Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Meeting 3

I love the atmosphere of these meetings, the spirited discussions and playful teasing. It's great that farmers get so involved. And why not? This is their livelihood, the issues that they face every day. Generally, I get a real kick out of this enthusiasm, but today it is not so helpful. We have been given a window of one to one and a half hours and we have a lot of work to do. It's a bad time of year to be sitting around shooting the breeze about farming. At this time of year in Cambodia, its less talking and more doing. And ofcourse, in poor, rural areas it's all hands on deck. I met a family yesterday where the 12 year old son was responsible for preparing the land, planting the seed and harvesting as his father had died the year before. He stood by his mother all bones and dark skin. His face was serious as she elaborated on how many days he works and how they have little money for mechanization, inputs and hired labour.

We sit on a slat bed our butchers paper in the centre and the three of us ranged around. One group of villagers sit on another slat bed nearby and a second group on rice bags or thongs on the dirt around us. It's hot and this is taking much longer than it should. Vichet looks increasingly on edge, as the villagers become more boisterous. He moves to the second activity; he is coughing his throat hoarse from raising his voice above the clamour. I am curled up right at the edge notebook in lap quietly watching. Vichet is on his haunches in the middle, butchers paper under his feet. Everyone closes in as he deftly fills in figures "Prohile jea bon man?" (what do you estimate?) he calls out. 1 week ago he had never heard of a PRA.

We race through our second activity and declare we have only one more to go. There is one man who has been rather cantankerous from the beginning who bemoans the fact that he is being detained from his lunch. I turn around and tell him in my best khmer, and with my nicest smile that I haven't eaten yet either. It gets a laugh and he quietens down. Vichet appeals for just a little bit longer and acknowledges that we are all tired. He jokes that his throat is sore. "What will this do to my singing voice?" Everyone cracks up and immediately starts clapping a rhythm for him to sing to. Vichet responds (incomprehensible to me) and causes everyone to clap and cheer even louder. I go to the car and get more biscuits. On my return Vichet appears to be having a joke stand-off with one of the guys. It seems to be relating to an animal with horns? I do ok when we talk about harvest time, yields and rice seed but it seems animal jokes are beyond my comprehension. We get back to business.

Finally we reach the end. Everyone is restless after the two and a half hour session. Vichet declares that he is finished asking questions and that in return they can ask all the questions they want of me. If I wasn't experienced at this game I may prepare myself for queries regarding my involvement with the project and my position. The first question was "Have I really not eaten yet?". The second "Do I eat rice?" I tell them that I do. Predictably I then field how old I am (for some reason 26 years receives a round of applause) and whether I am married (an even louder round of applause to this response). Vichet and I exchange amused glances. Time to leave.


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