They went to Cambodia to learn, and then return to inspire a generation of Women in the Baptist movement to help end the poverty and injustice that mars our world.
“We want to take the stories of the ones and twos to the thousands, so they can hear, feel and respond. Whether that be by giving generously or by advocating,” says Karen Wilson, the Western Australian Director of Baptist Women and coordinator of Fresh conference.
Cambodia is a country of rare beauty. The women journeyed from Siem Reap, home of the ancient temples of Angkor, past serene country side and lush, green rainforests, to some of the most isolated villages in the world.
For all its beauty, however, the scars of Cambodia’s recent history are apparent at every turn.
It’s confronting. The depths of the wounds, they sit with you personally. It’s unsettling,
reflects Elissa Macpherson, a leader of Queensland’s She Is conference.
In the 1970s a civil war, followed by the reign of the genocidal dictator, Pol-Pot, left the promising nation as one of the world’s least developed.
Among a myriad of problems, the aftermath has meant the nation’s health and education system is severely underdeveloped, while large swaths of road, transport, and trade infrastructure has been destroyed. And, sadly, landmines indiscriminately placed by combatants, still litter many areas of the country side making a lot of good agricultural land too risky to utilise.
In one remote village they visited, the women met Saram.
Saram has had three days of schooling in her entire life. Growing up, access to school was difficult, and, as is often the case, Saram’s family probably couldn’t justify the cost of education for their daughter when there were more immediate needs to be met.
For almost all her life, Saram’s village had no toilets. And they lacked awareness of basic hygiene practices, which, in a country like Cambodia, meant a constant battle with poor health and the loss of far too many children to preventable diseases like diarrhoea.
Saram said her life “just felt hopeless”. But, recently, Saram has turned over a new leaf.
For just over two years, one of Baptist World Aid’s Christian partners in the field has been working in Saram’s community. And, when the women met her, she was brimming with the expectation of new possibilities.
Saram has joined a savings group and learnt new skills in chicken rearing and animal husbandry. She’s even learning about the importance of sanitation and hygiene.
Twelve months ago, Saram took a $125 loan from her savings group to build a chicken coup and to start a chicken rearing business. Within a year, she and her husband have more than tripled their farming income, paying back the loan within a few months! They used their surplus income to build a toilet, a cleverly designed bucket tap for hand washing, and install a lined garbage bin. When the women visited Saram’s home it was spick and span, and, most importantly, free from the constant risk of disease that comes from living in unsanitary conditions.
As the women talked with her, Saram cradled her baby boy and spoke about her dreams for the future. She talked of her plans to continue expanding her business, to educate her children, and to share her learnings with her community… so they too can be successful!
Already, groups of people from neighbouring villages have come to learn from Saram and her husband.
“I’ll be very happy when I see them become successful,” says Saram.
For the women, meeting Saram was one of the highlights of the trip. But Saram’s story sits among so many other stories of renewed hope that they heard. Children are being educated, women are finding confidence, livelihoods are being enhanced, and communities are gaining access to new skills, hygienic toilets, and clean water.
“When you take these stories into your own, they change you,” comments Julie Shatz, long term justice advocate and representative of Together conference in Darwin, Northern Territory.
“We are constantly being met with moments of despair giving way to hope, ignorance to knowledge and helplessness to opportunity. We need to get these stories of change out there so people respond,” says Anina Findling, the WA relationship manager for Baptist Financial Services and staff member at Mount Hawthorn Baptist.
I haven’t seen any more effective model for change than what we are seeing here from Baptist World Aid.
The trip was hosted by Stephanie Dobbin of Baptist World Aid and attended by Gershon Nimbalker, the Baptist World Aid Advocacy Manager. Participants included coordinators of key women’s conferences around Australia: Fresh in Western Australia, Together in Northern Territory and She Is in Queensland.