The Aji Approach

Jody / Khmer Times No Comments Share:

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) — The sound of the squeaking rubber-ducky alerts the neighborhood that the aji – which means “scavenger” in Khmer and has various spellings – are in search of cardboard, tin, plastic and anything else they might be able to sell to the recycle operations.
Like any other sector of society, the aji have their own established class system. The poor carry big plastic bags; the better off have carts; the affluent have a scooter to pull the trolley. Some start at 4:00 a.m. when it is cooler. Others endure the heat of day and work into the evening.
Many of the aji are drawn to Phnom Penh from the provinces in the hopes of a better life, of more opportunity. The general agreement is that it was a good decision. According to Ms. Sim, “It was difficult in the provinces because we did not have much land to plant rice and vegetables. We didn’t always have enough to eat. It is better in the city and we usually don’t go hungry.” They are economic refugees, part of the global rural-urban migration pattern. 
While Stung Meanchey may not be the prettiest place to live in Phnom Penh, there is a sense of community. Kids play, families squabble, neighbors gossip. And contrary to what people might expect it, there is actually a sense of camaraderie. These people have to work together to get things done. Turfs are staked out; collection points established; accounts about who did what drawn up.
A non-profit recently built a “community center.” Translated that means it is a large wooden table with a long bench, an overhead tarp to keep out the worst of the sun, and a hammock in the corner. From 6:00 a.m. until about 8:00 a.m. it is a breakfast place. Then the kids take over to play or sleep. Women of all ages get together to talk. In the evening the men gather to drink beer or cheap wine. 
The economic infrastructure is alive and well at Stung Meanchey: various little shop sell the basics, a bicycle/motorcycle repair operation flurishes, and there are a few tailors. The market isn’t too far for items not available at the dump, such as fresh meat for those can afford it.
How about the economic realities and aspirations? Ms. Theada comments, “My dream is to work in a factory and make $100.00 a month. But I have to be careful not to dream above my ability. I come from the provinces and I don’t have any real skills. I can read and write a little, but not enough to work in an office or anything like that.”
“Collecting garbage is difficult and I have to work very hard,” offers Ms. Vichika. “I make about $2.00 to $2.50 a day. My husband works on construction or in a factory when he can get work. My daughter is going to school at the Cambodian Children’s Fund, so that is good as it is very important for her to get an education. But I still have to look after my four-year old son.”
The general consensus at the dump is that education is the only way to escape the cycle of poverty. Parents want to send their children to school, but some of them need the child labor so that the family can eat. There are some NGO schools that provide options, but sometimes the parents can only afford the uniforms and books for one child in the family. And it is usually a boy.
Mr. Brad Callihoo’s 11-minute  Out of  the dumps — — clip takes you into the guts of  Stung Meanchy and introduces you to the people who live there. Watch it.

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