phnom sruoch district, Kompong Speu province – This is my back-page confessional: I was nervous about going to Pring village to hand out mosquito nets.
Not because I was worried I would get sick or sunburned or become tired by the bumpy roads. I was self-conscious about handing villagers mosquito nets. Do mosquito nets work better if they come from a foreign woman? Will the villagers suddenly become healed of malaria when they see me bounding through the dust, mosquito nets in hand?
The presentation ceremony was far less epic. The people of Pring village gathered around a tree at what appeared to be a convenient town meeting spot. The children stared. I handed them Mentos candy. They still stared and looked a little frightened. But they accepted the Mentos.
The village chief gave a short introduction. Then Dr Duong Socheat, director of the National Malaria Center, told me I would be giving a speech. A speech?
I am not a speaker, but introduced myself as a representative of the Daily, whose readers provided the nets. Then I asked some questions, how could I resist?
“Please, raise your hand if you have a mosquito net already.”
Most of the villagers’ hands went up. But in their homes, their nets were worn with holes. Late last year, 30 to 40 people were taken to a treatment center for malaria, the Malaria Center’s Suon Seila explained. On the trip, laboratory scientists tested their blood for the disease.
Then Duong Socheat gave a speech. He is more eloquent than I. He told the people about the importance of filtering and boiling their water and about the flu that has infected the poultry of Asia. The village Deputy Chief Mao Pim later said he had not heard of bird flu before the doctor’s speech. But he did notice that most of the town’s chickens died last year from an unexplained epidemic.
Later on, we walked through the village, and a 5-year-old boy followed us, carrying his net on his head. His 12-year-old sister trailed behind. The children had never been to school, and their father had gone to the forest to find a source of income.
While we talked, a woman came up to us. A parasite had made small lesions in her skin, causing her to itch for days. She pointed to her children. They had it,too.
“The people are not well informed,” Duong Socheat said later as we took the one-hour trip down a dirt road to National Route 4. “They are so far from the health center…. That is why we must go to them.”
Then I understood: The trip was not about me.