issue 242 - April 1993
The village is 12 or 13 kilometres off Highway 5. You can see that it is in a less favoured position because the houses along the dirt track have become more and more makeshift, the children more ragged with parasite-bloated bellies and the rust-coloured hair of kwashiorkor – severe malnutrition. But there is laughter.
Rasme has his uncle’s pig on a lead and is taking it for a walk. Six years old, he strides out like a man. The uncle hails me cheerily: ‘Perhaps the Barang lady would like to take one Cambodian boy home to her country’. The swagger quickly drops away from Rasme. His lip trembles and he turns his head from me. ‘No, no,’ I say. ‘Rasme belongs here.’ The aunt calls from her hammock: ‘Take Bora, he eats more rice’.
I am drawn into the laughing circle of adults and in the relaxed, inconsequential gossip I hear the talk of the day, talk of the market, talk of the children, talk of the pigs.
Most pigs are kept on a lead in Cambodia; the fence of a vegetable garden would need to be very strong to keep them out. Of course every single one is tied up here, in this poor village where a pig represents wealth. Since they eat food that people may otherwise eat, and since the people here are clearly malnourished, they are surely an imprudent investment. But a tempting gamble. To rear a pig and sell it could lift a family above bare subsistence level. So they try, though the odds are against them. With the ranks of Cambodian professionals still so thin, treatment for sick pigs is as inaccessible as is treatment for sick children.
The conversation intensifies as the woman swinging in the hammock becomes the focus. The aunt is a good storyteller. Her face is mobile and her eyes flash as she relates yesterday’s tragedy of the pigs. Someone had grown careless in tying them up. Two had strayed towards the minefield, unnoticed until just inside the edge of it. Of course each man, woman and child knows the danger of the minefield. The toddlers are held firmly on the hip of an older sister until they can understand. So nobody could enter the minefield to rescue the precious pigs. The aunt’s arms flail out expressively. One explosion then another. A grown man or woman may have slowly bled to death or have been rescued only to be taken away for amputations. The pigs were small and died quickly.
I watch the face of Rasme’s mother as her eyes follow her young son, who still strides back and forth with all the self-importance of a little boy trusted with a pig on a lead. The young mother’s face is pensive. Without some asset which could be sold in an emergency a family with young children is totally vulnerable. Last week the small child of a neighbour came down with dengue fever. The family sold what they had to hire an oxcart from a wealthier village to take the child out to Highway 5 and so to a medical clinic. But the clinic charged for all that was needed and the family had no more assets.
The child died.
These are tenacious people. They have stayed steadfastly in their village while others fled into exile. Survivors. But the life which they staunchly safeguard can never be taken for granted.
Joan Healy, of the Sisters of St Joseph of Australia, works in Cambodia as a consultant to the Overseas Service Bureau, Australia.