Billy is tanner than the locals and they pick on him and love him. This is what I like most about this man. He has built up a repoire with the locals, unlike most internatioals here. He's unassuming and contemplative, or just quiet, I haven't figured him out yet. He's balding but a black cowboy hat hides the top of his head. Long, black curls protrude from the rim, whipping me in the face as he drives wildly on dirt roads outside of Phnom Penh. I've gone with him twice now out into the slums or to relocation sites outside of the city.
As Phnom Penh becomes gentrified, the ghetto is sometimes burned out by the government and people are forced to leave, planted capriciously in unwanted areas. He works with people affected by HIV/AIDS to build schools, jobs and centers for orphanages and vulnerable children. The man is an enigma, but I'm intrigued. I'm intrigued to work with a grass-roots non-profit, excited for the opportunity to work for people, immediately and directly.
I met two of the families I will work with in my first project here. They are part of a home-based care program that Billy started through the Jeannine and Billy's Children Foundation many years ago. There are six families in the Bora Khela slum. Vena is an 18-year old whose family was helped by JBCF and who is now attending university on a four-year scholarship from an Australian NGO. She will be working with me during the home visits and also be serving as a translator. The first family we went to visit is headed by a grandmother raising four grandchildren orphaned when their parents died of AIDS. Billy provided the family with $150 start-up and now the family is much less vulnerable, running a small gocery stand out of their home. He has put a children's center nearby and hired a teacher who he had found close to death, soon after her husband had died of AIDS. Now she is healthy and her daughter has pink toenails to match her mom.
We took the moto into a different area, down alleys between tin houses, an alley so small that my knees nearly scrapped along. We went to Lekhana's house, another grandmother raising her child's children. She tells Billy that she's not having trouble with her oldest now and points to her yellow and black sarong. He gives her clothes and some money everyday. Everyone is laughing and talking in Khmer, we're sitting on tables and stools near the kitchen, which is dark and covered in flies. The floor is hard-packed mud and swept clean. Billy tells me that one of the children in the family was close to death several years ago. When Billy got her started on ARVs, she began to get stronger and he told her that if she got stronger and stronger still, he would take her somewhere. She wanted to go to the beach. They are laughing about the trip. Billy wanted to go up some hill and Vena couldn't go because of her handicap, unless Billy carried her. They are all picking on the way Billy walked up the hill.
For years Billy has worked with these families, but there is no documentation or files and with funding troubles, its important to be able to present information to potential donors. My job is to build up trust with the families, ask lots of questions and put together a file for each family--with report cards, pictures and medical information.
To get a better sense of Billy's projects, he wanted to show me some other work that HPHAO (Hope for People Living with HIV/AIDS organization) is doing in villages outside of Phnom Penh. I borrowed a helmet from Wendy, the owner of our local bar, and held on tight as Billy took off into the dust. He knows the shortcuts, he navigates and I'm encouraged. So much money gets poured into the throngs of international NGOs in Phnom Penh and often only the internationals reap the benefits, traversing the streets in cushy landrovers. And I imagine that many of these people move from one air-conditioned office to the next and never see what they're proclaiming to help.
I went to a 5-roomed school and the English teacher showed me around, introduced me into classrooms and told me about their days. I threw the little kids into the air and they all grabbed my arms and rubbed at my skin. The older kids practiced their English with me. One girl looked western and the teacher told me her mother sells fried bananas and sweet potatoes in Phnom Penh and her father is a German that shes never met. Most of the kids are barefoot. The youngest kids dont wear pants. But they get breakfast, lunch and a snack, ad thats more than some kids I've seen. Fifty percent of children in Cambodia have stunted growth, which also affects their IQ level.
We visited a second school after lunch where about 20 kids from the village have classes. This is where I saw the hungriest child I've ever seen. And I wondered why he wasn't in the free school. Just after passing the child in the street we passed a half million dollar German orphanage with no children. The resort orphanage is looming, empty and haunting. Why is that man rubbing his belly in Germany feeling satisfied that he built an orphanage, not knowing the place, the country and not realizing that no one is benefiting from his ostentatious orphanage?
Written by Elizabeth, February 2008.