I had been led to believe that my destination in Kratie province could be described as a lonely jungle crossroads—picturesque, but untrue. A crossroads requires at least two paths, but only one ever seemed to lie before our car.
It was about 20 minutes into slaloming down this ill-maintained dirt track that I noticed the flies. Thick and fast they swarmed around our vehicle—no doubt disappointed to find that it was not a king-sized water buffalo. The sparsely populated landscape was an unappealing mix of burnt stumps, dead or dying trees, and the occasional stagnant pool—evidence of deforested land still not fit for farming.
Noble as its purpose was, I wasn’t too excited about this trip, and I would travel hours that day before realizing that in one village alone, our efforts would likely prevent almost 200 people a year from contracting malaria.
The goal for the day was the distribution of 750 mosquito nets in three small villages in Snuol district. It wasn’t until reaching the first of these villages, Sre Tuok, that I began to sense the real importance of what we were doing.
In the 30 minutes before reaching Sre Tuok I had seen maybe 15 people, but upon arrival I found a crowd of dozens eagerly awaiting us and clapping as we strode up to the village’s Buddhist temple.
It was a simple structure with a small shrine and bedecked with triangular flags made from scraps of fabric, and it was packed to capacity.
The village is only three years old. The land has scarcely been cleared, with most plots still littered with stumps. There is no school and an insufficient water supply. It was obvious that the villagers appreciated any help the outside world would give.
Monks performed a blessing before the nets were distributed. Speeches were made and photos taken as villagers received their nets. To wrap up the event, a tree was planted in the small courtyard of the temple to commemorate the day.
The expressions on the people’s faces and the excitement that they showed in the temple would have been enough to let me know that we had done some good for this village, but it really didn’t sink in until I spoke with Moeung Pak.
Moeung Pak is the Sre Tuok village malaria worker, a villager trained by the National Center for Parasitology, Entomology and Malaria Control to diagnose and treat malaria victims. Thanks to anti-malarial drugs and rapid detection tests that he is provided with by the center, he says there have been no serious malaria cases during his 14 months in the position.
The village received a mosquito net distribution in July 2005. Moeung Pak says that before the nets were handed out, there were typically about 20 malaria cases every month in this village of only 535 people. Since then, he said, the average has dropped to five or six cases a month.
It was then that it all hit me: A few hours out of my day was helping cut the chance of serious illness in this little village by 75 percent.
Moving on from Sre Tuok, I couldn’t get over how large an impact so seemingly small a gesture could make, and felt very petty for originally not wanting to have bothered making it.