Sophat is 10 years old. He thinks he has just been abandoned by his parents. They told him to go off and take care of himself. His family lives in Anlung Pi, a village about 20km from Siem Reap, just past Bakong temple. This happens from time to time in Cambodia, but Sophat has his own answer.
When I saw him he was setting up his shelter. He banged 4 sticks in the ground, then used some string he had round his waist to tie on the top a piece of orange plastic sheeting. The string he cut with a makeshift knife, which was also attached to him. A broken silver umbrella and a sheet of foil to lay on completed the shelter and he had his new home. Apart from the string, his only other possessions were the clothes he stood up in, a pair of wellington boots, and an empty rice sack also tied to his back.
It wouldn’t surprise me if most of us have built tents in the back garden when we were 10, but with Sophat, this is not a game. This is real life. If you add to the fact that Sophat’s new home wasn’t in his back garden, it was on the top of the Siem Reap landfill site, and was less than 25m from the backhoe that distributed the rubbish, and the picture is less than rosy.
Sophat and his siblings make their living from the landfill. That’s where the rubber boots come in. Most of their time is spent walking over the top of the torn rubbish sacks. Sophat’s bed would be soft, merely because it was built on rotting refuse. It’s hard to make you understand the situation, but try this.
A dump truck comes in. Around 50 workers, including Sophat gather around the back. They all have sticks with wicked looking pick ends on them. The truck dumps its load and drives off. Then the backhoe gets to work. It picks up the bags and spins round, flattening out the pile. As each new layer of bags is uncovered, some brave soul will try to make sure they are split open with their pick. If a plastic bottle is seen, a worker will dash in, ignoring the danger from the spinning backhoe, and grab it. They drop it into a rice sack attached to their backs. Everyone has one – even Sophat. The backhoe is ruthless. To it, the garbage pickers are no more than flies. Slip, twist an ankle on the piles of slippery, rotting, maggot infested goo, and at best the hoe will trail rotting bags all over you. At worst, well, a mere human is little match for a spinning trash spreader.
And the prize money? Hard to say. Buying prices from the recyclers depend on many things, but to give you a guide, 10 plastic bottles can be 100 riel … about 2.5 U.S. cents for 10. Better still are aluminium cans. But they are rare. Most are found in the city before the garbage gets to the dump and picked by kids working the streets. They can get 50 riel each. That’s just over 1 cent. The workers collect anything recyclable. In the end all that is left is the plastic, rotting food and the filth. Oh, and the babies’ diapers and other unmentionable throw outs. Sophat lives here. Under his orange plastic sheet, on top of the rotting goo is his home. This is real life at its most raw. In case you think Sophat is unique, he isn’t. I saw at least a dozen other kids aged 10 or under working there during my visit. Click through some of the pictures in the gallery – then please continue reading below …
Togh works at the village of Anlung Pi. His name is pronounced “toing”, rhyming with boing. He’s 30 years old and was formerly a monk. Now he has many projects under his belt. I really went out to interview him for the Post, but I was overwhelmed by Sophat. Togh’s own story makes quite a read, but that, I’m afraid, has to be for another time. While I was at Anlung Pi, Togh proudly showed me around three specific projects. They all concern, in one way or another, the children of the dump.
His first project is his Anlung Pi Free School. He is so proud of that. It services 300 students in its three classroom. They teach English and Japanese. The aim is to educate the village children, and help them break free from their poverty. Some of the children at the school have families who work the dump. Togh hopes that soon, funds providing, they will be able to offer midday meals to these children of the dump. It’s one of those schools that just gives you a great feeling when you walk in. Bunhak, the Principal showed me around. It didn’t take long – it’s not huge. Three classrooms, a spare room as an overflow, a kitchen, office, toilets and a washroom for teaching hygiene, and a house for volunteer staff to stay in. They want to build a vocational workshop soon. Considering the whole site only opened January 2012, they’ve done well.
Then I met Wuthy, a former pupil from one of Togh’s schools. He took me to the second project at the back of the school. They are fish farming in the rice fields. As weird as it sounds, it really makes sense. It’s an ecological match made in heaven. The fish eat the bits that fall off the rice, and their excrement fertilises the crop. They also have other eco-friendly ways of feeding the fish. Leftover market vegetables are cooked with rice bran to make a sticky goo, which is put on boards and lowered into the water. Lights attract insects at night, which fall in and are eaten. Finally a small covered platform to one side has rotting meat on it. The flies eat the meat, lay eggs which give maggots. These fall in and provide perfect food.
If the water is getting a little short of oxygen for the 10,000 fish in it, they have ducks. They beat their wings in the water and add air. Currently the fish go 12 to a kilo. When grown they will be 2 or 3 to a kilo and be sold to the villagers. They can market them on and make a profit. In time, it is hoped more people will make a double income from a field – rice and fish! This will offer real alternatives to rubbish picking.
The final project in the village is the housing project. Started in January 2013, they have built 4 houses and hope to build 2 more. At $3000 each these are not cheap, but they are leased to the families on the dump for three years. Micro loans are offered for home businesses (such as farming pigs or cows) and they now have a nursery where the children who are too young to work the dump can play. There’s clean water too. Something not found on the dump site. And children can wash, shower, play, and just be kids. For four families there is a way out thanks to Togh and his team. The nursery will flourish far beyond expectations. It’s not even open yet and already 50 children from the dump are registered there. Maybe one day they will built plastic tents as a play item?
How can one sum up a day like I had today in one article? I can’t. But if you want to know more, contact a great lady called Claire. She took me out there and showed me around. She would love to show you too. She can be reached through the “Our Best Western Guesthouse”, here in Siem Reap. http://www.ourbestwesternguesthouse.com/ for their details. If my story has touched you in any way please get in touch with her.
But before I finish, I have to take my mind back to Sophat. I’m sitting in a comfortable bar typing this on an iPad. I have had a good Western meal, now have a drink and will return by tuk tuk to my air-conditioned room tonight. Sophat will buy food from a dump kitchen for a few riels, if he’s lucky he will have earned enough for some watery rice soup. If not he will just go hungry and then walk to his plastic sheet before it gets too dark. He will probably be quite happy as long as it doesn’t rain. If it does he has no option but to hunker down and pull his plastic around him. Talk about putting my life and my petty problems into context …