The moments that surprised me most on my first trip to Cambodia – by Rebecca MacFarling, CUFA Deputy CEO & Head of Fundraising.
Brand new to the development sector and after just a month in my role with CUFA, I spent a week in Cambodia in November. Here are the five things that struck me hardest during that trip.
1 – Cambodians are the friendliest people I have ever met.
My week in Cambodia was marked by generous welcomes and big smiles. The CUFA team numbers about 30 people in Cambodia, and includes administration staff, a finance team, a graphic designer and a team of project leaders and coordinators who manage CUFA projects like Children’s Financial Literacy, the Village Entrepreneur and various credit union development and outreach programs. Each of my colleagues works with commitment and dedication and joy. Their energy is thoroughly contagious and in turn, inspired me.
2 – Cambodia has experienced some of the lowest moments in twentieth century history.
I had a rough idea about Pol Pot and the devastation he and his cronies dragged Cambodia through during the 1970s. However it wasn’t until I spent a morning at the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum at S21 (the school where the Khmer Rouge tortured about 20,000 people) that I understood the extent of the genocide. Three million people were killed between 1975 and 1979, out of a population of about eight million at the time. Most of the victims were ethnic Khmer, intellectuals and professionals like doctors, lawyers and teachers. It is impossible not to feel wiped out emotionally by a visit to the Killing Fields, and requires a long pause for reflection and soul searching.
3 – Small amounts of money go a long way to changing peoples’ lives.
During an afternoon in the province of Kampong Chhnang, my group visited two Village Entrepreneurs. The first was Town Srey, a woman with three young children who was raising chickens as part of the program. Town had just sold 70 chickens and with the income she was able to add a tin roof to her previously palm-frond house and add solar panels to provide electricity. This in turn allowed her children to do homework in the evenings, and her to earn extra income from basket weaving.
The second Village Entrepreneur we met was Tit Chrey. Tit is a bed-maker, living with his wife, four children and father-in-law. Previously, he could make a bed frame a week by hand. Once he was on the program, he invested in power tools which allowed him to triple his output and grow his income. As a result, he was able to extend his house to accommodate his large family and send his children to school.
Community investors have made small monthly donations to support these Village Entrepreneurs, and the results of those donations enable people like Town and Tit to create sustainable futures.
4 – Ultra poor people can save for a rainy day.
I didn’t realise it was possible, but the results indicate that ultra-poor people can save money.
CUFA supports savings cooperatives which are crucial to ultra poor communities, where access to loans and other financial services is almost impossible to access. Individuals in the community are able to contribute small amounts of savings to the cooperative and ultimately protect themselves and their families during hard times, like crop failure and unemployment.
In a small village in Kampong Chhnang, the leader of the local savings cooperative explained to us that the 250 local children had accumulated a total savings pool of $2,000USD in the last few years. This savings pool among children whose parents are day-labourers and subsistence farmers is remarkable, and a result of the incredible work CUFA has done with its Children’s Financial Literacy program in the area.
5 – Individual donors really can make a difference.
It really doesn’t take much to make a difference to the lives of poor people. I have signed up to be a community investor as part of the Village Entrepreneur initiative. For $39 a month over three years, my investment will help someone create a sustainable micro-business to enrich their lives and support their families. In my case, my money will help a man named Sareth who supports a family of four children and has a disability. I look forward to seeing Sareth’s progress over the three years and wish him good luck in creating a sustainable business.
To find out more about the Village Entrepreneur, click here.
Of course, Cambodia is more than my five points. It is a wonderful, beautiful country filled with inspiring people, delicious food and the world’s craziest traffic. I hope you find yourself there some time.
Rebecca MacFarling, Deputy CEO & Head of Fundraising, CUFA