*Follow our CIF staff narrative on a field visit to check-in on a Kinship Care Family outside of bustling Phnom Penh. Names have been changed to protect identities.*
“Do you want to go with me on a family visit?” My coworker, our Kinship Care Program Manager, peered at me from behind his computer.
“Yes, of course,” I replied, enthusiastic to see our work first-hand a few days after I started.
Soon, I sat perched at the back of his moto. The heat of the day increased, as we zig-zagged through back streets south of Phnom Penh. Dense traffic and smells of humanity – cooking food, raw fish, rubbish, and exhaust – were all hedged in by brick buildings, faded umbrellas, and plastics bags lining the roadways.
As we drove, the tightly packed city slowly spread out, and trees and fields took the place of the buildings and concrete ground. My coworker told me this little boy’s story over his shoulder, above the noise of the roadway.
Having lived in Phnom Penh a while, I pictured the setting clearly as he described it. I imagined climbing several steep and uneven stairs to a small, dimly lit room in one of the city’s poorest slums. A bare light bulb would have illuminated the one room flat with its peeling, faded plaster. Only the wealthier can afford a room with a window. On a thin mat, rolled out onto the tile floor a young mother would have laid next to her newborn boy, Samnant. Her body wracked with disease, weakness consuming her, she had passed away just two weeks after his birth.
I wondered if she looked in his tiny face and pondered his fate. Did she feel a mix of the joy of new life, and worry over his future?
Soon after her death, Samnant’s father disappeared. I wanted to believe the best of why he would leave his new son alone to face the world. Perhaps his grief was all consuming?
While I never could find out how CIF was initially connected to the baby, I learned how our team located a half-sister of the deceased mother. We were heading for her village.
The story ran around in my head as we turned off the cemented highway and bounced onto dirt-packed side streets. Factories stood outlined at a distance; we passed a few large transport vehicles which billowed dusty clouds around us. Rice fields with square ponds cut out of them began to come more often. Ducks floated at ease while large, white cows lazed and munched along the roadsides.
I could breathe deeply here. There is a unique charm to a third world village. Slower. Peaceful.
We passed a lavish, gold painted Wat with spirit houses, a precursor to most Cambodian villages. A few government buildings welcomed us as we slowed for the small pigtail-clad girls walking along the roadway in their crisp white tops and navy skirts, giant backpacks dwarfing their already tiny bodies.
We made a left at what appeared to be a main street, wide enough for one vehicle. Wooden and cement homes, their paint washed out and grayed from the wet seasons, all boasted some small business out front. A tire shop followed by a woman in a patch of sunlight on her black Singer, sewing and only stopping briefly to glance up at the white woman passing on the back of a moto.
In the city, I would be perceived as a tourist; in this village, I was a stranger, but a guest.
A young girl with broken training-wheels peddled frantically down the road on her purple bike, rushing into the home with the seamstress. She glanced back in curiosity from the confines of her doorway.
We turned down an even smaller road and stopped in front of a house where the homey scent of wood smoke greeted us. We stepped inside an open gate to see a teenage girl in a white soccer uniform squatting over a cooking sauce, methodically stirring to keep it from burning. I marvelled at how white, hand-washed clothing left to dry over a fence could look so immaculate, a testament to the cleanliness of the owners. The space in front of the house was enclosed by a basic fence and covered by a corrugated tin roof. It was an extension of their home. Palm trees grew up through an opening in the tin, surrounded by an outdoor cooking space, where pong tia koon (fertilized duck eggs) boiled over a portable clay stove. I found out the eggs were the newest business to provide the family with sustainable income.
A smiling, middle-aged woman wearing red lipstick and intricately styled dark hair stood to greet us from tending the fire and her simmering eggs. Again, I was amazed at how tidy she appeared whilst cooking. I attempted to tame wind-blown frizz and smooth out my dress. We exchanged friendly formal greetings as my co-worker introduced me to the family.
The subject of our visit, a three-year-old Samnant, slid off a nearby chair where he had been quietly playing and shyly inched toward his Aunt. Soon we were seated in a circle and the boy draped himself across her lap. Each time I tried to make eye contact, he hid his face in her stomach but peered up from time to time. He took a few candies from the social worker, handing them to his Aunt to open the packaging. She chatted to my coworker and me, while tenderly patting the boy’s head. She attempted to smooth his rowdy hair, but each time her hand ran gently across his head, the hair just popped right back up. He was otherwise clean, and it gave him a slightly dishevelled look.
As we talked about their lives and my coworker caught up on recent news, Samnant grew increasingly bold. Or perhaps the candies affected him. He slid off his aunt’s lap and began to show off a bit, getting into some toys and an empty powdered-milk can. He was about to throw the can down a second time to get some attention when a neighbor walked by, calling out a greeting as she shuffled past. Samnant’s eyes lit up, a wide, cheeky grin spread across his face revealing two big dimples, and he sprinted off after her. His cousin finished stirring her sauce and followed him. She had been quietly tending to the food during the conversation.
It was peaceful. Neighbors knew each other. I heard the pleasant chirping of the baby chicks who wandered around the property. Palm, papaya, and broad leafy trees shaded the home. I liked the intimacy of the village. The next door neighbor out front, coloring her hair in the sunlight, with a hand held mirror propped up. People meandered around, chatting with one another. It was poor, but there was a freedom and openness not found in the stacked, enclosed life of Phnom Penh. While we sat on mismatched plastic chairs and cushions, I noted how neat everything was, noticed the extra homey touches; a blue plastic mirror with tooth brushes and combs, a calendar featuring elegant Khmer women, and a small cross all hung on the wall.
It was more than the surroundings I appreciated, however. It was the love I felt. The teen collected her toddler cousin from where he was terrorizing the chickens and brought him back in the gate. They sat together nearby where she tried to teach him hand-clap games. It did not take long before he preferred to clap on her face, though. Laughing, she snatched him up and tickled him until he wriggled away.
I observed his full, healthy face and big shiny dark eyes that spoke of more than just being well fed and sheltered. He was happy. His cousin doted on him, while his Aunt held and protected him. All they had needed to stay together as a family was a little extra help and encouragement.
Wrapping up the visit, we said our goodbyes and the little boy, at his Aunt’s urging, clasped his hands together and blurted out the formal Khmer farewell. I giggled; then, he giggled.
As we drove away, I could not imagine a better possible outcome from a tragic beginning. I hoped that for even a brief second, his mother might have been given a glimpse of what his life would become, and that she could rest in peace knowing he was loved.