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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

I volunteered to build houses in Cambodia

A postmenopausal, empty-nest, middle-class woman, looking for something useful to do in the third act of her life, decides to volunteer in Cambodia on a house-building project. Call it a cliché if you wish. Or cue the laugh track of friends and family who know how useless I am with a hammer.

Volunteering internationally, I learned even before leaving, is the ultimate good deed for anyone sharing my own fortune of time, resources and health. Everyone I told about my plans thought it was noble of me to be giving back in this way.
It was hardly a selfless act, though. It was the exact opposite. At this crossroads in my life, it was an opportunity for a unique cultural experience in a country I had never visited before.

Part of my giving back, in fact, was to the project’s team leader. She happens to be an inspiring woman from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., who spent years living overseas. She has organized seven of these journeys to Cambodia for families and individuals like me. She also, in the past, put those same organizational and volunteer skills to good use supporting my own work. So this was an opportunity for me to say thanks.

The project was for a homegrown organization: Tabitha Foundation Canada, an NGO based in Ottawa, with its Canadian founder at the helm of headquarters in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. Tabitha has helped two million Cambodians in more than 15 years of operation, working in the poorest parts of the country where the average family wage is less than $1 a day.

Unlike projects in other poverty-stricken regions of the developing world, there is an extra layer of despair when volunteering in Cambodia. It is a country that has seen years of civil war and a horrifying genocide of more than 1.5 million souls.

Tabitha’s formidable and indefatigable founder, Janne Ritskes, makes it mandatory for all volunteer house builders to visit the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh (the converted high-school campus used by Pol Pot for torture), then to see the actual Killing Fields (where those who survived the torture were brutally murdered.)

As well as providing us with the cultural context for our work, Janne made another point perfectly clear: It’s about the Cambodians, not us. In no uncertain terms, we were told to never complain about anything and to keep our emotions in check at all times. Our first real test of the latter rule happened during our visits to the memorials of the genocide.

Thankfully, Janne had also scared us during our briefing on workplace safety before we left Phnom Penh for Kampot province in the south, where we would be working. The temperatures would be hitting close to 40 degrees, among other health considerations (malaria, dengue fever and heat stroke, to name a few). So when we heard the word “water” shouted out on the half-hour by our team leader, it was not a call to drink: It meant to come and have a bucket of it thrown over your head so you don’t faint.

Over the course of the project we built 18 houses, basic shelters on stilts with one door and a window. I spent my days hammering in the floors.

There was a wide range of ages and life experiences on our 18-member team, from a 15-year-old girl travelling with her mother (the young woman never muttered a word of complaint, except perhaps to her mother for taking so many pictures of her), to a seventysomething retired educator who had bicycled through Vietnam with his wife before our work began. As we shuttled between our work site and the jungle eco-lodge where we were staying, the dynamics of the team made the conversations always stimulating.

And hilarious. As unexpected as that might sound, we laughed a lot. Although I wasn’t too amused by the captured, caged rat that fell out of my hut’s ceiling a foot from my toilet on our last morning, I had the presence of mind to take a picture of it with my BlackBerry, knowing that no one would ever believe me.

I certainly laughed at myself at the experience of leading a half-dozen women, desperate for a bathroom, to a Cambodian village storefront in search of relief. Confused by my request using the universal sign language of washing my hands, I shamelessly squatted down in front of the female shopkeeper, mimicking the Asian way. Mission accomplished.

On the final day of the project, when the houses are completed, it’s tradition to have a handover ceremony. Each family receives a quilt for their new home made by Tabitha’s own handicraft industry, another part of the foundation’s work in Cambodia. I found it harder to control my emotions during that ceremony than I did holding back my tears at the Killing Fields.

The sad history of Cambodia was too huge for me to get my head around. But watching the families happily take possession of their new homes, which by Canadian standards give new meaning to the word basic, was incredibly moving. What we had accomplished was so immediate and right before our eyes.

Who cared if a few nails didn’t get hammered in perfectly? We all could feel the difference we had made in the families’ lives. And in our own lives, too – even if that was against the rules.

Robin Pascoe lives in North Vancouver, B.C.

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