunate the disabled children are to have such a beautiful school. Indeed, a minister of the education department, visiting the school for accreditation purposes, had said: "They're lucky they're disabled and are able to come here for a proper education."

Life Isn't Fair...

30 October 2000

For the past five weeks, we have had a retired priest from the United States living with us (Maryknoll) in Phnom Penh. Formerly a Maryknoll associate priest himself and head of Maryknoll's Peace and Justice Office, he came to learn about mission work in Asia.  Today he came home for lunch, complained that he thought a migraine was coming on, and went to lie down.  When we checked on him a few minutes later, he seemed a bit disoriented and was also experiencing some memory loss and loss of peripheral vision.  A doctor from one of the Maryknoll projects was at our center and he immediately felt that our friend had suffered a slight stroke.

At that point we took him to SOS International, a medical and evacuation service we use when appropriate medical care may not be available in mission countries. Within hours he was on a plane to Bangkok, accompanied by a nurse, with a hospital in Thailand waiting for him.  

That possibility and the availability of medical care out of the reach of the people we work with is a constant tension. We come to work with the poor and to try and live with them and as much like them as possible, and yet we always have that evacuation insurance to fall back on while my motordupe driver borrows $1.50 from me to get some prescription medicine from a pharmacist who has no training except for watching his father dispense medicine. He'll never see a doctor.  Or even worse, he'll go to one of the kroo thmai, a traditional healer, many of whose treatments are highly suspect and even deadly.

Many of our new Maryknoll personnel, really enthusiastic and dedicated to the idea of mission with the poor, are especially vulnerable to the "live-like-the-natives" ideal and need supervision when they become sick to insure they receive proper treatment.  We have sad experience here in Asia to help them realize the wisdom of being treated well.  A young Maryknoll priest in Bangladesh was bitten by a puppy--as was the father of a family he was visiting, and not wanting to accept treatment not available to the common people, he did not get rabies shots. He died a very horrible death from rabies a few months later.  The mother of the poor family, on the other hand, sold everything necessary to make sure her husband got the shots, and he lived.  When one of us westerners tries to "go native," everyone loses.

Pope says service must characterize church's missionary efforts

29 October 2000

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- At a jubilee liturgy to celebrate evangelization around the world, Pope John Paul II said the church's missionary efforts must be based on service, not domination, with special attention to the poor and suffering.  ``The church wants to announce Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, following the way that Christ himself took: service, poverty, humility, the cross. Therefore it must resist the temptations'' that lead to ``a spirit of rivalry and competition,'' the pope said at a Mass in St. Peter's Square Oct. 22, World Mission Sunday.

Many Christians and people of other religions feel that the Vatican has at the same time intensified the sense of division among religious peoples with its publication of a document emphasizing that the Catholic Church is the only true church.

Harry Potter Comes to Phnom Penh

Yesterday I got the second of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and started reading it.  I had read the first one a couple weeks ago after seeing the series mentioned so many times in magazines and newspapers and even hearing about it on the BBC.  The first one was quite good.  It was the British English version, with a lot of references the average American wouldn't understand, but after living with the Brits in Hong Kong, for twelve years, I was able to make out most of what the book was referring to.  A colleague who has the first four Harry Potter books says each one gets better!

Let Those Who Have Eyes to See...

14 October 2000

Today I saw a small Khmer boy of about ten and he stood out because he was wearing glasses. When I talk at schools in the US, it seems half the kids are wearing glasses, but the situation is totally different here where the kids are lucky just to be in school much less get their eyes tested, or to actually get glasses if they were found to need them.

Living on the Edge

12 October 2000

Last Friday I got my haircut by a barber with a chair set against a compound wall, with a rock in front for the customer's feet.  (For picture, click here.)  (He REALLY cut it short this time!)  He was commenting that I was only his second customer for the day so I paid him 5000 riel ($1.65) instead of the usual 3000.  We have had a large tropical depression over us now for almost two days, dropping rain almost continuously, and when I went by the barber yesterday, the street in front of his chair was flooded, cutting his chair off from any customers, and he was in a hammock there, waiting for the water to go down. Today I went by again, and the water was still there, maybe even deeper. The barber and his chair and plastic-sheet canopy were gone. For someone like that, living on the edge, it's likely his family didn't eat today.

Nursing Program Graduation

No Place for a Woman

8 October 2000

The basic eye nurse graduationOn Friday I went to the graduation exercises for Maryknoll Father John Barth's Basic Eye Doctor and Basic Eye Nurse program.  At a hospital he established in the province of Takeo, John trains medical teams to do basic eye surgery, and Friday's ceremony at the Ministry of Health building was to recognize the second group to finish their training.  I was taking pictures for John to send to the European donors who sponsor the training, and looking through the viewfinder, it occurred to me that all the nurses (of a group of 10) were men except for three.  Women just don't have the opportunity for primary and secondary education to allow them to go on for higher studies such as this program.  Too often with limited resources for education available in a family, they go to the sons, and the daughters take on the child-care and housekeeping roles while the mothers work as street vendors or in the shops and markets.


...Just below the surface

4 October 2000

Yesterday in my conversation class, in which I just talk about anything with my teacher, we started commenting on the recent Pchum Ben or Festival of the Dead.  Suddenly my teacher, a young man in his mid 20s, moved his chair closer to mine so he could speak more softly and began explaining about the "goangok," or talismans that are used by some Khmers, especially soldiers, to ward off evil.  He described how a woman just several months pregnant is killed and the fetus removed and then wrapped up in a special cloth.  It is allowed to mummify, and then is carried to protect the soldier.  My teacher related how this talisman can even stop bullets when the soldier invokes its magic powers.

Now my teacher is a modern young man, modern at least for Khmer society, and is even a Christian in one of the Protestant sects that are common here.  It is really interesting to see how superstition and evil powers are still much a part of life here, even though not obvious to the average foreigner working in an NGO.  And how becoming a Christian certainly does not magically remove the cultural foundation on which the new faith precariously rests.  And it points out all the more the wisdom of the Catholic RCIA program which takes three years to complete here in Cambodia.

Teach Your Children Well...
A Remembrance Photo

September, 2000

Last Sunday the English-speaking youth group met at the condo of the family of two teen-age sisters who are part of the group. Their home is beautiful, right on the Bassac River as it splits off from the Mekong, and their parents must be well-paid executives with the UN or some other high-paying business. The daughters are really genuine, down-to-earth young women, and while we were waiting for the food to be ready for supper, one of them saw me looking at a photograph of a group of poor young Cambodian children hanging on their kitchen wall. "That's our 'remembrance photo,'" she said, "so that we don't forget how many people don't have what we have." Good on ya, Parents!

Mekong Floods to Continue--and Worsen

September, 2000

While the floods still persist here in Cambodia and all along the Mekong system, experts are already warning that in the future the higher annual flood levels should be considered the norm rather than the exception.

Deforestation, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns are conspiring to present a challenge to the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where rising floods have already affected more than four million people and killed at least 200.

While in many parts of the world competing populations have to struggle to divide equitably declining water volumes of a river system, there is good evidence that the Mekong River system will carry 10% to 20% more water by the year 2080. This is because annual rainfall across the region is going up and the water is running off more quickly because of decreased forest cover.

Governments need to radically change their approaches to annual flooding and cooperate much more as a region. As the situation is developing today, the desperate scenes of relief agencies sending out mosquito nets, emergency food, and medical supplies to isolated provinces on tiny boats show not the effectiveness of emergency response, but the weakness of advance planning.

The U.N.'s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) blames deforestation as one of the major causes of the floods in addition to the changing weather patterns. But there are also other significant--and controllable--human factors such as the reduction in river channels and drainage, reclamation of flood plains and wetlands, and a rapid expansion of urban and residential areas.

Changing Ideas of Mission

"Now that we believe that God is reaching out to every human person in ways unknown to us, we can afford to be less anxious and ask ourselves whether the meaning of mission is not so much the saving of souls, but of being a force for the transformation of societies in view of their final fulfillment. One can wonder whether the strength of the Church lies in numbers or in quality."

Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Children in Cambodia

From the 2000 annual report of Save the Children Norway:

Approximately 50 per cent of the population in Cambodia is under 18 years of age, but so far, very little comes their way in terms of education, health services, and assistance to provide for caring for its most vulnerable groups.  Viewed from this perspective, the Government and present generation of parents must realize that it is not only a matter of saving the children, but giving children the possibility of growing up as caring individuals, so they in turn can save and care for the generation now heading for retirement.  If a child grows up not being cared for, how can the child learn to care for others? Recognition of this is also an appeal to the donor community to turn their eyes to the young generation.  At present, focus is on "hard areas," such as defense, finance, and interior-related issues, and not on education and social welfare....  But the key to human resource development starts with the children.  The future of Cambodia is with the young generation.  [Emphasis added]

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