Pushing Against the Ocean (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

The Dump – Our Mission – Facts and Figures – Am I Pushing Against the Ocean? 

The truck stopped at the edge of the Phnom Penh city landfill.  The paved street ended five meters in front of us and surrendered to mountains of organic, plastic and liquid waste.  A half-dozen fires burned slowly over the ridges of rubbish, blackening the air and obscuring our view of the shantytown beyond the 50-acre dump.  Birds circled the air and flies swarmed around the truck.

The nine of us in the bed of the truck absorbed the scene in silence.  We could see dozens of children rummaging barefoot through the rubbish, collecting scrap to sell at the market.  These are the outcast children of Cambodia, those forced to scavenge for enough scrap metal to buy a simple meal.  On my first day in Cambodia, I saw the shocking history of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide.  On day three, I saw its aftermath.

Flies appeared out of nowhere and descended upon the $150 dollars of food we had just purchased at the local market.  Battling the flies was impossible; it was time to get to work.

The eight others and I were attempting to feed 400 of the 1,400 children who live on this landfill.  530 families live in ramshackle houses of plastic, wood and corrugated iron and attempt to eke out a living on what others through away.  Our group’s leader, David, says the situation has gotten worse since he began feeding these children five years ago.  Commodity prices have dropped, meaning these people earn even less money for their labor.

As the truck bounced through the rubbish children jumped from their houses and ran over the hills screaming and waving at us.  By the time we stopped in the center of the dump our band of followers had grown to hundreds of children.  The children knew the drill: they formed two orderly lines – one for boys and one for girls – and waited patiently for their helping.

Each child got one mango, two oranges, two bananas, and one baguette.   Pregnant women and old men got two servings.  One US dollar buys three children meals.  I thought about all the $5 beers I used to buy at trendy L.A. bars and realized that each drink could feed 15 of these children.

About 20% had school uniforms – a requisite for attending public school in Cambodia: no money for a uniform, no school for the child.  David purchases uniforms for as many children as he can, but 80% of the children still go without.  He has also tried to buy the children shoes, but they prefer to sell the shoes and walk over the smoldering garbage barefoot.  The American Embassy donated mosquito nets, but the same thing happened.  These children are so impoverished that they risk catching malaria for a mere 25 cents.  David now must dirty each net with red iodine to prevent their resale.

They approached the truck humbly, raised their hands in prayer, bowed their heads, and stretched out their shirt bottoms to accept the food.  We set up a makeshift medical camp and treated their numerous wounds, many of which were on their legs and bare feet – burnt soles from fires, cuts from broken bottles and scrapes from metal.

We didn’t have enough food.  Older men bullied children for their baguettes.  Women with babies in their arms looked at us disappointingly.  The last few people got nothing more than a single orange or a baguette.  We couldn’t help everyone, but at least we had done something.

During my travels I have witnessed some heart-wrenching situations that left me feeling helpless in the face of such widespread suffering: the wretched slums of Mumbai, India that are home to 55% of the city’s 16 million people; the sugar farmers in Karnataka, India whose fates are dictated by unpredictable commodity prices; the gentle people of Burma subjugated by a cruel dictatorship; and now this, the Cambodia’s forgotten children who live in the city dump.

Each of these encounters struck me in the heart.  My optimism slipped out of my mind, embarrassed by assumptions and philosophies crafted during my comfortable life in university.   I felt like everything I had studied in my economic development classes was nothing more than academic wish-wash written a world away from the ground realities.  It is easy to become cynical, to ask yourself, How much can one person really do?

Did we solve the problem?  No.  As David said, the problem is getting worse each year.  The children remain impoverished, the government remains apathetic, and the root problems remain unresolved – a cynic would say we had done nothing, that we were only a couple of fools pushing against a great ocean.

Flies covered the fruit and buzzed all over the children as they licked ripe mango juice from their fingers, as if the dump refused to allow something beautiful and pure remain untarnished.  We left soon thereafter.  We were the lucky ones, those with the means to sail away from that ocean of filth to a better life.  We left the children in the dump to continue their daily battle against the flies.

Maybe the cynics are right, but we knew our effort counted for something.  We brought these children baguettes fresh from an oven, food immeasurably cleaner than the muck in which they sleep.  We brought them yellow mangoes that radiated health and vitality against a background of brown garbage and black sewage.  But most importantly, we brought them a glimmer of hope that one day they too will have the means to sail away from here once and for all.  I just hope that time comes soon.

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