We’d only been at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh a few seconds and already the first kids were running towards our truck and its load of fresh bread, oranges, apples and bananas.
Not much to be excited about from most people’s perspective but imagine spending day after day sifting through bags of rubbish with the sun on your head and nothing but the scent of rot and fires all around. And then imagine that you were born into this situation and you had never been outside the dump and its immediate community.
If you were a very lucky child you might be taken under the wing of a local charity and given a bit of schooling. But most likely the word “education” would mean learning how to find tin cans, plastics and wire that could be sold to support the family. Not much of a childhood and a situation where a bit of fruit just might seem like a slice of heaven.
It was a shock for us. The endless piles of garbage. The smell. The flies. Kids wandering around in bare feet – although more than we expected did have shoes. While we tried to take it all in, one of the organisers declared it one of the best days he’d ever seen at the dump. A light breeze was keeping down the smell and flies, he reasoned. There hadn’t been much rain so only a few patches of ground were deeply muddy. There was one long trough of sludge alongside the road containing everything including medical and chemical waste. We were told kids sometimes fell in up to their shoulders in the murky rubbish filled water. But other than that it was indeed a “good day” at the Stung Meanchey dump.
We didn’t have long to reflect on this new definition of a “good day”. Hands were outstretched all around us, hats held high into the air to receive the precious cargo. “Girls first,” we said as volunteers on the ground tried to separate the crowd so the most vulnerable members of Khmer society would be the first to get food. Young girls first, then the boys, next mothers with children and grown men last. Soon we formed a relay team. “More bananas,” someone would shout and up the bananas would come from the other end of the truck. “I need an apple down here,” came another cry and off the apple went towards the happy recipient. Each person got at least one baguette, an apple, two or three bananas and several oranges. Slowly, as the food went round, the desperate faces that greeted us started to smile.
In the middle of a dire situation, we were surprised to find laughter. We’d tried to ensure that each person got just one portion of food but some people would come back two or three times. We always gave them a joking “I caught you” look and they’d admit their cheeky attempt with a smile or a wink. When we finished giving out food, one young girl walked up to us with a wink and pointed at her rubber boots. Every spare inch around her legs was filled with oranges! We could only chuckle at her ingenuity. No one had noticed her secret stash.
With the food distributed, we walked further into the dump. A truck unloading fresh garbage was surrounded by at least twenty people, all waiting to be the first to break into the bags. To the other side a lady poked at bags full of food waste from a restaurant or market. What would she find in there, we wondered? Maybe something to eat, we were told. A sobering thought for the next time you leave something on your plate.
Our time at the dump was short; less than an hour but more than enough to leave a strong impression. Somehow, fate had smiled on us. Not so for these families.
Life was a little kinder to the kids at the orphanage we visited next. Sure, they slept 15 to a tiny room on a single bed or on the floor but at least they had a dry place to sleep with mosquito nets. During the day, they receive some school lessons and they normally get three meals a day. We left a bag of rice, some fruit, listened as they sang ‘happy birthday’ for us (the only song they claimed to know) and tried to make them giggle with silly games.
All too soon we were on our way back into Phnom Penh. Back past bustling markets. Internet cafes. Restaurants. Shopping malls. Hospitals. All of these unknown worlds to most of the children we met that morning. It’s now several hours since we’ve returned and we still find it hard to put into words what we saw and how we feel about it. It was both tragic to see the situation of these children and uplifting to see the people who do care about them and are trying to make their lives better. And throughout the rest of the day we said to ourselves the famous words: there but for the grace of God go I. As some of the world’s richest citizens, surely we all have an obligation to help not only these children but also the millions of other severely impoverished people around the world?