No Need to Read

By Gemma North, KF9, Cambodia

I spend a lot of time walking the streets of Phnom Penh.  This is not a common practice for Cambodians, who know better than to try and navigate the chaotic sidewalks which are essentially an outdoor extension of stores, restaurants and living rooms, or even spaces for entirely separate businesses such as bicycle repairmen, women selling barbecued chicken feet, or mobile phone refill kiosks.  Yet I enjoy steering through this obstacle course as it allows me to take in, and slowly understand the details and habits that make up peoples’ daily lives.  However, as an outsider who speaks quite limited Khmer and who cannot begin to decipher the script, I have limited means of absorbing and understanding the wider concerns that affect the society.   Therefore I am lucky to find, amidst the bustling street scenes, clues on the broader issues facing this country today.

Ad on the back of a tuk tuk seat

In a roundabout at the northernmost end of Monivong, a large boulevard that bisects Phnom Penh, stands a 6 foot high gun.  I am told it was made from melting together the guns that the government ordered be turned in late in the 1990s after Hun Sen, the current prime minister took power.  This statue ironically marks the end of decades of violence and turmoil that plagued Cambodia since the 1970s.  A billboard on my route to work has simple drawings ranging from a happy child to a man picking rice with a caption reading: “Stop TB. Do it with DOTS,” (a treatment program for TB–according to the USAID, 64 percent of Cambodians are infected with the disease).  Then there are other messages which even as a foreigner require little explanation: a tuk –tuk drives by and on its advertising space is a picture of an adorable little girl smiling brightly and an English caption reading “Please protect our national treasures;” alluding to the sex-trafficking that plagues this country.  When we travel outside of the City, the captions are dropped as the scenes become more powerful.  One billboard, crudely painted in dark colors shows a man shouting at his wife and kids kneeling on the floor, speaking to the destruction of domestic abuse.  Another billboard, painted in calming pastels, depicts a couple wrapped in one another’s arms enshrouded by a condom and then a globe!–apparently to educate people on the utility of birth control and protection against HIV/AIDS (the government’s and its partners’ prevention programs in the past decade have helped cut the infection rate for this disease in half, or to .9%).

Of course, these messages only represent the issues that are openly discussed and that receive enough funding for publicity.  However, they are a reminder that most people living in Cambodia and other developing nations must overcome various obstacles when lifting themselves out of poverty, many of which are out of their control.  Although microfinance cannot address each issue someone is facing, sometimes it is the only development tool that gives an individual the opportunity to consciously make a change, or have a choice in their own life.

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