Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Meeting 2

Anticipation mounts. I sit, legs tucked under, in the village chiefs house as villagers enter for the meeting. I get a nice feeling about this village. The chief and his wife patter about; him collecting his records about the village and her giving us cushions and tea. They are both dark skinned with graying hair and kindly smiles. I greet villagers with a "jum riep sur" as they enter. Today we are conducting a PRA in a village who do not use the projects rice seed. Sothat has been called to Phnom Penh and so Vichet is facilitator, Naseng note taker and myself observer. I am confident in Vichet but still a little nervous about doing this without our expert adviser. Sothat has stressed how PRA is very much learning by doing, responding to people and playing it by ear. He calls it free-styling.

So here we are free-styling it in Pray Thbal village. We haul out the nom (biscuits) and there is a post sugar consumption rush of commotion and excitement from the kids. Tiny naked bodies clamber into the back of the projects ute. Samart cranks up the radio and next thing I know; not even halfway through planned activities, there is a party out on the dirt road. Vichet and the men continue to animatedly discuss whether fertilizer composes more of their yearly budget than fuel for powering water pumps. The fuel costs eventually win out. The imminent threat of rain further depletes our participants as women and children rush off to secure their grain that is drying out in the sun into plastic bags.

Maylee moves in and out of the room. Everywhere she goes exciting much comment and interest. "psaart, psaart" (beautiful, beautiful) everybody agrees. The women squeeze to be near her and compare their skin colour with theirs. I, on the other hand, am largely ignored. White, fair haired Australians are not unheard of in Prey Veng. However, Asian looking Australians appear to be a fascinating concept. There are children everywhere. They seem to adore Maylee and follow her wherever she goes. I sit with a 6 year old girl, naked except for little cotton shorts, she presses her bare belly against my foot leaning in to get a closer look at proceedings. A toddler rests against my left arm, idly playing with the ring on my index finger. I am not used to children, and at first was quite surprised by the sheer number of curious young eyes that would come and stare at the barang. I smile at the girl next to me, the warmth of these little bodies is comforting.

We finish up our session. The children have long grown tired of our talking and many of the women are absent, busy with food preparation or farm household chores. I present the village chief with his present, a kramar and we all pile back into the work car. As we drive out of the village, people look up from their work and watch us go. I sit, white and fair haired, squeezed in between sheets of paper covered in colourful writing about rice growing methods and farm income. Despite all our questions and probing I am quite sure that I am barely scratching the surface of the workings of this village.


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