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Cambodia Wants to Eat

By Karen Coates

Rice says everything in Cambodia. Having it foretells survival and hope; lacking it portends defeat. Last year, a pound of rice cost about 15 cents in the market. Today, it's six cents more. Pennies of difference—but pennies that make a world of difference to families living on a dollar a day or less.

We've all heard the news, seen the facts and figures that depict climbing food prices worldwide. What really irks me is when the photograph captions have no names. You know the shots—the grubby kids with frazzled hair and thin, dark skin stretched across fragile bone. I saw one just this morning, a wire service photo of "a scavenger" in Phnom Penh. The World Food Programme recently ceased its free breakfast program for 450,000 Cambodian schoolchildren. Bellies are empty, minds dizzy with fatigue. And what we see is a picture of a nameless kid.

These kids have stories to tell and lives that make them human. They have stomachs with histories behind their hunger.

A few years back, I met a scavenger named Sot, a 13-year-old boy at the Stung Meanchey dump in Phnom Penh. He worked every day, searching for plastic to sell. He and his mother had moved from Prey Veng province, several hours away. "My father divorced my mother and he has a new wife. We came here because we were very poor," he told me. "In Prey Veng we were farmers and I took care of cows. Now we don't have." They sold their house and moved to a two-room wood and metal shack perched atop the garbage heap near a sludge pond. There, Sot could go to school in a classroom run by a foreign aid group. And he could earn up to 50 cents a day stabbing at garbage with a metal pick. "I think it's good for me to sell some things and make money so I can buy food," he said of his life atop other people's filth. But, "I don't like it. I want to go back home."

Sot (left) and Mao Meath, both 13, sit in the doorway of their shack atop the Steung Meanchey dump on the edge of Phnom Penh. Since coming to Phnom Penh from Prey Veng province with their families, the two have collected recyclable scrap from atop the dump. Says Mao, "Prey Veng is better. It's not terrible like this."

Sot was not alone. Hundreds of kids pick through garbage at Phnom Penh's biggest dump. In fact, kids all over Cambodia end up scavenging when the kitchen goes bare. Like 12-year-old Kath Piya, another Stung Meanchey worker who lived with her uncle nearby. "I eat twice a day," at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., she said. No breakfast before work. "For dinner I eat rice with salt. Sometimes I eat vegetables and meat, but not usually." As we chatted, a tourist came up and took her picture, then left without talking to her. Tourists sometimes traipse through the dump for a glimpse of the "real" Cambodia, but this was a rare encounter for Kath Piya. Usually, she said, no one paid much attention to her at all. She just worked. She never had time to play.

Kath Piya, 12, came to Phnom Penh with her parents to work in the dump. Her parents returned home, but Kath Piya still collects at the dump, and lives with an uncle nearby. She works every day until 5 p.m., making 25 cents to 50 cents. "I'm homesick and I miss my parents," she says.

I could tell you much happier stories about Cambodian food. I could tell you about the sweetness of a Ratanakkiri avocado shake, drunk in a rainstorm to the tune of giant singing bugs. Or I could tell you about the first time my friend Sinith took me home to his village on a hot April day. We sat with his family drinking warm canned beer and eating fresh grilled fish with a tangy green mango relish that made me a forever believer in the fruits of Cambodian waters.

I could tell you, too, about a magical day on a quiet island when a young man named Chuat appeared from the woods, with fresh coconuts in hand. He carved little notches into the shells, and presto—fragrant, tropical juice. A gift for me, out of the blue.

Chuat, 17, with coconuts from the trees hanging over his family's home on Rabbit Island, just off the coast from Kep. The small coastal town of Kep is well-known throughout Cambodia for its great fresh seafood, especially crabs. It is also gaining a reputation as a beautiful and quiet vacation spot for people traveling to Southeast Asia, but developers are quickly buying up the nearby coastal islands.

But I wouldn't feel honest recalling only fond times with food, not now, when a crisis has left so many people unfed. Even the island story ends sadly. Many months later, the government sold that island to foreign developers and evicted the locals, leaving them homeless. Leaving them without food.

And that's the truth of Cambodia. People ache, people starve. People have always starved in Cambodia, and the current food shortage is nothing more than history repeated. Deep hunger is the progenitor of much Cambodian cuisine. Those crispy-fried tarantulas with hollow legs, the delicacy of Skuon? They're a remnant of the Khmer Rouge years, when people ate what they could find. I once slurped down tree-ant soup in a secluded village where residents said they had little else to harvest that week. The soup tasted fine, slightly herbal; but the ants tickled my throat, made me sweaty and sleepless.

Without knowing "the scavenger" in that wire-service photograph, I can tell you one thing for certain: he always feels his hunger. Always, unless he's asleep or high from huffing glue—a habit commonly adopted by kids who want nothing more than to forget they haven't eaten. Glue does that. It alters the mind and placates the gut—but only for a few hours.

In Cambodia, it is customary to greet people with a phrase that translates as, "Have you eaten rice?" But you are not just asking about rice. You are asking about the status of one's life and family and health.

You are, simply, gauging everything through the benchmark of food.

Photos © 2004, 2006/Jerry Redfern

Karen Coates is author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War (McFarland, 2005); and co-author, with Sharon Adams, of Pacific Lady: The First Woman to Sail Solo Across the World's Largest Ocean, which will be published by Nebraska this summer. You can find more of her writing at The Rambling Spoon

Jerry Redfern is a freelance photojournalist who regularly covers social and environmental stories in Southeast Asia and the Southwest US. He is a member of OnAsia Images.

Published Jun 16, 2008   Copyright 2008 Karen Coates

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