Peace Corps volunteer Keiko Valente, 25, is just finishing her two-year stint living in the village of Pon Ley, near the district town of Boribo, in Kampong Chhnang Province.
Back home in Seattle, she has a Japanese mother and an American father. She’s been teaching five classes of 10th and 11th grades, each with 65 students, at the local high school of 3,000 students.
Valente took time to reflect on her Peace Corps experiences for the Post. “This has been a very humbling experience,” she says.
She wanted to join the Peace Corps because she studied human rights as a minor in college “and I was learning theories of how people should live their lives”.
Gender issues were of special concern to Valente. She was interested in learning about Cambodian women and what their lives were like, and she hoped she could find a way to support them and learn something at the same time.
“In America, I might date someone for two years, then I might find out he’s lazy or drinks too much, so I can leave him and go to another relationship,” she says.
“Cambodians have the idea that this is morally loose, and they think there might be a different way out there.”
Valente spent time helping one young lady whose father was prone to alcohol and temper tantrums. The young lady had lost a bag of money at her market stall and was worried her father would be angry.
Valente supported her as much as she could.
“She studies all morning and works all afternoon. She looked so tired, and she had lost the money bag from the day before. I tried to turn it into a positive, so I worked with her to turn that potential into something else.”
Valente says she wants to understand young Cambod-ian women, not tell them what they ought to want.
While helping students with their various life situations, she has built two water wells, a water-filtration system for a health centre, started a micro-lending group with a local maths teacher and enlisted some students to help her paint a big map of the world on the exterior wall of one of the school buildings.
Valente received small assistance grants from US AID to pay for these projects, as well as help from an organisation called Appropriate Projects, which funds water projects for Peace Corps volunteers.
“We had our own English club, and we would do many community development projects,” she says.
“We had a girls' leadership program, about 40 students every week, and a different topic each week. We’d go into primary schools to teach hygiene workshops.”
It was easy to see the hard- working Valente not only enjoyed what she had done and had made a difference in the lives of young Cambodians, but had also changed her own outlook considerably.
When her father came to visit her rural home, he remarked: “I had no idea you were living like this, and I don’t know why you haven’t called me crying more often.”
It is evident that the good-natured Valente will not soon be forgotten among the high-school students around Boribo.
She leaves Cambodia next week for a short vacation in Japan to visit relatives and her Japanese mother before returning to the US.
Peace Corps volunteer Saeed Rahman, 23, has a Pakistani mother and an American father. He volunteers his time at the Phsar Village public health centre in Kampong Chhnang Province
“I studied chemistry and biochemistry for four years, but didn’t like it,” Rahman says.
Now, he lives without electricity. He has a bicycle and a laptop computer, and uses a car battery for power.
In his free time, Rahman does a lot of English teaching. His Khmer language skills are improving fast, too.
Cambodian local government health centre director Mom Borarath, who is Rahman’s boss in the Peace Corps-Cambodia government-to-government agreement, offers praise for Rahman’s work.
Asked what supplies he could use at the health centre, Mom says it would be surgical gloves and an expansion of the size of the delivery room so more mothers having babies can be accommodated.
Rahman has been in Cambodia for 10 months and has worked hard not to offend people. “It is hard, because even when you’re doing that, you might do something not completely right.”
Nevertheless, Rahman finds moments of happiness in his public-health training, teaching English, riding his pushbike and staying with his host family, where he rents a room and eats his meals.
“People here have the same problems we have. We have to realise, on the other hand, that they have their own image of what our country is like. It’s interesting.”
As a health-education volunteer, Rahman tells people about diseases such as dengue fever. “A lot of people don’t know a lot of simple things like where disease is coming from, what affects our health, things like that. My job is to inform people about that,” he says.
Earlier this month, Rahman made a couple of dengue-fever presentations for local people.
“They know it comes from mosquitoes. I tried to focus more on how it spreads, how it is a community problem, how things around the community can have an effect on having more or less dengue. How garbage and things can affect water collection for mosquito breeding. Getting rid of trash helps,” he says.
“Dengue spreads during the day. The mosquitoes bite more during the day. They like to stay under tables and stuff.”
Rahman encourages people to wear long sleeves and trousers during peak biting times.
Rahman contracted dengue fever himself in March. “It was no fun. High fever, constant headache. I got over it in about a week. It is viral, so antibiotics don’t help. Your body has to pretty much fight it off.”
An organisation called Rock sponsors people’s transportat-ion from nearby rural areas to come to the health centres.
Rahman is also interested in latrine projects to help reduce open defecation, which spreads disease.
“Most of the people don’t have latrines, and that creates an environmental health problem,” he says.
The most common afflict-ions at the health centre are respiratory and stomach ailments, Rahman says.
He recommends simple things such as hand-washing and general good hygiene to prevent stomach ailments.
Rahman believes a lot of the respiratory problems are the result of people breathing in a lot of smoke while tending wood cooking fires.