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Volunteers join first 'Dirty Weekend' clean-up in Cambodia

Assistant Country Manager, Jo Walton, has been working in our Cambodian team after working for us in Sri Lanka for one year. Jo coordinated regular 'Dirty weekends' in Sri Lanka - a concept where a big group of volunteers generally get messy whilst helping one of our projects by cleaning, painting and numerous other activities. Here she tells us about the first Cambodian 'Dirty Weekend'.

Giving the children a bath

The first outing for our brand new Projects Abroad Cambodia 'Dirty Weekends' is a clean up day at the Lighthouse orphanage just south of Phnom Penh.

The lighthouse orphanage is funded purely on donations from tourists, and as a result various aspects of it are in a terrible state of disrepair. The kids are happy, wonderfully welcoming, and mostly speak ok English, which makes a change! It is set in a spacious plot of land - there's a huge play area with volleyball net, a concrete classroom, a small farm that some previous volunteers set up, and recently a French couple has built a pig sty and donated them some pigs. The whole place is covered in asbestos, which the kids break up and play with it - a small girl came over to me the other day with a play dinner set with some dried fish (asbestos) and salad (chopped up nettles) and offered it to me. Nice.

Laundry collection

Despite their huge smiles, some of the kids here look pretty grim. Many of them have rotten teeth, that cause them considerable discomfort, so we bought them soap and toothpaste and had some volunteers teach them the basics of keeping themselves clean. The older ones are pretty good at this, but some of the younger ones are more lax (understandably, how many 5 year olds do you know that don't have to be reminded to have a bath?). And so, one team of volunteers began the unenviable task of cleaning the children, laundering all the bed sheets and blankets, and doing locker inspections and sorting out the worst of their clothes to give them a scrub like they'd never seen before! I genuinely wouldn't have believed that their blankets were actually multi-coloured - the dirt was so engrained that I really thought they were all shades of brown and grey. I've also never seen the volunteers so clean either - none of them even had the traditional grubby flip flop marks!

Another one of the major issues here is that the pathway to the bathroom, via the pump where they get all their water from, is actually made of a pile of raised rubble and broken tiles, so the kids constantly cut their feet whenever they're running around, or every time they go to wash. Projects Abroad donated all the raw materials to build a proper concrete path over the whole area. After a bizarre start, which involved digging a big hole elsewhere and transporting more mud and broken tiles to the area (I don't know a huge amount about concreting stuff, but I'm not sure that's the way I would have started!), and naturally lots of tea breaks, Projects Abroad's Assistant Manager - Sophan, the volunteers and two of the orphanage staff got started.

Staff and volunteers

Once they did, I'm amazed at how quickly it all went down. By the end of the day, they had a full path, about 1.5m across and 15m long, running from the play area to the bathroom, past the pump. The boys who worked on this deserve a medal! I've never seen people sweat so much and not give up. I think Sam can freely go around Phnom Penh this weekend using the phrase "I am all that is man" as much as he likes after that effort!

The final hurdle is the rubbish. Unfortunately, the Lighthouse is too far from the main road to have a rubbish collection. Since they're not allowed to dump rubbish at the main road for collection, and assuming that they'll start separating and recycling their rubbish is more than a bit hopeful, it was decided that the only alternative left was to burn it. Not exactly my favourite method of refuse disposal, being a bit of a green bean, but let's face it, this is Cambodia - anything else just isn't going to happen.

The New Path

So, we hired a couple of guys to dig a nice deep hole for them to burn their rubbish in at the back of the farm area, well away from where the kids play. It was a slow start, I could be heard at various stages saying that in no uncertain terms, Cambodian builders were even slower than their British counterparts, and cursed myself for allowing myself to be talked into paying them by the day and not by the job. For the first few hours there was a single spade being passed around the four of them (despite the fact that there were three other spades leaning against the tree that they were sitting smoking under..), but once they got started... I've never seen anything like it! They basically dug an Olympic sized swimming pool out the back while I wasn't looking! The rubbish hole turned out to be in a handy location, as it dawned on the manager that it could double up as a run off for the pig manure from the new pig sty - not that I think they'll be making much manure for a while - they're soooo small!!

Even though we can't get them recycling, we can get them to separate out raw foodstuffs and leaves to make their own compost for the farm. Some old volunteers had set up a compost heap here, but due to the high winds blowing in plastic and all sorts, and the fact that it had no lid so the sun was cooking it everyday, it wasn't rotting down successfully. So we bought them three old oil drums with lids, that can be filled in succession, so that once the last one is full, the first will normally have rotted down sufficiently that they can empty the fresh compost, and start to fill it again.

Volunteer and Sophan

This was by far the hardest part of my shopping list to get hold of (except possibly nit combs - try explaining what a nit comb is to a man who thinks you're already slightly bonkers without ending up in the hair accessories section of Olympic market doing impressions of small bugs, and demonstrating picking through someone's hair like a gorilla), so I'll have to admit I'm a little disappointed when they arrive and they're still half full of oil. Far be it from a bit of oil to get in the way of a Cambodian, and Sophan (who's in his element with all this manliness and I've never seen so excited - and excited is his default setting so we're going through the roof) runs off to get some laundry soap and a rag and proves to me that it can indeed (with plenty of water) get oil out of drums.

After a short tuition session on what asbestos looks like, why you shouldn't go near it if you come across it, and the doling out of heavy duty gloves and masks, all the volunteers take part in a final sweep of the whole area to remove all the rubbish that's blowing around the site. By this time, all the kids and their belongings are clean, the compost all separated, the path's well on it's way to being finished, and my lot are started to look more than a little bedraggled. So I collect everyone's Projects Abroad T-shirts (whose idea was it to make those white?!) to donate to my washing machine at home, which I don't think knew what hit it, and it's off home for a well earned shower.

Washing blankets

All the volunteers who took part were taken out for dinner on us, to say thanks for all their huge effort. I'm not naïve enough to think that you can change the world in one day, but we put some basic things in place today that will hopefully encourage some grass roots change in the way they deal with their rubbish, made it safe for the kids to wash, and by getting the kids involved in the washing process in a fun way, hopefully inspired them to do it properly more often!

Thanks so much to everyone who helped out; Mr Lee from the orphanage asked me to pass on his gratitude to you all - he was really impressed by the way everyone got stuck in!

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