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Planting hope in Cambodia’s ‘Killing Fields’

KRATIE, Cambodia (BP) — Afternoon light filters through the windows as Cambodian villagers map out the future of their communities.

This day was more than 30 years in coming. The villages haven’t been rebuilt since the horrific Khmer Rouge years that tore communities apart. An estimated 2 million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979 in a genocide dramatized in the popular 1984 film, “The Killing Fields.”

Today, however, both former Khmer Rouge members and their survivors sit together on a wood floor with a sheet white 3-by-2-foot paper to sketch out schools, wells and health centers they’d like to see one day.

The group has gathered to learn about community development from representatives of a Southern Baptist international relief and development organization, Baptist Global Response, who conduct such sessions around the world to help communities catch a hopeful vision of the future and understand how to make it a reality.

“Community development is the development of people — communities and people in the communities,” said Pam Wolf, who works with her husband Ben in leading BGR work in the Asia Rim.

Visiting the communities in Cambodia is like taking a step back in time. The only way to reach many villages is on muddy roads. Electricity doesn’t make it out to most villages. Hospitals are scarce. Many rural Cambodians long to see their communities develop.

The goal of community development, Ben Wolf said, is for people to work together to improve their communities and see their needs met.

The community itself facilitates the change, not outsiders giving handouts, Wolf emphasized. Most villages are used to having NGOs come in, drop off supplies and leave.

These villagers live in Cambodia’s Kratie [Kra- chay] province. The name in Khmer means “poor knowledge.” A Christian worker who attended the training said he knows of only two high schools in the entire province. Teachers are scarce and many times haven’t even completed a high school education themselves. Most students study only to the ninth grade.

Though the villagers may not be educated by academic standards, the men and women learn how to evaluate what their community looked like 15 years ago, what it looks like now and what they see their community looking like 15 years from now if things continue as they are with no intervention. They learn how to identify the problems and needs of their communities, prioritize them and make a practical plan for effecting change.

Water is a constant worry in this area. Though some of the villages lie near the Mekong River, the villagers haven’t found a foolproof method for purifying the water.

By the end of the session, the trainees have mapped out steps they can take to improve and find new water sources. Some drafted a plan and developed action points for digging a well.

The participants dream and plan for more high schools, electricity and bridges over rivers. One man dreams that one day there will be a toilet for every house. Others cast visions for all-day markets and health clinics.

Every BGR training session concludes with a practicum in which participants have a chance to go to a local community and meet with the local leaders to put into practice what they have learned, asking questions to learn about the community and then asking the leaders to draw what the village looks like on a piece of paper. Through this, the leader and trainees can see what needs the community has, opening the door for future visits.

Aung, a trainee from a nearby village of 800 people, feels he can share what he learned in the training. He’s already talked with the leaders of his village and introduced the vision-mapping tool he learned.

The main need in Aung’s village is food. He’s realized his village has resources he can use to make a plan for creating more ways to get food. Aung said his small group discussed starting a cow-raising project for income and fresh meat.

The Wolfs’ lessons also resonate with a 20-year-old named Borey from the village of Poipet, where heavy rains make dirt roads impassable, keeping some children out of school and behind in their lessons.

Borey — the only person in Poipet to graduate from high school — recognized the need for supplemental education. He decided he’d teach children in the evenings to help them catch up in their studies. Every evening after he finishes working in the fields, Borey gathers children ages 5 10 and gives them lessons for an hour.

Through the training sessions led by the Wolfs, Borey realized he already was practicing a core principle that was being taught: The people of a community are the primary initiators of change for their community. His grandfather is the leader of their village, and Borey plans on talking with his grandfather about how they can apply what he’s learned in the workshop to help their community.

“I want in the future for my village to have a school, church and for people to have food, health and children to be clever,” Borey declared.

“This is the attitude we get excited about,” Ben Wolf said. “If we can especially get young people involved in community development, we can see a future for healthy, vibrant communities — communities that are stronger physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

The Wolfs, while in Cambodia, also had an opportunity to meet with provincial authorities and discuss their role in the community development process. Community development cannot happen without the understanding of those in authority, Wolf said, even if they are not directly involved.

Wolf encouraged the provincial officials to use their influence to encourage the community taking ownership of its future.

“As leaders, you might be the change agent in the community,” Wolf told the provincial authorities. “You may be the one who is getting the community to take responsibility for themselves.”
Landry Lyons is an international correspondent for Baptist Global Response.

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  • Landry Lyons