2008 Contest Shortlist

Meals On Wheels In Stung Meanchey, Phnom Penh

Handing out food down at the dump to the Cambodian needy.


This is my pleading request for 2 lines to 40 people in front of me. But the damp environment and limitations of my Khmer are producing more smiles and giggles as opposed to efficiency. Even when surrounded by the overwhelming stench of Phnom Penh’s rainy season humidity and the stench of Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump’s rubbish piles attracting hordes of flies, laughter is still an effective form of medicine for people with no fixed address, waiting for food consignments. Due to the religious festival of P’chum Bun, numbers are down because provincial people who live here have returned to family homes in the countryside to pray for the well-being of their deceased ancestors in pagodas.

I am 1 of 4 frontline feeders, handing out packages of baguettes, mandarins and bananas to outstretched hands, hats and cupped t-shirts of boys and girls, men and women. My journey for the day has taken me through an open market in Phnom Penh to shop for bread and fruit, taking a hands-on role of preparing a care package on the truck and then openly volunteering for “coalface duties” by handing out the food. Ignoring the warning sign of distressing scenery, the possibility of following the trail of my $USD15 donation from the moment my money entered the box to the food delivery time was justifiable enough in my own eyes.

Prior to setting off for the day, Dave Fletcher, the man responsible for the Rubbish Dump Project, an initiative of the Cambodia Charity Development Fund (CCDF) gives me a photo display of what I may confront. There’s a picture of a small boy being carried by his mother which it is heart-wrenching.

“He suffered a broken leg during childbirth when doctors pulled too hard when he was being delivered. The bone snapped in several places on his left leg, leaving him unable to walk, and now he wears a metal brace. Upon the surgery’s completion, he will be provided with not only fully functional legs, but a walker-on-wheels, assisting his efforts to take his first steps in life at the age of 5.”

Accompanying the display on a computer is slideshow of pictures donated by previous volunteers, especially children living and playing on mounds of rubbish with their families.

“There is no protection for the vulnerable here. Kids do not ask to get born on a rubbish dump, let alone raised on one.”

For an everyday run, about 300 meal kits are provided, with the cost between $USD100-120 per visit, made up entirely of volunteer donations. He brings along a paramedic to tend to cuts and wounds that residents pick up in the process of digging through rubbish.

“How long do you think you can keep doing this project?”

“Sometimes I wonder how long I can keep doing this, “he begins. “But if I crack up emotionally, then I will just mope around and declare everything a lost cause, and what if nothing gets done after that?”

It is times like these I never have a decent response.

There are 13 other foreigners standing in the back of the truck, almost like a backpacker’s Salvation Army delivering Meals on Wheels. First stop is one of Phnom Penh’s open markets, crawling with Sunday customers as we weave through stands packed with truckloads of bananas and pineapples.

“Right, I move fairly quickly through these aisles, so if you cannot keep up and happen to be lost, head back to the truck.” Dave led the pack just like an army squadron leader. This was no more evident than during his negotiations with a stall owner who tried to offload boxes of lychees littered with ants. The box will end up in the dump anyway, but not in the hands of the dwellers. His cavalier approach towards buying goods demonstrated how direct he was in marching in to the rubbish dump to get the job done personally.

I hear the creak of a boom gate go up and a few seconds later it slams shut menacingly. A horde of flies enter the truck’s open entrance to the back as we all reach for face masks or makeshift breathing apparatus to protect ourselves from the sickening stench. It’s a foreboding entrance. Because of the muddy tracks up ahead and the only other possible gateway being through an area where toxic waste is dumped, our truck cannot progress more than 100 metres past the entrance. What begins as a trickle of 1 or 2 people spotting us and running up the hill quickly becomes a dozen. Men, women, boys and girls had started to run up the road, following our convoy of food.

A shout from the front of our truck echoes, “I want 3 strong lads to handle the front of the truck and hand out the food.”

“I can do this,” I tell myself, jumping out onto the squishy ground so before a moment of doubt enters my mind. Is the strength based on possessing superior physical, mental or emotional strength? I must have delayed replying to myself too long. I turn towards the truck, instructions are being issued for food allotments; 2 mandarins, 2 apples and 1 small bread baguette. “Don’t mix everything up and have quick hands, because the guys at the front having out the food don’t have time to think” is the next instruction that comes from the truck somewhere.

I turned the other way and saw 30 to 40 people cramming in for the best position (read leaving me no space to turn away). The latter half of that sentence I heard called out could not have been more accurately stated.

I concentrate on following the other two guys who are trying to organise lines, amongst the children and elderly women. There is always the necessity to watch out for young children being sent by their parents to get more food out of fear they get lost amidst a sea of legs. Males shove girls out of the way to get that extra bit of food. Age and status are of little consequence here. The line is fairly orderly considering that consignments of food get here once or twice a week. Aside from these food deliveries, the only food that residents can get can is by digging through the rubbish for some scraps. When all else fails, eating excrement is a final resort.

Suddenly, a maze of hands, hats and cupped t-shirts along with cries of “Me! Me! Me!” and I panic. How do I address the elderly while not ignoring the younger ones in line? I have memorised some basic Khmer phrases to stop proceedings in case somebody drops an item of food ensuring a scramble. The baking hot sun is getting to everybody already and my emergency language will not count for much other than comic relief. Children shout out “TEACHERRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!” and pull at body hair on my arms while tugging on my shirt. The elderly stand back more passively, and mothers balancing children on their backs or hips simply held out their hats or kramas with a spare hand.

I haven’t forgotten about you all, my mind wants to shout out.

The inevitable moment when all food supplies were close to running out approached. A shake of the basket revealed 10 bananas and 10 apples left. At that precise moment, 60 pairs of hands or improvised carrying devices waved in the air. One little girl with scars on her legs and face dropped an apple that I was handing to her along with the rest of her food, leading to a tug-of-war match between her and another boy I had given food to already. He eventually handed the food back at the request of an elderly gentleman. After everything had been handed out and the volunteers took time to see more of the surroundings, he stood alone, his stomach, followed by him picking up a piece of plastic from the ground and pretending to choke himself. Perhaps he had been robbed of his parcel of food which I had personally handed to him when leaving the line. It is time to look at some positive work being done here. Amidst the backdrop of piles of rubbish strewn beyond the naked eye, children and adults found a space to sit down and eat. Some children with serious skin conditions were fortunate enough to be treated with anti-biotics.

For a few minutes, the piles of rubbish pale into insignificance and I view a sea of temporary smiles. Soon, as the truck pulls away, eventually leaving behind the nauseating fumes and a smouldering scene of burning garbage surrounded by residents, I convince myself that about 150 people at least received some food in a battleground for survival. These are people I may not know by name, but I recognise as survivors and true heroes of modern day Cambodia.

David Calleja