The mud comes up to mid-calf height. It is thick and sticky, leaving a dark brown coating on every surface it touches. We step hesitantly, searching for a firm footing, but our feet only sink further. Fortunately, the muddy path only lasts about three meters. Unfortunately, it is the only way in and out of the house we are visiting. Cambodia is heading toward the end of wet season, and the evidence of months of rain is everywhere. For the most part, that evidence is beauty – green fields full of pre-harvest rice, fruit trees heavy with fruit – but the difficulties of life post wet season are also here, in the mud, in the mosquitoes, in the waiting for the harvests.
The path opens into an wide area, surrounded by vegetation, with two wooden houses rising in the middle. One of them belongs to the family we are visiting. Om Nee meets us in front of her house, inviting us to sit under the shade of the building. She introduces us to her youngest daughter, who is a new mother, and her son-in-law, and speaks lovingly of the seven family members that live with her. After a few minutes, the two children we have come to visit arrive. Om’s grandchildren, Meng and Vanna, are 12 and 9 years old. They have just come from a CIF training session and are stopping for lunch before heading to school for the afternoon. They wear their school uniform, the pressed white shirt and black bottoms showing no signs of having also come through the mud.
Searching for Stability
The family joined the Kinship Care program late last year. They heard about the program through the local pastor, who is part of CIFs church partnership program. He had got to know Om Nee after meeting her while she worked.
“I have been looking after the children since Meng was a toddler. Their mother died when Meng was seven months old and, soon after, their father left to find another wife. It has been very hard to look after them. Sometimes the neighbours gave us food, but most of the time we just ate what I could find in the fields, or banana leaves. Sometimes we had rice.”
Each morning Om Nee and the two other adults in the household leave in search of food and work. They are searching for aquatic plants, similar to the lotus. The adults can harvest the roots and tubers and sell them at the market. They leave the house at 7am and return at 2 pm with their takings.
“It is hard work. The plants are rough and cut our hands. It is very tiring because we spend the whole day walking in mud like you just walked though, but in deeper water. It makes us sick and medicine is expensive. It is difficult living in the water.”
The CIF worker who has been working with the family says as an aside, “You can’t harvest the plants when the water is this high. You can’t find them.”
Once the family is home, they sort the vegetables and head to the market. Hoping to sell enough to supplement their dinner and save for necessities.
A new hope
Despite the difficulties of the last few years there is a hope and determination in Om’s eyes, and she has big plans for the future.
“There have been so many changes in my life since CIF starting helping me. I don’t worry much about food. Every month when I receive my support, I buy a big bag of rice and then figure out how much the children need for education. I also put money aside so that they can have snacks at school every day.”
From Meng and Vanna’s faces, it is obvious that these snacks are appreciated. Vanna is tall for her 12 years and is enjoying being back at school. She likes learning from the different subjects, but she is very aware that she is older than most of the children in her grade. The family hopes that she will soon be able to catch up on the schooling she has missed and go to high school like her peers. Meng is enjoying connecting with the many children at the local school and learning English for the first time.
But Om has bigger news for us.
“Over the last few months I have been putting aside the rest of the money from CIF each month. Now I have money to start a business. I used the money to get a loan and bought a net and a boat. With this I can catch fish in the waterways and sell the fish at the market.”
Redemption from the mud
She points us to her kitchen area where two large bowls are filled with Channa, the small but distinctive fish used to make the Cambodian delicacy Prahok. Also called Cambodian cheese due to its popularity, Prahok is a form of fermented fish paste used to flavour curries or meat dishes, or as a dipping sauce for leaves and vegetables. Channa are plentiful in Cambodia, breeding in the dams and rice fields. They thrive best in the mud which keeps them cool despite the tropical heat.
There is a lake about an hour’s walk away, and the new boat is moored there.
“I am going to take these to the market and sell them. I should make about $6 a day this way, and the walk to the boat will be quicker when the mud dries out. Now I can catch fish when it is wet like this and search for plants when the water drops again. Before CIF, I used to worry about food, but now I can have a business.”
Om proudly sells a couple of kilograms of the fish to some of our staff. We leave with full hands, full hearts, and muddy feet. There is sustenance in the mud – its own form of beauty. Thanks to Om’s devotion to her family, CIF’s financial support, and Om’s innovation and drive, this family has a hope for the future. They are stronger together in the wet or the dry, in the lake or on top of it.