Andong Village, Cambodia photo story

Two weeks ago I visited Andong Village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Here is a brief story in pictures from that day. Keep in mind that you are only removed from these events by a few hours of travel. These lives and stories are ongoing, parallel to our own, in real time.

The well water in Andong Village is tainted with heavy metals. Long ago UNICEF provided large containers of water, but it was contaminated and people got sick. UNICEF left the barrels, and a private individual has been filling them with pond water and selling it. The water should be boiled, but fuel is expensive. Most village families have to take their chances.

Andong Village began in 2006. A slum in Phnom Penh (Sambok Chap) was emptied to make room for developers. More than 1000 families lost their homes and property (officially a much lower number). They were relocated to an empty field 24km outside the central city with no homes, no electricity, no sewage facilities of any kind, no drainage pipes to prevent flooding in the rainy season, no trash collection, no school, no hospital nearby, and the list could go on. Perhaps the  worst part was the loss of their jobs and businesses. The cost of commuting 24km to keep a construction job in the city was higher than a day’s wages. Those who had small businesses (fruit stands, etc.) had to start over. What little they had was taken away.

Events like this, the poor losing their homes to make room for development, are not uncommon in Cambodia or elsewhere. Often people in slums don’t own their property or they can’t prove ownership. In Cambodia, all property records were lost or destroyed under the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Technically, people are supposed to have property rights once they live in a place for a given period of time, but getting that on paper is quite a task. The reality is that “might is right” has ruled the day. People with powerful connections can seize land while the government turns a blind eye.

This was my third trip to Andong Village in the past two years. Each time I see my friend, Abraham, a Cambodian man, who I met through another friend, Brian Maher. Abraham began working with the people in Sambok Chap, and then he followed them out to Andong. Last year he moved with his family to a simple house next to the village.


Abraham (top left), two teachers, and a worker (now paid staff)

In 2006, Abraham recruited several volunteers from among the villagers and went to work. During the past two years, he has helped build about 450 temporary homes. They also put in underground pipes to stop the worst flooding. He started a school in 2008, because many of the children had nowhere to go. He has constantly been involved in the daily life of the village: driving pregnant mothers to the hospital, helping the sick find treatment, counseling families in conflict, and much more.

He dreams of putting in larger drainage pipes. During the rainy season, flooding brings raw sewage into homes, and some parts of the village are always flooded. He has the pipe, huge concrete sections sitting in a nearby field, he just lacks funds to finish the job. He also dreams of sewing classes (they have one machine and teacher so far) and, eventually, a factory. Jobs bring income and restore dignity.

Abraham became a Christian as an adult. He became involved at Sambok Chap, and later at Andong. He read in the Bible about God’s love for the poor, and he decided to live that way. Abraham speaks of “holistic love,” which means loving the whole person (physical, mental, social, and spiritual), not just his or her spiritual life or soul. They have a weekly worship meeting with about 200 gathering, but he insists that “church” is not a building or meeting. It is people who know Jesus, expressed in relationships, and characterized by loving and serving others (and he adds: without discrimination toward Buddhists or Muslims in the village).

A boy at school

We arrived in the morning and went straight to the school. Andong Village Primary School is government approved with four grade levels and 120 students. Each year they are adding a new class (in a new grade level). The teachers come from the village. They all began as volunteers for the first six months (despite being desperately poor themselves). Now they are paid $50 a month, supported by a church in Australia. It’s not much, even in Cambodia, but it’s a start. The NGO that Abraham created to run the school and work in the village has just enough money for one month at a time (if that). They had $135 in the bank when I visited.

The first thing we noticed at the school was the happiness of the children. They exuded it. They love being in school. They were polite, obedient, friendly, intelligent…just like children you would find at a nicely run school anywhere. I was taken aback by this realization. Could these really be the poorest of the poor? What really separates rich and poor? What if we were more connected, all of us here and there, with these children and countless others like them? What would change?

The kids get a free meal every day thanks to $600 in monthly support from another NGO. Most don’t get enough to eat at home. Even this meal is mostly rice with a bit of meat on top. The budget of $600 per month comes to about 20 cents a person.

Playing a Japanese game (and beating the Japanese volunteer)

I showed up with two volunteers from Japan, plus a Japanese friend (also a photographer). The volunteers taught the kids a simple song in Japanese and played with them. When it was  time to go, one of the older girls (in the photo above) approached a volunteer to say goodbye. I was already impressed with this girl. She seemed like a natural leader, winsome and bright. She suddenly stepped forward and placed a big kiss on the volunteer’s cheek. It was not a needy kiss, like someone craving attention, but a true gift from the heart. Later that volunteer said several of the girls kissed her that way (none of the boys, thankfully).

After the kids had gone, we stayed to ask Abraham questions and listen to his story. Then we walked over to see where the children live. I’ll let these pictures, with brief captions, tell the story from here.

A girl just outside the village. The fields and spaces between homes are filled with trash and human waste. There is no sewage system or trash collection service, and the villagers don’t own trucks to haul away garbage and sewage. This is a part of life that periodic flooding literally brings back home to them.

A girl returning home from school

A husband and wife need to fix their roof before the next rainy season, but repairs cost money, and the entire house in not in great shape. Most of these temporary homes were built nearly two years ago, and they are wearing out. Rebuilding a roof costs about $100. Building a simple but durable home costs about $600 with volunteer labor.

A father attempting to rebuild, rather than repair, his temporary house

Generations

Two girls from the school

The rainy season is coming in June, and many homes need repairs. Abraham and his team will work side-by-side with the villagers to help them prepare. Meanwhile, they hope to address deeper, long term needs (to stop the flooding, train women to sew, and create one or more factories with jobs).

The school is a success. The teachers are dedicated, and the students are learning. Recently, a volunteer started coming from Phnom Penh to teach English once a week, with 300 students of all ages attending. But there is still a lack of text books and school supplies.

People are being touched spiritually by a group of Christians with holistic love for others, and there is really no downside to that.

But a huge and unexpected challenge hit in January that affects all of these efforts. The owner of the land that the school rents decided to sell the property. He has given the school six months to move. There is not a good piece of land near Andong Village that is available to rent. A nearby field is for sale. It is ideally located and large enough for the school, but with escalating land prices it will cost more than fifty thousand dollars to buy it.

 

(UPDATED JANUARY, 2016)

1. How can I give a donation? I wrote this post in 2009. I’m not longer in contact with Abraham, so I can’t help with this question.

2. How do I visit Andong Village? Can I take a group there? I don’t recommend visiting Andong Village for a day trip. I sometimes get requests from local travel agents asking for contacts or even just directions so they can bring groups of tourists. I tell them I’m not in touch with Abraham and can’t help. Truth is, I don’t want to help facilitate poverty tourism. Andong Village has changed over the years. If anything, it’s more complicated than ever. If someone wanted to help, then it would be best to commit years to it. Now if there was a team of experienced, skilled volunteers (doctors, dentists, or teacher-trainers), I might get in touch with Abraham to open a door for that…and I would have other suggestions, too.

WATCH THE VIDEO VERSION OF THE STORY HERE

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .

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  • Thank you to those who have contacted me directly. Things are happening.

  • Every time i come here I am not dissapointed, nice post

  • Have been waiting for this kinda stuff for years

  • Hi Andrew,

    One NGO gave me your blog site..and I realized that you are my contact in FLICKR 🙂

    I will be visiting Phnom Penh again on 12 Dec – 15 Dec. Is there anything I could help in Andong Village ? I could try to tie you up with some a foundation in Singapore who specialized in funding and building sewerage and schools. I hope they could help.

    I hope you are still there in Phnom Penh as I would like to visit the village.

    Regards,
    Thomas Tham

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  • lada

    Dear Andrew,

    I am really glad when I read this article. In face, I just come across it because I need some face to support my writing. I know that it is common that such a thing happen in Cambodia but I really don’t know what to do. I am so happy that there are some NGOs trying to help the poor. I hope when I graduate, I can do some thing for my country,too.

    Truly thank for sponsors that help my people.

  • Hi Andy,

    It was good to meet you a few weeks back. This is a great resource and redemptive use of photography. Way to go.

    Jeremy

  • Elise

    Dear Andrew,
    Thank you for your post.

    My name is Elise and I work for a social ventures think tank based in Hong Kong called the Global Institute for Tomorrow.

    I visited Andong village last month with Green Concepts, a company started by two gentlemen, Yvan Perrin and Sim-Phong. Do you know them? They propose to do a lot of work here, and so we came to see the site.

    My Cambodian friend sent me your site when I asked if he knew of any documentation on Andong village.

    I’m interested to speak with you.

    Please write me at

    Thank you,
    Elise

  • Dear Andrew,

    I am leading a group of Singaporean University Students from the Singapore Management University to Andong Village on 30 April 2010. We are going there primary to teach English and hygiene to the kids. However, we are also very interested to contribute or do whatever we can to improve the drainage and/or the water supply over there.

    I noticed you mentioned that the funds for the drainage pipes were only half raised a year ago in 2009, could I check with you if more funds are needed?

    I would be most happy if you could get in touch with me. I do apologise for the short notice, as due to our university schedule. My email is

    Thanks very much!
    Clarence

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  • Fitriya

    Dear Andrew,

    My church (Evangel Christian Church, Singapore) visited Andong village in Dec 2009, and this year we hope to visit again. I would like to find out more about what we can do with a morning visit and how we can support the current needs. I look forward to communicate with you further. Please email me at .

    Many thanks.

    Fitriya

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