Volunteering at a land-mine museum
Trip Start Aug 14, 2003
22Trip End Jan 15, 2004
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As soon as I walked into the museum, I met Kat the Aussie volunteer there and told her straight away I wanted to be a volunteer. She said that would be great, and she'd be right with me after she'd hung her clothes up. Then I wondered again what they needed volunteers for.
The museum is run by an ex child soldier called Akira who, since he was five, laid landmines, de-mined areas and opened the museum five years ago to educate people about them. He also lets 8 amputee boys live with him and pays for them to go to school. The volunteers there take visitors around the museum and teach the boys English. I said I'd stay for 3 days and didn't leave till 3 weeks later!
It was an excellent experience in so many ways, I can hardly sum it up into a few words but I'll try. The thing that first hit me was that volunteer work is not instant gratification, in fact, mostly in this case it was frustrating. The boys didn't know me and I was wary of them. I've never talked to an amputee before - would they be extra sensitive? Over the time I was there I realised that though they were missing an arm or a leg or an eye, these guys were the most agile, normal teenage boys I'd ever met, definitely the craziest. The museum was also home to a range of animals which the boys used as constant entertainment. If they weren't shoving one of the kittens up the Japanese volunteer Maru's pants, they were putting it in the monkey cage and for added fun the mother cat too. I've never taught an English class while one of my 'students' dashes over to the stove and jams a live chicken into a pot and bangs a lid on it for fun. I had to teach colours with muffled squawks coming from the pot until someone let it out.
After a while comments like 'Ara, be careful with the chainsaw, Srei's only got one leg' or laughing at one of the kids because his crutch had gone through a hole in the floor and he'd fallen on his arse came a little easier because the kids would make jokes about it themselves.
Kat, another volunteer from America called Taura and I slept on the floor in one of the wooden huts near the museum, swam in the river behind the kitchen, washed our clothes at the well and ate in the kitchen overlooking the river. It was great!!! I had to abandon vegetarianism for a while if I wasn't going to starve and I ended up trying wild baby deer, frogs, deer brain and eyeballs, red ants, unhatched baby chickens but refused tarantula as well as seeing most of these animals being killed and prepared. We went hunting for rabbits one night but didn't find anything except the local dogs.
I learnt a lot about landmines there - something I never expected to learn about ever, but is a reality for many people in Cambodia every day. I got to try my three languages on the different tourists that came through (not very well but it was still a buzz!!!). Chatting to Akira when he was feeling sociable was always interesting as he has many (we suspect possibly slightly convoluted) stories about 'when I was in the war..." which we helped transcribe and type up for the museum. I met a whole range of interesting people that came to the museum too. Backpackers, tour groups who whizzed through, people who were incredibly moved by the place, rich people who whisked Akira off one day to buy a fridge and a computer for the museum, reporters, journalists, film makers and even the guy who was raising a lot of money for Akira in Canada and designing a new site for the museum to be relocated to.
Teaching the boys was another responsibility and responsible did I feel. I don't think I've ever cared so much about someone else's learning. It was nothing like teaching in China. I mainly worked with Srei, a 14 year old who was the newest kid there. He was illiterate in Khmer as well as English so I had to teach him from scratch with no useful medium between us. How do you teach someone who can't read? What do you teach them first? And he wasn't always willing to be taught either. His mood improved heaps during the three weeks I was there and I'd like to think I helped him but I doubt it. It was so frustrating caring so much about this kid but I couldn't help him because I didn't know how. I would like to find out how when I go home.
Things at the museum were positive and while I got a different experience of volunteering than I was looking for initially, the hard rock in my stomach eased slightly as I realised the people in Cambodia are incredibly resilient and seem to be getting on with things. (And the amputees in town did not need to be begging because they got free prosthetics and rehabilitation from an organisation in town). One day though, the harsh reality that we were living in the third world hit us in the face. A neighbour down the road had taken her daughter to the big international hospital that is free for children and they had dismissed her advanced stages of dengue fever, giving her medicine and telling her to go home. The mother took her to the other hospital in town though where they realised the girl, Lay Eng, had already gone into shock and needed blood fast. We were woken up out of bed to go and give blood, along with many other neighbours to see if there was someone who could match Lay's. Taura's blood was compatible and we were so happy that the girl was going to be all right. The next morning though, the girl had died. This happens all the time in places like where we were, but the reality of it never hits you till it's in your backyard, or down the road. It was different for Taura too, cos it was her blood and I think she felt a bit responsible though we told her that was insane. I couldn't stop looking at one of the neighbourhood girls who'd come for dinner that night, and wondering how on earth the mother of Lay was feeling.
The museum was great: I made some friends I'll never forget, got a feeling of responsibility like I've never had before and learnt so much about a country I'd never heard of before. There are so many more stories I'd love to tell but it will have to wait for a campfire or something! My visa ran out so I had to leave and Kat came with me back to Phnom Penh.