The acrid smoke from the fire at the dump stung my eyes, burned my nostrils and cloyed at the back of my throat. Nick the tuk-tuk driver had asked a couple of questions in Khmer and then wandered off. A scrawny totally wasted middle-aged man leaned over the edge of the tuk-tuk and nattered at me. A teenage girl rushed up and shooed him away. The sun beat down on the plastic roof that offered little protection. The flies buzzed. A group of women of various ages gathered under a rickety roof and sat on a table, trying to avoid the heat of the day. They waved and smiled; I returned their greetings.
“May I help you?” asked Lay Vichika. Momentarily stunned, I smiled and invited her to join me in the tuk-tuk. Who would have thought I’d meet a woman who lived at the garbage dump who spoke English? Now 29, she attended the NGO school for five years as a child and she had picked up the lingo.
We started talking with Nick chiming in from time to time if Lay Vichika didn’t understand a word or phrase. What is life like at the dump? Lay Vichika sighed, “Not so easy, not so hard. But we really don’t have any choice. Another problem is that we don’t know when they are going to kick us out.” The major dump was moved from this site to an area near the Killing Fields, but some inhabitants chose to remain where they were because at least they had a tin-and-wood shack to live in.
“Yes, I’m worried. I think about it every day. We have no where to go.”
Her job? To collect plastic bottles and cardboard to sell to the recycle operation. At 17:00 Lay Vichika takes her cart and walks into Phnom Penh to start work. “It is cooler then,” she explains. “It is too hot during the day.” Once there she goes through the trash-cans in her patch, collecting what she can until 23:00. Then she heads home. She works seven days a week and averages about $2.25 a day, or 37 cents an hour.
Lay Vichika has tried to get other jobs, but without success. The minimum wage at the garment factories, for example, is $61 a month and the workers there are trying to get an increase. Her husband picks up construction work when he can – carrying concrete or lumber – and makes about $2.50 a day. “I would like to get a job working with children,” she continues. “I would enjoy looking after them, teaching them.”
“It is hard to do the recycle work with children, so I sent my daughter to live with other people, but I still have my baby.” The two-year old with chubby cheeks smiles up at me.
What kind of future does Lay Vichika wish for her children? “I want them to go to school. To study so they can get good jobs. I don’t want them to have to live like I do.”
The 24 shacks are scattered along a pounded clay road that will turn to quicksand during the rainy season. A rickety ladder leads up to the living quarters because of the floods during the rainy season. Underneath, the malnourished chickens scratch through the garbage in search of food.
The shacks are dank and cramped with an air of hopeless dejection. The few family possessions are crammed into boxes, spread out around the walls. The woman who lives in this particular shanty stuck some pictures from a magazine on the walls in an attempt to add a personal touch. A dirty, limp hammock hangs across the room.
I hand Lay Vichika a bag of clothes and things some friends returning to Australia left. I thank her profusely for her help and slip her a bit of cash. I dig in my handbag and give the rest of the people assembled Canadian flag pins. They smile shyly.
The plan is that I will write the article, get the photos printed and then return. Lay Vichika gave me her mobile number so I can let her know when I’ll be coming. Yes, even the poorest of the poor in Cambodia have mobiles. “That is because it is so cheap to send a text,” offers Nick.
I’m left, once again, being confronted with how people cope with such deplorable living conditions. But as Lay Vichika accurately assesses the situation, “We really don’t have any choice.”
Back at my apartment I’ve written the first draft of the article. I can still feel the smoke in my lungs. My mobile beeps, “Thank you Mom. I’m very happy to know you. I hope to see you soon. I shared the things with the other people. I love you. From Vichika.”
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