By Dianne Kushniryk
Part 3 of a series
The majority of the Cambodian population remains some of the poorest in the world: the typical salary is $1 a day — $200 a month is a good income, even allowing for a family to save. Tuk Tuk drivers average $60 to $100 a month and that is working usually, seven 12-hour days and their overhead comes out of that. Gas is about $1.40 a litre.
The first day in Phnom Phen the sights, sounds and smells of poverty overwhelmed and, I admit, revolted me but by the time we left I was so humbled by the generosity of the Khmer people that I was unaware of the obvious.
They have so little but give so much; not only whatever of the material they can’t afford to give but their kindness, their respect, and their hearts. Here in a country that has so much we give so little and we even seem unwilling to share or even risk our overabundance. In the gospels there are two stories that contrast this gap and are so representative of this difference.
In Luke 18:1-23 we read the story of the rich man (Canada) who asks Jesus what he has to do to achieve eternal life. Besides keeping the commandments Jesus told him: “There is still one thing you lack, sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But upon hearing this, the rich man became sad because he was very rich and he turned and walked away. Luke (21:1-4) also contains the story of the poor widow (Cambodia) “While Jesus was in the Temple, He watched the rich people putting their gifts into the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two pennies. ‘I assure you,’ He said, ‘this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.’”
As Canadians we pat ourselves on the back for all the foreign aid we give and grumble under our breath because the cost of living has risen. In Cambodia there is no health care, no social services, no old age pension, no Workers Compensation, no employment insurance and no disability programs. We heard so many stories of hardship and need but in voices that gave thanks to God for what He had done and held no bitterness or even resignation just joy.
One young man who had been born in a refugee camp in Thailand where more than 500,000 Cambodians fled the Khmer Rouge, told this story. Dara was raised by a single mom after his alcoholic father disappeared early in his life. As oldest son he was responsible for caring for his family after his mother was hurt in an accident that left her unable to work. Dara’s family consisted of his grandmother, mother and four siblings. Dara was 12 years old when he shouldered this responsibility. He used to go down to the markets after the selling day was done and gather whatever the sellers had thrown away because it was wilted, bruised or busted and would take it home to feed his family and to clean up to try and sell for pennies.
Dara has two dreams: one is to be a youth pastor but he can’t afford to quit his present position and pay for the $65 per month tuition and room and board. His second dream is to marry his Christian girlfriend but he needs $5,000 US for a dowry. We pay more than $65 on a night of entertainment and we shell out six times $5,000 for our status symbol vehicles and we hear these stories and shrug our shoulders, moving on to the next rich indulgence. It is sad.
Dianne Kushniryk is a Christian essayist who has been published in the Rimbey Review and the Red Deer Advocate. She now writes almost exclusively for her church Rimbey New Life Fellowship.