Just when you think you’ve seen everything, life sends you on a journey to open your eyes to other people’s sufferings.
I thought I had seen it all. I have, after all, been here nine times in seven years.
I’ve seen a boy brought in by his mother to our medical camp in Cambodia, with his head wrapped up in a towel. It turned out she was hiding a tumour in his ear that was so bad that his head had swollen twice its size. Despite all our efforts to help him, the boy died three months later.
I’ve also seen an 11-year-old boy who looked like he was only six. He had a heart problem and the doctors didn’t think he would make it past his 18th birthday. I’ve also seen a crying child whom I thought was just two years old. Turned out he was actually a nine-year-old disabled boy, whose parents never bothered to take for medical examination.
I’ve bathed in a bathroom with water pumped straight from the Mekong River where you get sand and mud, and the occasional live fish as you scoop up the water. Indeed, I’ve seen poverty, unemployment and sheer apathy.
But nothing prepared me for what I saw at Wanita’s house.
Together with my colleagues from Kolej MARA Seremban, we have been organising a community service project in Kampung Jumnik, Cambodia, a five-hour bus ride from the capital, Phnom Penh since 2008.
We have built a secondary school, a library, two houses for the poor and dug a few wells in the village. We conduct free medical check-ups and circumcision for the villagers with the expertise of our volunteer doctors.
Our students conduct all kinds of interactive programmes with the village children – teaching them Maths, Science and English classes as well as sports activities. We distributed donations to hundreds of poor people and orphans over the years.
This year, we decided to do something different. Instead of gathering them in one house and distributing the money, we decided to go house to house to personally hand over the donations to 40 hardcore poor families. Each family was given a 15kg bag of rice, a bottle of cooking oil, 2kg of sugar and cans of sardines.
We witnessed firsthand the abject poverty of some of these families. Sometimes, two or three families would be staying together in a small house with walls made of palm leaves and a bamboo floor. Old folks aged 70 and more who lived alone in houses with holes in the roofs and huge gaps on the floor brought many of our team members to tears.
The last house we visited took my breath away. For it to be called a house would be too generous.
A shack would be a more appropriate name for it. This 3m x 3.5m shack with walls made of zinc, bamboo flooring and a roof so low that I could touch by raising my hand was home to Wanita, a 15-year-old girl who stayed there with her mother and 20-year-old brother.
The floor creaked as the six of us squeezed into the house. I was worried that it would collapse.
It had two small holes in the zinc wall which served as windows. The bathroom was an open top zinc structure with no running water. The kitchen was a small portion of the house with a broken earthen stove placed on a piece of zinc on top of the bamboo floor.
In the stifling heat of March when temperatures sometimes easily reach 38°C, I wondered how the family could survive in the zinc house.
The local imam who took us to the house cried for a good 30 minutes, looking at the living conditions of the family. It was his responsibility to look after them, he said, but there was nothing he could do for them.
Wanita’s teachers from Fickry Secondary School, a dual national and religious school we helped built two years ago, knew her as a bright student who was full of potential. But they had no idea her life was that bad. In spite of the harshness of her life, they never once had any indication of her living conditions as she never complained.
Wanita’s father left the family long ago after divorcing her mother, a common practice in the Cham community. Irresponsible fathers would just abandon their own family after taking a second wife, especially from a different village. If they ever came back to the village, it was to visit their parents; they wouldn’t bother finding out about the children they left behind.
I was taken aback by Wanita. In the Cham community where the people are inherently introverted and shy, she showed a lot of spirit and if I did not know she lived in the house, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine her living conditions. The teacher in me quickly noticed the intelligence in the girl who surprised me with very good English!
I don’t think it was fate that brought us to her house. I don’t think we came across the house by chance. I believe it was divine intervention that led us to Wanita. This was our seventh and my last time to the village, and I believe I was meant to help the family.
We plan to build a new house for the family. The 14m x 9m land belongs to her mother. For US$8,500 (RM30,857), we can build a decent house for the family and give new hope to this amazing girl.
We hope to start in May so that the house would be completed by July, and this unfortunate family would be able to celebrate Hari Raya in a new house.