A Deaf Cambodian Gives Us Ideas On How To Sustain Charity Through Happiness.
Pea Has Something To Tell Me
I'd just started down the road outside our newly built SCC*F2F Community Center in Battambang, Cambodia when Pea (pronounced Pia) came running up to me, waving her arms, and emitting a gurgle of excited sounds. Her eyes sparkled and her body beckoned me to look over toward a man standing in front of one of the temple halls. Pea didn't stop squeaking, gasping, and cooing. I'd never seen Pea so joyfully excited before, and I'd never have imagined what I was soon to learn.
Isolation and Tragedy
I met Pea Vichary in November 2009 when she participated in our weeklong class where HIV+ women studied the craft of varnished, fabric-covered eggs. It's a pretty complex process in which the women learn about fabrics, water-based and oil-based varnishes, various sandpapers, tools, glues, and applying and drying techniques. Since the instructor spoke through a translator, understanding this craft was difficult enough for the six Cambodian-speaking women. Our seventh participant was Pea, who was born deaf and had never learned to read lips. Nor could she read or write, for she'd never been to school. In fact, Pea had barely been socialized, even though she was 34 years old.
Pea's mother didn't realize Pea was deaf until she was about 4. During this time, as Cambodia was coming out of the Khmer Rouge genocide, it was all Pea's mother could do to keep her family alive. Pea stayed home doing chores and sometimes playing with other children. But even that didn't happen so often, as Pea was quick to anger and lash out. Pea's childhood was marked by work and isolation.
When Pea was in her 20s, her mother noticed that the normally gaunt Pea was putting on weight. She seemed to crave mangoes. Over time, the mother figured out that a couple months before, Pea had gone to collect plants in the fields and there she was accosted from behind, blindfolded with a checkered bandana, and raped. As far as the mother could tell, Pea hadn't seen who'd done it.
Pea gave birth to a son, which in fact brought out a gentleness in her. For two years, Pea found happiness in being a mother -- and then a day came when Pea's child was stolen from her at the local market. He was never found, and Pea was devastated.
About six or seven years later, Pea became increasingly sick, and it was only because a field officer of our Cambodian partner organization, SCC, found Pea and took her to the hospital that she didn't die. Pea tested positive for HIV and was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.
Our First Week With Pea
In 2009 when she attended her first craft class, organized by my Face-to-Face AIDS Project and SCC, Pea didn't smile for the first few days. Her face was taut and stern, and her motions were stiff and tense. At times she'd get distressed and emit a moan or a shriek. She seemed ready to explode at any moment, or flee at any sign of criticism or teasing.
Still, the instructor didn't want to give Pea special leeway. The only way to learn is through mistakes and everybody in class was working towards the best quality, said the instructor, who I thought was strict, especially given the language, cultural, and societal barriers.
The instructor was in fact my mom, who in her mid-70s had already made several trips to Cambodia to work with these HIV-positive women. And in spite of all the insistence on carefulness and meticulousness -- well, scolding is what I call it -- the women were genuinely fond of her, calling her Mama, and always crying when she'd leave to return to the States. Mom treated Pea like everyone else, which was a good thing, for we quickly realized that Pea was hyper perceptive about how people acted not only to her but to others. She seemed to have an extra set of eyes just for observing people's intentions.
Around the third day of class, I showed Pea a video of her walking on a road -- and seeing herself on video made her deliver an unexpected squeal of delight. That was the first time I saw Pea smile. The last two days of class, Pea participated more with the other women, who included her as much as they could. Pea's taut face loosened a bit, and she didn't run away when it was her turn to be hugged by Mom just before she left. But watching her, I wondered if Pea had ever been hugged out of joy like that before.
Life Without Words
We spent a second week with Pea in 2010, and she smiled even more, and she seemed to be enjoying the company of others at our now newly built Community Centre. After we left, the staff at the Centre reported that Pea continued to participate in their activities. Pea seemed to be doing fine. And yet I'd think of her, and wondered what might develop if we could only teach her language.
What's life like without words?
How do you think without words?
How do you process feelings without words?
I wished we could do more for Pea.
So here's Pea running to me, and there's a kind-looking man standing alone with a bemused smile. I led him to our office -- and there I was informed that this man and Pea had married a few months ago. Pea had a husband!
Of course the wedding had just been a very simple ceremony held at the house. Neither family had any money -- Pea's family had just enough to feed themselves and he was a hired farm laborer who couldn't read or write.
But still, it had never crossed my mind that someone would want Pea for a wife. She was as poor as could be, she couldn't communicate, and she was temperamental. Oh, and she also had HIV.
It's possible that Pea's husband might have been hard to marry off as well, although my first impression of him is of a gentle, hardworking man. Perhaps he took pity on Pea when he met her, which was right after we'd last seen her in early spring 2010.
The up-to-now stern, tightly wound Pea must have been nice when he began noticing her in the neighborhood. She must have smiled -- at a strange new man no less. He must have understood that she had HIV (he told us he's negative), and that they would always need to use protection. And he must have thought that they could have a marriage without talking.
Sustaining a Charity's Charity
As Pea showed him her craftwork and picked the lint off his shirt as we took photos of them, it struck me that our Centre's potential was more than just providing income-generating skills for Cambodians affected by HIV and extreme poverty.
It was more than providing the knowledge and skills to get ahead.
Just perhaps, our Centre's potential lies in creating an environment where people can nurture themselves to find happiness in the company of others. To find confidence and contentment in themselves.
And -- and this is the leap -- to begin to imagine how they can use their happiness to reach out to help others. To contribute to sustaining a charity's charity. From Pea being a beneficiary of our program, to becoming a role model, to perhaps someday helping sustain our Centre. And that opens a lot of possibilities about how charities can sustain their work in the future. (Photo: Hair styling instructor Glenn Ricci and Pea at the end of class)
But more about turning those possibilities into concrete programs in future blog posts. For now, I'm happy to write that Pea seems happy, and at a level far beyond what I ever imagined possible for her. She must feel it in every part of her body.
Which makes me think -- perhaps language might have actually prevented love from happening to Pea. Perhaps language hinders love more than we care to admit....
Happy Valentine's Day, Pea.
(all photos taken by author)
For further information about the Face-to-Face AIDS Project and how you can help, or to donate to the Face-to-Face AIDS Project, please visit the Contact & Donate page at www.facetofaceaids.org.