Sunday, June 29, 2008

Checking in

It's been over two months since the last mass email -- I've been sparing everyone and keeping updates here (check it out for updates on Raja, the work situation, and more) but I had a couple of sincere-seeming requests for an email, so here are some highlights from the past 8 weeks.

Nothing like a visit to buoy the spirits and kill you with longing for home.

At the end of May, Mayumi and Judy came out to visit for a few days. We met in Phnom Penh on a Saturday morning and had a whirlwind two days in the city, hailing tuk-tuks, grocery shopping, eating crickets, getting pampered, seeing the overpriced National Museum, dancing up a storm, and rescuing an abandoned cat.

On Monday, Judy had to head back to the office (Google Singapore), so Mayumi and I headed to Kampong Cham, where I took her on the whirlwind moto-tour of the city; then the next day, we headed off to Siem Reap where we spent two-and-a-half days exploring the temples. Overall, 'twas a glorious visit, and it was hard to say goodbye to Mayumi and head back to the fortress of solitude in Kampong Cham.

Do I miss Google? Well when the Cambodian microorganisms have gotten the better of my digestive system, and I've had nothing but Maria biscuits and soda water for a day or two, my mind wanders fondly to the hot chocolate they serve in Pinxto or the Andale burrito bar. However, while I've found I can mostly do without the dry cleaning and the espresso machines and the massage chairs, what I miss terribly is all my brilliant friends.

Living for the action in the field.

Work can be tedious and not always what I expected, but going out to visit schools and communities is inspiring, depressing, entertaining, and always educational.

Out in the field, I get to watch the tiny first-graders lugging their own plastic chairs to-and-from school; I get to visit classrooms with students, but no teaches; I get to see the village chief assemble families for a workshops on gender and education. Once, I met a group of girls who started a small tailor business with training and a microloan. I laughed along at a Girls' Club's ruefully funny skit about a drunk father who won't let his children go to school. I rode through cassava fields on the school director's moto to visit a family of 12 with two scholarship students and two HIV-positive parents.

Out in the field, I can feel nothing but humbled by the work my colleagues are doing. It almost makes me feel like I could continue as the organizations flack jacket without complaint...

The alphabet, new exercise regimes, and the noodle tour.

As for daily life, my Khmer is improving rapidly, so I'm able to have pretty decent conversations as long as people speak "muoy-muoy" or "one-by-one." I decided to start up with reading and writing, and so far, I've managed the 33 consonants: Gaw Khaw Ghuh Khuh Nguh. Jaw Chaw Juh Chugh Nyuh. Daw Taw Duh Tuh Naw. Thaw Taw Thuh Tuh Nuh. Baw Paw Buh Puh Muh. Yuh Ruh Luh Vuh. Saw Haw Law Aw. Radical.

Since I decided running (or even walking) was out of the question, I've taken to switching between my moto and a bicycle around town, and have instituted an evening regimen of crazy solo dancing to loud music. Next time I go to Phnom Penh, I'm buying a $1 pilates DVD. Elongated musculature here I come!

As if to counteract the good intentions of my new exercise regimen, Rumdourl has decided that my knowledge of Cambodian cuisine is too limited, so she's decided to take me on a "noodle tour" -- one new shop in Kampong Cham every week. I consider this supplementary to my Khmer cooking education -- I've been learning 2-3 new dishes per month, courtesy of friends and their mothers. Next up: Fish Amok.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Flak Jacket

I haven't written very much about work stuff, perhaps because I've still been trying to process everything myself and get a handle on the best way to describe it all, but I guess here's as good a time as any to make a go of it.

So here I am, working with a local education NGO here in Kampong Cham. The organization's origins go back to April 1996, when USAID decided to halt funding for their Cambodia Assistance to Primary Education Project because of the political climate in Cambodia. A group of local staff from Kampong Cham province decided that it was unacceptable to suddenly drop aid and technical assistance to schools, and continued their efforts with their own personal resources. Eventually, with support from the local and national partners, the project was reborn into the organization it is today.

As I've described before, we're your typical alphabet soup of projects funded by a myriad of donors from all over the place. We try to organize ourselves into sections and consolidate projects into longer term programs as much as possible. I work in the Girls' Education Initiative (gei) section which currently includes two main programs: our Girls Secondary School Scholarship Program which includes a bunch of different activities including vocational training and "life skills" classes like computers, cooking, and hair-cutting, and the REACH project.

I was mostly hired to advise the REACH team, specifically to help them with research design and analysis, designing the new activities based on our research, and writing reports and proposals. I also act as advisor to the gei section in general, which currently means I'm sorting out a projected budget for the next 3 years, writing proposals to try to secure the money, and writing reports to current donors.

Unfortunately, day-to-day I feel like I'm buried in a mountain of bureaucracy. I thought I would be able to help this local NGO and learn a lot about development and I think I was right, but not in the way that I expected. Honestly, I'm most useful as a flak jacket to protect my team from the demands of donors so they can go ahead and get the actual work done. I guess someone needs to do it, but it's not especially fulfilling. I'm trying as much as possible not to just do the work, but instead help the team learn skills themselves so that they can function more independently of an advisor in the future, but it's tough to find the time and the patience. It's a constant battle between just doing things myself because it's faster and simpler, and trying to cajole the team into doing it themselves. So far, I'm teaching a weekly advanced English writing class (sparsely attended) and mentoring our team leader Rumdourl and temporary Program Manager, Rith, but it's slow going.

I guess I live for trips out to the field which remind me of the children and communities that all this paperwork is meant to help. This past week, I went out to visit three groups of girls who received a small loan from our NGO to start a business after completed our vocational training programs in sewing / beautician skills. It was super to see what they had achieved in only a little over 2 months. One group of 5 girls was making over $150/week sewing clothes for people in their village, at least twice as much as they could make individually in the rice fields.

To mark the difference the loan actually made, we also visited some individual students who hadn't received any credit assistance after finishing their training; 3 of 4 were out in the fields working, their sewing machines covered and unattended. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that we can make the program much bigger ourselves since our main focus is education and we don't have the expertise nor the manpower nor the donor connections... so I'm going to try to look for a local microfinance partner who we can pass the groups off to instead.

I'm starting to see how education development can be a difficult field, given that the results are so vague... We assume that students who have more education are better off, but it's not always the immediate reality. In the long term, there's no doubt that a better educated populace is good for political stability and necessary for economic development, and it's certainly worthy to give children at least the option of a quality education if they want it, but like the example of the vocational training/microfinance link, it seems like education may be necessary to a point, but is woefully insufficient without other programs.

Anyway, enough for now. Missing home lots, but still doing well.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Here are some more pictures from Mayumi and Judy's visit.

Cooling off

Today, the weather seems to be finally changing and there's a gorgeous breeze blowing through the office, cooling sweaty brows and tempers alike. After a number of heated moments in the past few days, it seems like things are finally calming down. If I will learn anything from my time here, I hope it will be patience and grace despite frustration because without these qualities, I won't survive another month.

This past week has been my most difficult by far in terms of my work here in Cambodia. Some of my worst nightmares of the donor community have come alive in ugly detail this week, and the sudden flare of my own displeasure with our partner, added to the unrelated issues brewing on our project team seems to resulted in the proverbial pot boiling over. Take a fundamentally flawed system, add miscommunication and language barriers, egos and reputation, throw in a little bit of incompetence and my own impatience, and you've got the recipe for a serious headache.

To be crystal clear, though there has been a small issue on the project team I'm advising, the major issues I'm taking about have to do with the folks who are funding my main project. Anyway, I don't have much time to write right now, but my seething sense of righteousness seriously needed a vent. I will describe the meeting and its aftermath in excruciating detail soon.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The cat's meow

Raja and I have worked out a deal. She gets the guest room and I get to sleep in past 5:30 on the weekends. My new tiny feline house companion is very dependent so contrary to the advice of some kitty experts, I decided she needs to spend a little more time away from "mommy" so she doesn't develop any complexes. I moved her from my bedroom into the guest bedroom and so far, it seems to be working. Play with her when I'm home, feed her on a regular schedule and she's a little bit less of a mewling mess than usual. The only issue is the litterbox. She appears to hate the way the little pebbles stick between her toes; unfortunately, the selection here in Kampong Cham is nil, so for now, the whole situation requires a lot of patience, tissue paper, and some clenching of teeth when the going gets especially tough. See, isn't she cute?

Raja owes her new posh life to her aunty Judy and aunty Mayumi -- my two first visitors and Raja's rescuers. The three of us were staying in some nice digs at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh and were more than a little curious about incessant chirping coming from the wall in one of the bedrooms. One morning, stepping down the stairs onto the riverside, we discovered the source of the mystery sound -- a tiny disheveled kitten, splayed haphazardly on the stoop. The shopowners on both sides could hear this little cat screaming, so determined was it to find its momma, but it was clear that no one was going to do anything other than maybe throw it into the river, so Judy took pity and ordered some milk at the coffee shop on the corner, and so began our relationship with Raja.

I still wasn't convinced about the sanity of trying to "rescue" such a tiny (irritating?) creature, but I was overruled by my more soft-hearted friends. That night when we came back after a long night (and still meowing her heart out), we gathered her up, gave her a good scrub down in the sink, fed her some more milk, and put her to bed in a drawer with towels for warmth and a hotel menu as pee-protection. Eventually it was agreed that she would have to go back to Kampong Cham and live with me for at least a few months to have any real chance at life, so back she came in a dirty old Angkor beer box lined with the ripped up remains of a box of Gushers and some tissue paper.

Now she's in the guestroom, sleeping soundly, her round little belly taut with tuna, her head snuggled under the 25 cent stuffed keychain I bought to keep her company.

That's all for now folks!