Members of the villiage community of Ou Breus (credit: James Ronan/CAFOD).
Like many others in their early twenties, I recently visited Cambodia on my gap year. As I was travelling there with CAFOD, I was excited to visit the projects the aid agency supports, but like all travellers I was also eager to experience Cambodian culture, meet different people, sample the cuisine, and see the amazing landscapes.
I had put little thought into how the country's troubled history might echo through every encounter I had.
During 1975-9, the Khmer Rouge regime ran Cambodia under the leadership of Pol Pot. It is estimated that around a quarter of the population, which conservative estimates put at approximately two million people, were murdered or died from overwork and starvation under the regime.
This genocide has recently reignited the interest of the media, thanks to Angelina Jolie's self-directed film, First They Killed My Father (released on Netflix 15 September). Based on Loung Ung's book of the same name, the film tells the story of Loung, now a human rights activist, who was forced to leave her family home when she was just five years old.
(credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Jolie, a UN refugee agency special envoy, has spoken about her hope that the film will raise awareness of Cambodian history and help Cambodians to speak more openly about the lasting suffering caused by the regime.
Indeed, nearly half a century later, the country is still recovering both economically and psychologically. Almost a third of Cambodia's 14 million people live on less than half a US dollar a day.
"Cambodia's long history, most recently the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime, has left many communities broken. The communities are like a broken basket, they need reweaving", said Singha, one of the first people I met during my recent trip to Cambodia.
Singha is one of the founding members of a local Cambodian organisation called Village Support Group (VSG), who have set up a project in Ou Breus, the first village I travelled to. There, I talked to a local mother, Suong, and her family about the issues facing the community. She told me that "for the first few years we planted sesame seed and corn. Now the land is dry and there is not enough water."
Suong and her family (credit: James Ronan/CAFOD)
This led to almost all the families in the village growing cassava, a root vegetable also popular in South America, as it is not so reliant on rainfall. As more families switched to only growing cassava, it caused more problems. "The prices for cassava have halved over the past few years from 700 riels to 400 riels ($0.1USD) per kg due to the number of families producing them," said Suong.
VSG has now set up a three-year project, with funding from CAFOD, so the community can work towards greater access to water year-round. Following input from the community, the project has already helped support the community to build a well and install a water pump, with further plans for reservoirs and other water sources in the future.
Beyond the newly built well, I could see a neatly kept garden that belonged to a couple, Chhoy and Kov. In their garden, there was lots of food growing: courgettes, ginger, cabbage, chilli and medicinal plants; they told me one particularly rare courgette would sell for 2500 riel (around $0.5USD).
Before installing the well, Chhoy would collect the water from the stream beds, but this supply was too inconsistent to provide sufficiently for a garden as large as theirs. The well now provided them with the water to maintain their new garden and the certainty that they could do so throughout the year, even in the dry season. Kov said that once the garden is ready for harvest, she would be able to feed their three children so successfully, that she would only have to buy meat and fish from the market.
Chhoy and Kov in their new garden (credit: Rod Howlett/CAFOD)
Alongside helping the villagers to adapt their agricultural techniques, VSG is working hard to give villagers a voice so they can control their future.
VSG has helped create a village committee, which was elected democratically and has now met for six months. To ensure that no-one was ignored, the group collected a broad cross-section of the opinions of different groups: men, women, older people. This enabled the community to form a collective opinion, and take responsibility for the decision-making process.
Singha left us by saying: "If everyone is empowered, then the whole country will prosper" and from what I saw and the people I met, this is true.
I am glad that more attention is being drawn to Cambodia's past, through high profile international projects like First They Killed My Father, but after meeting Cambodian communities, who are working to overcome this tumultuous past, to reweave communities at a grassroots level, and to find their voices, I feel now is a prime opportunity to look towards the future.