March marked one year since Australians could travel overseas. It also marked one year since my last trip to Cambodia, to a small village north of Phnom Penh.

The air is dry, the ground is dusty, and the sun warms my skin. Children are running around, giggling, playing games under the safe watch of their parents. A group of women, young and old, are gathered together under the shade of a raised-wooden house. They’ve saved the best seats for our team of Australian Baptist church leaders and representatives, at the front, protected from the harsh sun rays. Fresh bottles of water and packaged biscuits are passed around, a gesture that might seem small but for a community living in drought who worked hard for their savings, it is an act of extreme kindness and generosity. With a soft and gentle voice, a short-statured lady wearing a vibrant orange shirt, her hair pulled back, introduces herself and her group. For the last six years Dany has been the group-elected leader of her local savings group…

Initially set up by one of Baptist World Aid’s local Christian partners, PNKS (‘Light of Hope’ in English), the group began with only 16 members. They’ve now grown to 47 members (including 14 families identified by the Cambodian Government as “poorest of the poor”). Neighbours care for one another and no-one is left out. But before we go any further, it’s important to understand Cambodia’s recent history of war.

During the Khmer Rouge Regime – led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979 – trust was wiped from society and God’s good design began to crack. In an attempt to bring the country back to ‘year zero’ (Pol Pot’s plan to return the country to a subsistence-based farming economy) a conservative estimate is that over one quarter of the entire Cambodian population were brutally killed.

I let that sink in. That’s more than one in four people…murdered at the hands of their own government.

The Khmer Rouge army tortured their own people. Interrogating them for crimes they did not commit, separating families and forcing everyone, the elderly and children alike, into long, gruelling hours of physical labour. Taken against their will, thousands upon thousands were thrown into tightly packed trucks and taken to Killing Fields where they were brutally murdered in masses.

Their own people turned against one another and relationships were broken. Horrific violence tore families apart. Education was disrupted and poverty widespread.

Yet remarkably, despite this recent history of war, trauma and broken relationships, the women in Dany’s group are open, honest and supportive of one another. They meet monthly to update each other on how much money they’ve saved and to add it to a collective pool. Dany acknowledges everyone’s contributions for all of us to see and the pool of money provides the opportunity of a loan for anyone in the community who needs it.

Emerging from the broken relationships we see new opportunities and the restoration of relationships. But how has this happened?

Baptist World Aid works in partnership with local Christian organisations, helping to build their capacity and support them in implementing community development projects. PNKS is one of these partners and they worked with Dany and other community leaders to set up this group. They organised group meetings and encouraged the community to get to know one another, to trust one another. They ran training sessions upskilling local farmers so they could increase their harvest and in turn, their savings. They supported leaders, like Dany, to guide the group in setting up a savings fund and establish a safe space founded on honesty and trust.

Just like taking a loan from the bank, the borrower is charged a small amount of interest when they repay the loan. Unlike a bank where profit goes into the pockets of a wealthy corporation, the money made from interest is used for projects to improve their own community. For example, Dany’s group has built better quality roads, making travel to and from school and the markets safer and quicker.

Before this partnership, Dany’s community lacked the opportunity to access fair, affordable loans. Anyone who needed to borrow money had to travel into the city (which meant taking time off from work and not earning money that day) and complete a stack of paperwork (hard to do when you missed out on going to school as a child) to prove your worth to a microfinance organisation.

While God will remain at work in this community, PNKS and Baptist World Aid won’t always be here. We don’t need to be. This group, and many others like it, are now self-sustainable. They have the infrastructure and strong leadership needed to run independently of any external support. Relationships have been restored and families are working together.

I watched the women’s impact on a community up close and have been affected ever since.

That trip might have seemed a lifetime ago but even during these months of social distancing in Australia, I can still hear Dany’s voice. Her work continues in a country now confronting COVID and she continues to inspire me. And I have my suitcase near the door just in case we get to return.

This article first appeared in Sight Magazine.