“I’m tired of my people drowning.”
Torrents of warm rain pelted our shoulders as we dashed from van to Food for the Hungry’s office in Tropeang Prasat. We welcomed the shelter of the open-air meeting room as we watched the monsoon put on a show.
Linly, the FH Country Director and guide for our week-long vision trip to Cambodia, phoned a staff member to ask about the weather’s effect on our plans.
“It’s bad, but you must come,” Bong Phenna insisted. “These people have been waiting for you and the Canadians to come!” Linly debated our safety travelling on clay-mud roads to the community in such harsh precipitation, but Bong Phenna countered, “No, you must come!”
And with that, the rain stopped. So off we went.
But the village road proved to be the tropical version of a skating rink. Even slight acceleration resulted in the van sliding precariously close to the ditch. Our driver put the vehicle in “park” and looked to us for direction.
“How far is it? Can we walk?” we asked our leader.
“It’s maybe a mile. But if we walk, you better pick up a stick to knock the clay off your shoes or your feet will get too heavy.” We didn’t need coaxing, and she wasn’t kidding. Each step added pounds to sandals as we slogged along.
“The staff are coming!” shouted Linly.
Three motos (the common term for small motorcycles) pulled up and drivers motioned us to hop on. I got to be first and, as lady-like as possible in my full-length skirt, straddled the seat behind my helmeted knight. (Sitting side-saddle with clog-feet - while culturally appropriate - didn’t seem wise.)
We dodged puddles and potholes, skidding periodically, and all too soon the adventure ended. I climbed off and stood before 75 smiling, curious people. My teammates arrived and we began following the crowd toward the first bridge.
The story unfolded.
When Food for the Hungry staff began walking with this community, the village leader shared his heart. “If you will partner with us, we will do everything for you to get to our village.” They built the clay road so staff could get into the community.
The chief had described how, when rainy season hits, the road became impassable as three gullies turned to rushing rivers, cutting their village off from the world. Women gave birth on river’s edge and died of infection because they couldn’t get to a doctor. Some children had died trying to cross to get to school.
“I’m tired of my people drowning.”
Bong Phenna responded, asking the chief what he needed, to which he replied, “Bridges. We need bridges but we have no money. We don’t even have enough food to eat.”
“What are bridges made of?”
“Wood,” the chief replied.
Bong Phenna pointed to the surrounding hardwood trees.
Now, months later, there we stood, the first Caucasians to see fruit of the villagers’ labor. The community had pulled together and worked under the direction of a Food for the Hungry engineer. Locals sawed and hammered and fashioned three exquisite foot bridges to span the angry, muddy waters.
We were told upon arriving in Cambodia not to be surprised if our smiles went unreturned by people. This village didn’t get that memo. The first bridge women laughed, children ran back and forth and men motioned us onto the next bridge. And then onto the third.
I can’t recall another time I felt so welcomed into the heart of genuine rejoicing and celebration over something incredible accomplished together. We had no spoken language in common but the dancing, singing and clapping needed no translation.
We ended our time by blessing the structures and its builders and Bong Phenna shared more of the story.
This community, once fragmented by the fear, mistrust and pain leftover from the Khmer Rouge era, had met on the bridge early that morning to make and share rice together awaiting our arrival. Eventually they ate lunch there as well. So much excitement and anticipation.
And since that communal effort, people are looking out for each other. They share in care for the sick and aging. They are, in the truest sense, a community.
When we arrived, the chief confided in Bong Phenna. “When the rains came today, we lost hope that the Canadians would come. We thought, ‘We are not worth it for them to come.’ We could not believe our eyes when we saw the white people arrive.”
Not worth it.
Thank God we went. Perhaps those bridge builders were blessed and I pray they grow in their understanding of their intrinsic value as created in the image of God. But I also hope they can, in some small way, know the impact their pure joy had on us.
With love and gratitude,
In The Midst