I just finished writing Plato’s American Cave on my other blog and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write about village life in Sihanoukville for a long time. Really, though, I’ve been wanting to write about village life, as opposed to city life, in general, because it’s a subject that’s dear to my heart.
What is Village Life?
By “village life,” I mean a way of life that is vanishing. Villages in the past were self-sustaining and not reliant on their governments. When I was in school, I was taught village life was hard and that villagers were “backward” people without access to the awesome advantages of modern civilisation. I kind of bought this argument until I met some educated, reasonably successful Cambodians who believed life was better before “progress” came to the country. Without going into too much detail, here are a few examples of stories I’ve heard:
- A hotel manager told me that before going into the hospitality industry, he worked for the government. His job was to go to villages, meet the people and learn something about their lives. “They didn’t want to move to the city,” he told me, “because they only had to work two months a year in the rice fields.”
- The happiest days of Sophie’s life were when she lived with her family on the edge of the jungle. They got most of their food from the jungle and made money for rice from their charcoal oven. They also raised a few chickens and her brother was a crack shot with his slingshot.
- The residents of the Sihanoukville dumpsite had dignity, self-respect and a well-organised village life. They appreciated the medical help and other things we were able to offer them, but did not tolerate NGOs that treated them like poor, desperate people.
- A neighbour who has done relatively well in modern Sihanoukville told me that life was best before the Khmer Rouge, when he lived in a small, self-sustaining village. You can read a little more about him in the blog cited at the top of the page.
- A school teacher told me she felt safest in the years just after the Khmer Rouge were defeated. Why? “We were a village then and were able to take care of ourselves.” Now we have to rely on our jobs and our government.”
Yes, I know all the arguments in favour of NGOs to protect against human trafficking and provide education and health care. I can see the point when the World Bank points out that under Hun Sen, Cambodia has reduced poverty from 50% to 20%. I’ve heard all the arguments in favour of development, but little or nothing in favour of simple village life. One documentary on National Geographic accidentally shed light on the subject, though. It was about development in Laos.
I’ve only been as far as southern Laos, but I was stunned when I crossed the border. On the Cambodian side, the sides of the road were either lined with plantations or stripped of vegetation. As soon as I crossed the border, I was surrounded by jungle. Laos lagged behind Cambodia in development, but because of that, remained nearly unspoiled. Not all Laotians I met liked this. They wanted to be a part of the modern world, but was it a good idea?
The documentary gave shocking statistics about “poverty” in Laos. I think the average wage was about a dollar a day and jobs were scarce. Then, in an aside, the narrator mentioned that the villages in Laos were entirely self-sustaining. Malnutrition was almost non-existent thanks to the rich soil and abundant crops. The villages were under threat, though, because young Laotians wanted to move to the city so they could make money and buy cell phones.
Look anywhere you like: the areas of greatest discontent, violence and poverty are urban areas or rural areas that have been taken over by agribusinesses. Of course, you can find exceptions. In many parts of the world, drought, floods and other natural disasters create real problems for isolated villages, but their biggest problems have come from outside, colonial, imperialist powers.
Saying we should revert to a simpler, village life may be an over-simplification, but we can certainly learn from indigenous villagers. One thing I’m sure of is that the centrally controlled governments of today do little or nothing for humanity as a whole. We need another solution and maybe the solution is in village life. It works here in Sihanoukville, where the members of villages take care of their own problems first and only turn to the police when necessary. You can’t say the militarised police in Ferguson Missouri are an example for the world to follow.