David and I have returned from nine months’ mission work in Cambodia. Being our second trip, we were better prepared, and settled in quite quickly. Arriving with a slight grasp of the language under our belt gave us a flying start. We needed it because Daniel and Kerren Pryde, who we were to replace, left just a few days after we arrived, and so very soon we were back into the familiar BEC (Bible Education Centre) routine, including the 5:30am starts.
Just before they left, however, we had an action-packed ecclesial weekend. Brother Peter Heavyside travelled over from Hong Kong specially to lead the studies, which were on Ecclesial Leadership. The weekend also saw the baptism of Vichara, one of the girls from the dorm.
The BEC routine
Getting back to routine, on a typical weekday, David would ride the BEC moto(rbike) over to the dorm to teach the students from 6:00-7:30am. Meanwhile, I stayed at the BEC to teach classes there. We would have various classes scattered throughout the day’s schedule, and then in the late afternoon we would both travel over to the dorm and have two more hours of classes, and finally arrive back home at around 7:45pm for dinner. At times I had to eight hours of lessons a day. David had a few less, as he needed time to prepare seminars each week.
Each Friday I would make the hour-long trip out to LCDI (Leadership Character Development Institute). The students there, many of whom have missed out on formal schooling, are taught English by immersion and so aren’t allowed to speak Khmer. We have a group of about eight or ten youngsters there that are really keen to study the Bible, so I would do an hour’s lesson with them each week, and once a month we would invite them to the BEC in Phnom Penh to join our Outreach programme — a full weekend of Bible lessons.
Each Saturday night, a seminar was held at the dorm, where David would give a 40-minute talk and then everyone would break into groups to discuss the questions David had made, after which everyone dug into a scrumptious dinner, thanks to Sister Theavy’s efforts in the kitchen. Sundays would see Sunday School arrive in a bundle of noise and energy, to be followed later by the breaking of bread, and plenty of socialising with brothers and sisters.
So our days were certainly busy and we always had something to do… until the power went off, that is! During this trip the power supply was terrible, and blackouts lasted for 2, 3, or 4 hours, or sometimes longer. As soon as the power disappeared, with no fans to keep them at bay, the mosquitoes appeared, with a vengeance. They would hunt in packs, hone in on me, and I would get bitten alive.
During our time there, David and I had some really special times teaching. Some classes I would never relinquish as I enjoyed teaching them so much. Not only did I teach but I learnt from them too. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to teach two students preparing for baptism (a first for me), and now have a very close relationship with those two sisters. One of them, Ratana, lives right next door to the BEC. She was one of four baptised at the Ecclesial weekend at the end of March. The other, Channa, was baptised a few weeks after we left Cambodia, but David and I were able to watch and share the occasion via skype.
Change and growth
The ecclesia in Cambodia is certainly growing, not just in numbers — while there we witnessed ten baptisms — but also in confidence, ability, and maturity. They now plan and organise the Sunday School, all their regular meetings and events, the study weekends, and are taking on more responsibility for the annual Bible School. In recent months, there has been enthusiasm building amongst them to begin regular organised preaching programmes in the rural areas around Phnom Penh. There are a number of brothers and sisters who have had to shift away from Phnom Penh for work, and those in Phnom Penh make the effort to travel to visit and break bread with them, sometimes in towns up to ten hours away by bus. We pray that our loving Heavenly Father will be with our Khmer brothers and sisters and help them as they continue to grow, mature, and share their amazing hope with others.
Cambodia Bible School 2011
One of the highlights of our stay was the Bible School, held last December, where we had around 160 people from as far afield as the UK, US, Russia, Thailand, Myanmar, Australia, and even some familiar faces from New Zealand. The three main speakers were John Pople from San Francisco, and Garnet Alchin and Alan Dennes, both from NSW. In addition, some local Cambodian brothers taught sessions. Activities included a talent show featuring acts from several different cultures, a boat cruise on the Mekong River, and welcoming in the New Year with a few sparklers.
The 2011 floods
Unfortunately, late 2011 brought the worst wet season in a decade in Cambodia. While seasonal flooding is no stranger to Cambodia, this time vastly greater areas than normal were inundated, and floodwater remained in some parts for months on end. Rice crops were lost, livestock had nowhere to live, livelihoods were lost, and water supplies contaminated. Sadly, nearly 300 lives were lost, many of them young children drowned around their homes and villages. The effects are still being felt, and Sister Loy is working to assist those who we know who have been hit by the tragedy.
Visits to the villages
Helped by the abundance of public holidays, we managed to get out and about a lot more than we had during our previous stay in Cambodia. Our first trip took us Brother Vitou’s village (Vitou is employed at the BEC, so we worked with him every day). An hour and a half’s moto ride under clear blue skies saw us arrive safely at the village, where we met his family, and the families of two other brothers. After a lovely country-style lunch and a less lovely tasting of kuat (a woody fruit that removes every last trace of saliva from one’s mouth before gluing itself to one’s tongue) we visited a local “resort” (think park). After failing to feed the monkeys (they refused all offers of bananas and only accepted offerings of peanuts), we were planning to return to Phnom Penh, but the weather had other ideas. Blindingly heavy rain meant that we eventually decided that peering through a narrow gap between wet glasses and wet visor, trying to make the most of the 20 metres or so of visibility was no way to ride a motorbike, so we had an unexpected overnight stay in the village.
Another trip a few weeks later had us accompanying Loy to her family home in Siem Reap, six or seven hours bus ride away. Visiting at the height of the floods, it gave us an insight into living in a house surrounded by water, water in which there could be fish, crabs, leeches, and snakes.
By the way…
Some novel experiences encountered during our stay:
- An 8-hour journey in a 14-seat van, accompanied by a wooden bedframe and a significant portion of the district’s annual rice harvest, besides the luggage and persons of our 31 fellow passengers
- Navigating flooded rice paddies (a) by motorboat, and (b) on foot, anxiously dodging the crabs and leeches while trying not to sink into the thick, gloopy mud.
- Hearing not just the crack, but the sizzle, of lightning striking a building very close by
- Mastering the art of showering outdoors, in full view of the road, clad in sarongs (which are astonishingly prone to slipping)
- Spotting an endangered Irrawaddy (freshwater) dolphin
- Having fireflies buzzing over our bed at night, and tokay (giant geckos) sleeping behind our pillows
- Witnessing flames dancing along the power lines across the road
- Seeing the Mekong lapping at the doorstep of Phnom Penh, 10cm from the top of the stop banks
- The bumps and bounces of a genuine ox-cart ride
- Chancing upon an exotic blue-striped bumble bee
- Seeing an entire house, including lights and TV, powered by a car battery
(Observant readers may have noticed an abundance of water-related incidents: perhaps our next visit to Cambodia should be to establish a floating BEC.)
Finally leaving Cambodia was very difficult to do. It was heart-wrenching to have to leave behind so many people who we have worked so closely with and got to know. We long to see them all again soon, should we have the opportunity to do so.