It all began on a Wednesday morning. I and nine other Peace Corps volunteers set out to learn more about the health system in Cambodia, and the needs of its people. As we will be the first set of Peace Corps Volunteers in Cambodia to work in health and it is very exciting (and necessary) to see what we will be able to (and must) do in our communities.
The week was a whirlwind. From 6 am to 6pm we had meetings and language classes somewhere in between. We visited NGOs that teach women and village health volunteers about nutrition and the importance of breast feeding. Near Phnom Penh we visited IRD, a nongovernmental organization who does anything and everything in terms of making a healthy and sustainable Cambodia. We met with representatives from a group called Friends Helping Friends, HIV positive Cambodians supporting other HIV positive men and women in their communities by educating prevention, teaching trades in order to help them make enough money to get the care they need as well as help their families, and support groups to share their experiences. We went with them to the hospital to see the some people who are currently living with AIDS. It was sobering to see the effects on people once the disease has set in. There was a young woman who had lost both her parents when she was very young to the disease only to then get it herself. She was in the hospital for a brain tumor which had only recently been discovered when earlier that week she had randomly lost the ability to talk. Her grandparents were at her side laying packs of ice or her body. She lay very rigidly, staring at the ceiling moving her hands rhythmically over her body, constantly petting her arms or her stomach. Next to her were two people who were nothing more than skin and bones. The representatives from Friends Help Friends said that these people had given up taking their medications and had succumbed to AIDS. They did not move while we visited the ward. We left the hospital in complete silence – many of us crying. Cambodia has one of the highest HIV rates in SE Asia. You can read more about it at http://www.aidsalliance.org/sw7234.asp .
“Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink”
Many many many of the places and people we visited talked about water. It is a big deal here in Cambodia. The funny thing is, the problem isn’t with scarcity – there is a whole bunch of it here (almost too much during the rainy season… at least to walk in ;) ) – it’s just that it is really really dirty. Fecal matter, arsenic, you name it, these are just two of the most common and dangerous things found in water here. The arsenic is naturally occurring and is found in deep wells around the Tonle Sap. There are a few NGOs working in partnerships with American universities, such as IRD(www.irdc.org) , that test for arsenic as well as educate the public about the dangers of arsenic (FYI arsenic is undetectable through the senses, no taste, no smell, no anything). Fecal matter is a whole other issue. Animal poop as well as the human kind is prevalent on the ground and in the drainage ponds, waiting to be consumed, made into fertilizer, or stepped on by a young naïve Peace Corps trainee. Unfortunately the poop also finds its way into the drinking water, causing severe diarrhea to those who consume those evil microorganisms. Most adult Cambodians seem to be immune to them as I have seen them not only swimming in, but also drinking out of, these shallow ponds. The children are not immune and diarrhea (i.e. dehydration) is one of the main reasons why young children are even admitted to the hospitals here. Because of this and other health related problems caused by water, most of the presentations we saw were on how to keep water clean and healthy.
This week I finally had one of those moments of, “OMG I’m in Cambodia” and I was really happy about it. This week was inspirational not because of what I learned but who I met. If you ever want to meet someone who truly wants to make a change in the world, come to Cambodia and talk to any one of the staff at their NGOs, health clinics, or hospitals. I would write more about the specific NGOs and people I met this week but I think I will save that for the book :)
I am excited to get to site and really get to know my community. It will only get harder from here though… so maybe ask me about it in a few weeks.
A week and a half until swear in and then I move out to my permanent site:)