Alan and I are in the remote village of Tramung Chrum, and it is nearing mid-morning. As we walk down the dusty street toward the village mosque, we are followed by a group of men, women and children who had gathered for a meeting to discuss a project to create a sewing business in the village. More people emerge from seemingly nowhere to join us during the quarter mile walk.  Up ahead we can see children lined up on either side of the mosque gate to greet us.

Children greeting us at mosque

The mosque was built in 2008 from funds donated by Alan’s family.  It was not a Harpswell project. The villagers are very proud of this gathering space and it stands out as one of the few brick buildings in the village.

Alan and the village religious leader, Iman Leb Sim, spot each other and embrace in a prolonged hug. Although they do not speak the same language, they share a close bond and think of each other as family.

Alan and his good friend, Iman Ben Sim

We continue into the mosque building where a man and woman have just finished rolling out mats in the large, mostly bare room. The air feels cool inside and I am glad to be out of the searing hot sun. All the men gather into a circle, sitting cross-legged on the mats. I pause for an awkward moment, then sit down in the inner circle with the men next to Alan. He faces his friend Iman Leb Sim and introduces me as a business woman from the U.S., and Yousos translates in the local Cham language. There are nods and smiles around the circle; no one seems to mind that I have invaded their male territory. The village women and children seat themselves in the back, near the door. They are not sitting on mats and are observers, rather than participants in the discussion that follows.

Alan says a few words about how happy he is to see everyone, and hands out twenty envelopes which contain half a dozen pictures of he and his family, some from home, others taken during visits to the village. Unsure how to disperse the envelopes among the sixty or so people who have joined us, he hands them to the Iman who decides this detail. There are “ohs” and “ahs” as people excitedly look at the photos. All recognize Alan’s daughter, Elise, pictured with others in the village during her last visit. Elise is obviously a beloved daughter here!

I keep turning around to watch a little girl with big brown eyes, perhaps two years old, who is wearing tiny purple socks and yellow flip flops and can’t sit still.  We make eye contact and I smile. She holds my stare, but does not smile back. Her mother lets her wander a few steps, and then guides her back to her lap. This is repeated multiple times in an easy, relaxed manner.

Alan hands out the fruit he bought at the market earlier in the day and I break my gift of twenty loaves of bread into pieces and hand them out, first to the women and children, then to the men as suggested by Yousos. I sense a feeling of happiness and tranquility overlaid with excitement in this gathering space.

Marie with mothers and children in the mosque

There is more business to attend to, and we leave the mosque and follow Iman Leb Sim as he makes his way across the road and through a field to show us a project that is underway.  A pond is being built with the objective of raising fish as a renewable protein food source for the village. Iman Leb Sim has been learning how to raise fish by listening to his radio, powered by a car battery.

On the way, we pass a younger man yanking on a rope tied around a cow’s neck. He is trying to lead her toward a path through a grove of trees. Following behind is a calf on unsteady legs, born just hours ago!

Cow and newborn calf

We reach the pond and learn that the roughly 50’ x 75’ hole was dug by hand. An NGO helped by providing rice as payment to men and boys who did the work. Water has started to fill the hole, seeping in from the ground and from the recent start of the rainy season. Iman Leb Sim takes a long stick, marked at intervals to indicate depth and inserts it into the hole. It appears that the water is about ten feet deep so far.

Hand dug fish pond project

Now Iman Leb Sim gets down to business. He speaks to Alan and Yousos translates. Can Alan help the project by providing money to buy the fingerlings to stock the pond? Each fish costs 300 Riel, and about 1000 are needed to get started. Alan does the math in his head and agrees to provide $100 from the Harpswell Foundation for the baby fish. He looks at me and laughs, saying “I hope I didn’t make a decimal point error.”  The men agree to name one of the fish Marie.

First primary school in the village, built by the Harpswell Foundation

The last stop on our tour is to visit the school compound. The primary school was the very first project taken on by the Harpswell Foundation, opening in 2005.  Prior to that, there was no building for a school. Children did their lessons under a thatched roof structure with no walls to provide protection from wind and rain, limiting school hours. Most of the village children never made it past the early primary years, if they attended school at all.

Plaque on secondary school

Secondary school donated by the U.S. Military

In 2010, the U.S. military built a secondary school which is situated near the primary school.  The secondary school came equipped with a solar panel array, which powers fluorescent lights in the three classroom building. The director of the schools has a request: is it possible for Alan to provide two laptops for use with the secondary school students? Batteries of the laptops could be charged from sunlight during the day, and they would be portable and usable after dark. This is a more significant investment than stocking the fish pond. Alan asks the school director to find out how much the laptops will cost. The decision is deferred for now.

It is time to begin our two-hour journey back to Phnom Penh. There are multiple goodbyes all around, and I am pretty sure I see Alan’s eyes mist up. It has been an amazing, eye-opening day for me.  This remote village of Tramung Chrum exists in a very different world then the rest of us. While there is tranquility and a serene peacefulness, there are also hardships due to lack of education, availability of healthcare, and adequate nutrition. Children growing up here have few choices in life. Girls who leave Cham villages like Tramung Chrum to work in garment factories in Phnom Penh do so around age 15 or 16. They work under difficult conditions, and are vulnerable to being naively coerced into the sex trade industry. However, for many families, the income from their daughters in the garment factories are the only sources of hard cash for them to buy necessary items they cannot grow or make themselves.

In the car on the way back to the city, I think about how one individual who wanted to make a difference has so significantly impacted the lives of the 600 people of Tramung Chrum. When I mention this to Alan, he immediately deflects the discussion away from himself and talks about the donors to the Harpswell Foundation and all the people that continue to be a part of its mission.  I have heard him say how his involvement in the many aspects of the work he either does himself or directs is actually a gift to himself. He is sure he receives far more than he gives. Very cool.

Other pictures from our visit:

Coconut tree in Yousos's backyard

Lunch prepared by Yousos's wife and mother during stop at his home while en route to Phnom Penh

Marie and village woman

Religous leader Iman Leb Sim