A few weeks ago I wrote how my comfort zone has changed. It wasn’t spiders or heights that scared me anymore but something much rawer. Something such as meeting the true face of poverty.
Today I think I did and was knocked out of my little world more than I could have expected.
For the following to make sense I have to explain my definition of the above. My definition of the ‘face of poverty’ isn’t just a cash value, it isn’t measured in grains of rice. It is measured simply in life, a word which can have a different meaning for all of us.
“You can’t face poverty with pity but simply join in and smile with hope and resource”
Standing there I was beaming at the beautiful grins, the different walks and the well thought out wheelchairs that made their way around the courtyard in the golden hour of sunrise.
Reminding myself of that quote was necessary as I wished my eyes would stop welling up. I beamed on and cursed myself for not wearing sunglasses.
I had been invited to a hospital which was a permanent home to generations of those affected by Agent Orange and similar evil and unwanted poisons.
(I was not here to photograph nor did I want to. Warning: It is graphic but should you wish to understand the real images of the lasting effects then this Google Search of Agent Orange will provide the photos behind the story.)
A kind-hearted gentleman beckoned me over. “Xin chào” we shared whilst shaking hands for what seemed like an eternity. He briefly talked about Sydney and Australia, we talked about his life here. I asked if there was anything he would like.
“Coffee. Nescafé is good. If you bring that we have all we need”
I was taken back by the very essence of those words… We have all we need.
It summed up everything I have learnt over the past few weeks. We can’t judge, decide or speak on behalf of people for what they want or require.
We can just be humble, listen and oblige. It wasn’t until I walked away I realised he had one leg. My eyes saw people first, human connections. Disabilities were an after thought… If it is even ok to say that?
As the rice soup was served and I took my trays towards the bedrooms a young lad shot from his seat to guide me.
“Follow me,” he said with a grin and further highlighting that point. He wasn’t a boy who struggled to walk in his eyes, he was a young man showing a guest into his home with far more elegance than I could ever muster if I was to invite you for dinner.
“How old are you?” We ask a young girl. 34 she signals back. We try to hide our shock behind our smiles of hope as we give our time, share peaceful silence, sign language, laughter and physical contact.
Cold hands turn warm quickly and emotion is communicated through a simple touch.
Thank you, I read through bright eyes. Thank you for being our guests, our visitors. I hoped my eyes were communicating the right message.
I was glad my sunglasses had stayed at home.
“These are the lucky ones” Our friend who invited us announces.
“The ones who don’t have to stay with their families and can access support”
Lucky to not stay with their families? That word just keeps getting a new meaning for me.
A lady who grew up in this very hospital now lives here again. She fondly referred to it as home as she spoon fed what could have been her son. He lay there, on a wooden slatted mattress unable to communicate yet still radiating love at her.
She wanted to give back and support those in her community. There’s nothing more important than family I can hear silently from her in the air, this being her adopted family.
“Many decide they won’t go home, even when their family can provide”
“They feel welcome here, comforted, more than a community. When they decide they say, make one for me” as he gestures to the prebuilt coffins semi-hidden behind a plastic divider.
They survive on little, some who are able to will sell small items on the street to fund a slightly more materialistic lifestyle for their community, and by materialistic we can be talking as simple as fish.
When people greet you on the street with a small sign or a call for hope remember this. Their stories could well be true and your minimal purchase could have maximum impact. It certainly changed my view on the realities of ‘hassle’ and ‘beggars’ I so often see complained about when we are guests in these countries.
We bid our farewell. We step back into our real world of air-conditioned transport and cool, safe drinking water and I cry for what seems like an eternity as I try to type these words into my must have iPhone, and shaking, result to the most emotional video I have ever recorded to capture these words.
Is this really the true face of poverty?
The people have food, they have a roof and they have a bed. They have love and support from a community much more giving and selfless than any I have ever known.
But they are opportunity poor, below any ‘poverty line’ we can define with a digit and money symbol.
Their lives were stolen for some when they were conceived, for others as they went about their daily life. Generations of families still affected by the actions which were so easily implemented in the past yet leave such a lasting legacy.
I always used to say ‘Let us never forget’ but that no longer seems enough.
Today I start saying, and actually truly meaning it, ‘Let us be the change we want to see in the world’
But first, We have some coffee to deliver.
Find more information on the sustainable community work and tour I have been a part of in Cambodia/Vietnam by heading to Hands on Journeys.
*I was invited to Cambodia / Vietnam with Hands on Journeys as part of their launching tour offer. All opinions, however, are as always my own.