Down in the Dumps of Poverty

They surrounded us eager to get their share, impatient hands outstretched towards us, desperate gestures spoken in a language I don’t understand. We work quickly to fill the small black bag with rice handing them out to first the women.

I feel hands constantly tapping my shoulder trying to get my attention; a little boy keeps tapping me on the knee and is pushed away by another adult. I am overwhelmed with this immense need. The hot Cambodian sun beats down on this rubbish dump on the outskirts of Phnom Pen, their home.

She sat crouched, surrounded by mountains of rubbish. One hand wrapped around her daughter and the other trying to hold onto her squirming little boy. The smell of disintegrating rubbish, swarming flies and the humid air stifles my breathing. I cannot comprehend this life, day after day of shifting through grime, just to make ends meet, to put food on the table.

We find out through our touk touk translator that she lives alone with four children. She agrees to show us her home, so we skip and hop through the quagmire of mud and rubbish. We pass a woman waist deep in a small hole filled with water. She is washing old plastic bags encased in mud and dirt. I walk past her trying to avoid sinking into soft mud. She stops washing and directs me in the way I should go. I follow her hand gestures and give her a thankful smile. She smiles back and continues washing.

I look at the ground, careful about every step I take so I don’t sink into the mud. Children follow us, bare feet, walking along casually not aware of the dangerous items that may be imbedded around them. Our touk touk driver picks up a small passport photo, dry mud encased on the edges. It’s a picture of a woman in her 30s perhaps, professional looking with long black hair, I wander who she is and what her photo is doing here- he drops it on the ground and we continue towards the village just on the edge of the tip.

It’s hard to believe that people actually live in these conditions. There are wooden boards and planks placed precariously across mini water outlets that run in and around the village, muddy dirty water littered and stagnant with rubbish with huge pigs snorting their way around the village or lying under houses with dogs, ducks and chickens.

I see a tree resembling a palm tree, a nice tree with a little brook running past it and think of the irony of the scene before me because my mind associates the palm tree with paradise and inthe middle of this rubbish dump, it looks out of place.

We keep walking up the small dirt road to the woman’s house. People are starring at us curiously probably wandering why foreigners are even doing in this part of Phnom Phen. We walk past a school surrounded by a tall wire fence, once again the irony of happy school children running around in their school uniforms just seems out of place, yet it also says that there is still hope in a place filled with poverty.

We arrive at the woman’s hut, a small straw shanty squished in between others, with her next door neighbours not more than two to three metres to the left, to the right and across the path from her.

Privacy is not a matter of concern whether you like it or not. The five of us and our touk touk driver all squish into the hut and sit on the straw mat, we can all barley fit into it, so I uncomfortably try to adjust my legs and tuck them under me to try and get comfortable as we sit and listen to her story. I glance around the room, at the meagre possessions tucked away in the corners, at the gaping holes in the roof and the floor.

I look at her three children as they sit quietly beside their mother. I love watching the little boy, who appears to be more animated and curious than his little sister. He is especially happy because I gave him some chocolates before and he has saved them in his little plastic bag of possessions which he grips in his small grubby hands. Sweat beads form on the mothers face as she sits talking to us, watching her baby girl playing on the floor.

She cannot speak English, and we cannot speak Khmer but we manage to ask her questions through our touk touk driver. Her husband is away most of the time trying to earn money somewhere else, while she stays with the children, working in the tip.

She tells us that she would like to put the children in an orphanage because at least there they will get fed everyday and have a chance at an education. This is sad to hear but it is the only option she sees in trying to get a better life for her and her children as she only earns about $200 US a year, which is not enough to pay rent on the small shanty and feed her children as well. Beside she has no relatives nearby who can help look after them while she works.

After talking for a while we say goodbye and wish her well. It’s a surreal experience and I find it hard to feel happy or hopeful for her and her family because the aura of the place just consumes you into its murky reality. We slowly walk back to our touk touks, hop in and drive down the slushy road back onto the busy streets of Phnom Phen.

It seems a distance memory now, a moment in time when the reality of another became mine for a few hours when I walked through the tip that day.

Down in the Dumps of Poverty

oddoutlet

Joined December 2008

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Artist's Description

My experince of going to the Phnom Pehn Rubbish tip in Cambodia, where many of the poorest people call this place- home.

Artwork Comments

  • Karin Taylor
  • oddoutlet
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  • oddoutlet
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