Jen Truong | KF17 | Cambodia
Poverty is terrible. It is unfair and merciless—I am certain many can agree to that. Often times people are born into it, other times poverty hits them out of nowhere, but the worst is when it oh so gradually creeps up into the lives of people absolutely undeserving of such a life. As my fellow KFer, Adria, mentioned in an earlier post regarding poverty , there are “different ways to be poor,” and after living in Phnom Penh for almost three months now, I can say that I agree to that statement completely. It is so obvious here that people are not only in poverty due to lack of wealth, but literally because of the lack of opportunity, of knowledge, and of information. Since arriving in Cambodia, my heart has ached to understand more deeply some of the direct reasons why so many people fall into such ruthless cycles of poverty here.
I had initially planned to write about the catalysts of poverty in Cambodia, however in writing this post, I realized that I cannot even pretend like I understand enough about poverty to talk about its catalysts—I found that it is just too exhausting to try to analyze and interpret the information I have gathered in this young and naïve little mind of mine. But, in my quest to understand the catalysts, I can definitely say that I have gained some interesting insight on the sacrifices that people living in poverty are required to make in order to survive here in Cambodia…and that is something I would love to share with you all.
The poor sacrifice:
As I was shopping for gifts at the Russian Market (or Psa Toul Tom Poung, as the locals call it), I somehow ended up randomly chatting with a shop owner at one of stalls selling handbags. I had just finished completing Borrower Verifications with Kiva clients the day prior so, of course, you could imagine I was still in my interviewing mode. I asked this guy everything! Questions regarding his dreams, his future, and what he feels about education. His response was eye-opening:
“Here, you can make much more money working in the markets and retail business than if you were to get an education and work for a company. A Cambodian university degree here will only get you so much, and even then, you have to work a very long time to get to a level where you make enough to support yourself. I don’t have time for that, I have to support my family now. You can make a lot of money if you study in America or Europe, but that is out of the picture for me…so why would I want to go to school?”
It was heartbreaking to realize that not even locals here can value the worth of their own education system. I couldn’t even blame the shop owner for being so short-sighted with his opinion on education—because it’s true, why would anyone struggling to make ends meet everyday pay for something that means so little to so many—all to ultimately work even harder and to make less money? What surprised me the most about his comment was that he didn’t even seem like he wanted to go to school. To him, school was something only impractical people take part in.
Since arriving in Cambodia early February, I feel very privileged to say that I’ve already been invited to three Khmer weddings and am expecting to be invited to at least a few more within the next month!
However, believe it or not, weddings seem to be one of the main reasons that put families here in debt. They are already a huge investment–you put in major bucks into things you will never get back (the band, makeup, the 10 traditional Khmer wedding outfits that are rented for the wedding). If a young couple from two different socio-economic classes fall in love, which is something that is becoming more and more prevalent each day it seems, then the parents have almost no choice but to take out a big loan…or forever deny their son/daughter of true love. I have talked to locals about this and many have expressed that families generally have to resort to the latter of those two options. Either way, it is unfair.
For some of the Borrower Verifications that I conducted with Maxima, I had to travel to Koh Dach, an island just about 15 km away from Phnom Penh on the Mekong River. Koh Dach has such a character of its own—it is truly rural with houses that are colorfully erected on stilts (as opposed to the run-down cement buildings in Phnom Penh) and people who are so simple and down to earth. This island is also particularly known for its silk weavers.
Silk weaving is such a beautiful part of this country’s culture and tradition, yet unfortunately, it is also a dying tradition. Thanks to globalization, the younger generation in Cambodia no longer prefers to wear outfits made from silk. Weaving used to be a skill that was passed down from generation to generation. However, with demand for silk scarves and sarongs growing less and less each day, silk weavers can no longer afford to keep up with this business.
Each loom produces just about one scarf or sarong a day, which is then sold at a very inexpensive price to merchants (about $2), who then double or triple prices to sell in the markets. To survive, the newer generation cannot afford to waste time learning how to weave. It is no longer a profitable industry and alternatively, many have to leave Koh Dach to support their families by working in garment factories, which produces at least 100 times more clothing than you could produce on a single loom in one day. The sad part about this is that these garment workers do not make much more than what they would make if they weaved, but yes, at least it is more. What a sad way to lose such a beautiful part of Cambodia’s culture.
I have to admit that I truly don’t have a profound conclusion to this post. I simply just wanted to share with you some insight I’ve gained while being a Fellow here, and the harsh realities of this beautiful country and of the poverty that plagues it. It does give me comfort, though, to see just how positively our Kiva loans can make an impact in the lives of people here. And I can honestly say that it does make a difference. Whether the difference is big or small, in the end the loan does seem to do its job: it gives people here a choice–and that means a lot when one already has to give up so much just to survive.
Jen Truong is a Kiva Fellow  completing her fellowship with MAXIMA  Mikroheranhvatho Plc. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Jen is Cambodian-American and is also having the most amazing time gaining valuable perspective and experience here while also being able to utilize her Khmer-speaking abilities to add value to the work she is delivering in this wonderful country.