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"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

Alnwickdote No 17: What goes around, comes around!

Sharks Fin Soup on open sale in Phnom Penh's popular St 63, November 2015. I kg dried Sharks Fin is on display for $180 at O'Russey Market.  I have tweeted to @WWF

Two things happened recently that took me back to 1998 and my first year in Cambodia.  One was this advertisement for Sharks Fin Soup.  The other was my inability to track down a prominent Cambodian NGO leader.  She has been off yet again on an overseas trip, another conference.  Is this not a recurring same old story of high-living Lords and Ladies of Poverty?

Back in 1998, in my early days, before I upset folks in the development inner-circle, I was often invited to join social events.  Exceptionally, I attended one, an evening reception of the elite, to celebrate a new grant we had won.  By chance, it was the first time in weeks I had met my Boss from his numerous jaunts overseas and around the country.  My current NGO friend seems to be of the same ilk.  Last week she was too busy to meet me, once again holed up at a local workshop, just like the week before at a “networking” group, held of course in 5 luxury star hotels. What you do not have is them as bosses attending to their NGO, supervising the work or actually engaging with their supposed beneficiaries.  I recall after I was appointed to one job, I learned that my predecessor had managed to full up four days of her week, every week “networking”. Now this was and remains possible with the proliferation of seminars, workshops; conferences; receptions that aid capitals like Phnom Penh host and have to offer.  You would be amazed how many are listed as "credentials" in CVs by job applicants!

The 1998 reception led to my foray in to a literary art-form.  No doubt most of you will conclude that it is one that I should leave to others!  So if you excuse that, here goes:

Cambodian waitresses - first jobs, away from home first time too
We must, we must….

"We must meet to talk. We must!" suggested one Excellency to another during a chance encounter while proffering his pink envelopes* at the wedding of another Excellency's daughter.  "The EU has given us a small grant.  We can get back on to our old teaching project."  And so arrangements were made to meet for a "working dinner" at one of Phnom Penh's riverside restaurants, much favoured by the elite.

The five serious men forsook the splendid riverside view offered from the open balcony for the intimate privacy of an internal air-conditioned dining area. 

"We must talk business, private business, we must", but of course the food and drink had to be ordered first.

"We must start as soon as possible, we must!" it was quickly agreed, "Our children have much to learn!  They have to learn about Cambodia's history, how poor we are, and how deprived we are!" A bottle of red wine, some beers and a modest array of starters, free snacks - cashew nuts, pickled vegetables and  prawns - arrived.

"We must teach them about our proud Khmer culture, we must!" one said, eyeing the pretty young waitress in her short black skirt.  The girl was just one of many who passed through that restaurant's doors, recruited from rural poverty, having paid a bond up-front of several months' pay, and now "available" for additional services... at a price naturally.

"Yes, and we must teach them about women's rights, we must!" laughed another, noticing his friend's studious attention to the girl.  The first dish arrived.  I do not know for sure what it was.  The Cambodian Government had in theory placed a ban on wildlife, the favourite food of many elite; sun bear, tortoise, deer, etc.  But of course it could be obtained, discretely…at a price…. naturally.

"And we must teach them about the environment, we must!" spurted another, coughing, to prevent swallowing a small bone, spitting out the offensive morsel together with the contents of his lungs on the floor next to the table.  Spitting, such a common habit, but just one way of transmitting tuberculosis, still a major killer in Cambodia, naturally.

"And we must teach them about health, we must!" chipped in another, as the main course, Shark's Fin Soup, arrived, one of the most expensive items on the menu at $7 per bowl, more than the cost of a month's food for most Cambodians. Sharks Fin Soup is also supposed to be off the menu.

"Yes and we must teach children about social skills, about modesty and moderation, we must! " added the fifth guest, pouring out the red wine from the second bottle… beckoning to the clock, "and look time is getting on!  We must go soon." 

They hurriedly finished their meal, leaving the host to pay the bill, giving "au revoir" smiles to the waitress, and making their way on to the next rendezvous.   They were heading to a reception being given by an Embassy to mark its country's national day.

"Yes, and we must teach children about honesty and respect, we must, we must!"  Concluded the satisfied host, it was a good evening's work, "connecting" with the authorities, paying the $150 bill, and collecting the receipt for the hospitality, courtesy one way or another… of the EU!

*  Pink envelope – used to invite people to weddings who should return it with money or gifts.

One more new young waitress in Cambodia.
They seldom last long or they grow up quick!
Now a few weeks later, I returned to the same restaurant as an under-cover human rights investigator to talk to the waitresses about how they had ended up there and what services they were expected to perform.  "Mine host" welcomed me, remembering me from the earlier encounter, not suspecting my ulterior purposes.  I had deliberately picked an early time, when it would be quiet, and the girls could talk before they would be running around. (Waiter or waitress in Khmer is “table-runner!”)

The quiet did not last long.  I noticed that a young Western lady had been watching us for some time.  She came over to our table. “You disgusting dirty old man, you should not be with these young girls!” And out she stormed.  Nobody seemed fazed, so we carried on.  We did establish that a well-organized trafficking operation existed.

The following week, I was invited to give an induction talk to some new volunteers from the United Kingdom, through VSO, the same agency that arranged for me to go to Malawi.  Guess who was there?  After my talk I asked the Country Director for a private chat.  He was not surprised by my story.  Apparently I was not the only one singled out by said lady for such advice. Her tour of duty, he told me, had already been ended. She was about to leave Cambodia but he wanted to keep an eye on her. 

That restaurant has now closed.  Today there is far more choice for the elite, especially in an array of 5-star hotels,  Most of these do a roaring trade in conferences; workshops, and receptions for the Lords and Ladies of Poverty.  If you can sit through interminable intensely-boring “Powerpoint” presentations, you know where to go to for a free lunch or dinner!

A quick search of Trip Advisor produces as the No 1 Luxury hotel in Newcastle-upon-Tyne the Staybridge - I will wager that they host very few gatherings of charities and local authorities!  So why do taxpayers have to fork out such luxury treatment in Phnom Penh? "Sofitel" seems to be the favoured choice, for now.

Readers of this blog may also be interested in this one.

Post-script - the three Grandfathers - Wisdom?

Around the same time as "We must, we must!" my organisation - a human rights one I remind you portending to be based on best international standards - had three elderly men as its top most-revered teachers.  They were called the three grandfathers. They certainly lived up to the Guru (Khmer "Kruu") title.  Out of 100 staff, we only had one eminent woman teacher, Mrs Meng Ho Leang.

One day, I heard one of the senior gentlemen pontificating at staff meetings that I did not usually attend. The conversation was in English, not the usual Khmer, meaning we were intended to overhear it. Thanks to New York University, we had received an excellent intern, a young lady whose parents were Cambodians who had escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. They ended up in Lowell, Massachussets with their own Cambodian restaurant. Saraan was a bright educated confident young woman who had been brought up to speak Khmer well.  She was an inspiration to our usually docile female staff, who conformed to traditional norms, despite the gender training we conducted.

My ears perked up when I heard laughter and "Hee, hee hee - they will never learn. Here we learn only from old men, not from women and definitely not from young women!"

How many years will it take to dispel such nonsense?

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