I wasn’t new to the sight of child labour in Cambodia. Along the lazy river-front in Phomn Penh, children as young as 4 or 5 are trained to go from table to table at the restaurants selling trinkets to tourists. The charm of some kids is irresistible, but I’ve always avoided buying, not wanting to feed their exploitation. But a couple of nights ago, that changed.
I had stopped for dinner at a food stall near my apartment in Phnom Penh. The owner Om, who I’d become friends with, cooks up barbecued snacks and French bread, a tradition left over by the French, much like in Vietnam.
As I sat on a plastic stool, munching beef balls and fish sticks, a little girl walked up carrying a tray of packaged fruits on her head. I was mesmerised by how she balanced the tray with perfect, cat-like poise. She looked 8 or 9.
I’d always resisted buying from children in the past, knowing they were organised by adults who kept themselves out of sight.
Moments later, I realised what I was actually seeing. I’d been almost hypnotised by her balancing act. The girl came into the stall and sat at a table behind me. She removed the tray from her head and rested her cheek in her hand. I thought I heard her release a small sigh.
Om’s wife brought her a plastic cup filled with water. I smiled and motioned my appreciation of her balancing skills, she smiled back. A huge wave of sympathy suddenly ripped through me. The tray of fruits was resting on her lap and I pointed to some pineapple, then at something that looked like strawberries. I gave her a dollar and she dropped it in a plastic purse around her neck. Then she stood up, placed the tray back on her head and before leaving beamed me another smile. “Thank you,” she said in English.
After she’d gone, I glowed inside with self-congratulation. But that soon faded as I saw other children go by with trays of fruit on their heads. Some were older, others perhaps even younger than the girl. My barbecued dinner was quickly losing its flavor. A couple of times, a girl in school uniform and holding a pile of books walked past. She wasn’t selling also, was she?
Some time later, the girl from earlier returned. She approached a man who was standing next to a motorbike. They talked and he seemed to inspect her tray. She opened her purse and counted out the notes inside before giving them to him. I felt sick. I observed how neatly dressed he was, in contrast to the girl’s scruffy pyjamas. As he talked on his phone, one hand casually in his pocket and a slight grin on his face, my anger towards him grew.
The streets of Phnom Penh are dangerous enough without starting fights with locals who clearly have no morals to begin with.
I wanted to do something. I wanted to transplant the girl into another time and place. I wanted to punch the man in the face. The urge began to feel real and I had to tell myself it was probably not a great idea. So I sat on my stool and fumed. I wanted to ask Om, as a father, what he thought about it. But I wasn’t sure if this was a subject I could talk about openly.
Eventually, the girl and another boy rode away with the man on his motorbike. I hoped she might look back so I could give her a reassuring nod. She didn’t. And of course it wouldn’t have made any difference if she had. I see how naive I was being.
And then it rained. For two straight days it rained. I was sitting in a coffee shop, waiting out a downpour that had been lashing the street. I was feeling down and lost. Just motivating myself to get to the coffee shop had been a struggle. And then, as I watched a young boy of about 10 push a food cart along the side of the road, dodging cars and motorbikes, drenched, I said to myself, “Do one thing purposeful, just do one thing purposeful today.” So, I opened my laptop and began to write about the events at Om’s food stall.
This was the first time I’d ever felt drawn to speak out about something. Why this? Why now? Maybe I was just do-gooding, grasping for a way to feel better about myself. But then I recalled the genuine anger, the sense of injustice as I watched things unfold at Om’s stall. This felt real, this felt like me, something actually wanted to speak.
For a long time my travelling had slipped into a kind of chaos, alternating between periods of clear intention and drifting. Perhaps I wasn’t ever going to find one big overall purpose. It might always be just like this, small moments of doing something worthwhile, tiny reasons to make the journey worthwhile, to make the lattes taste a bit better. It can’t hurt to try.
According to child sponsorship NGO Humanium, child labour in Cambodia is a serious problem. 45% of children age 5-14 are engaged in labour. Please visit their site below and help out if you can. Thanks.