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Tuning in to Cambodia’s children

I do not remember what it feels like to be a 7 or 8-year-old girl.  I have but a vague memory of some of the things I did when I was that age, and now I would really like to experience again how it must feel to be so little.  That’s why I start following a little dark-skinned Cambodian girl of about 7 or 8 through the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, in Cambodia.

There are a few similarities between this girl and me when I was her age:  she is as tiny as I was, has shoulder-length coal black hair, and is not afraid of being alone in the streets.
The differences are, on the other hand, much greater.  I used to spend most of my days at school when not on holiday and played with my friends or by myself instead of walking the streets of a big city like she does.  Unlike the little Cambodian girl, I wore shoes – barefoot only at the beach – and the only heavy object I ever had to carry was my school bag, unless my mother carried it for me.

The little barefoot girl carts around a load of twenty or so thick books in a plastic box hanging from her neck by a thick strong rope.  A bunch of Lonely Planets on a variety of countries and all kinds of easy reading novels are neatly displayed for the tourists she approaches at jet speed each time she catches a glimpse of one.
“Want buy book?” she asks in a plaintive voice and the saddest expression.  Her tiny fingers clutch the rope.  Her skinny little arms are a lovely shade of brown; around her left arm is the sacred red string most Buddhist Cambodians wear.
When no one is interested in buying a book, she changes her litany to “Give me 5000 (Cambodian rials).  Give me one dollar,” with the same almost begging voice.

One US dollar seems to be the amount Cambodian children usually go for anywhere in Cambodia when they see a tourist. Another girl, similar in age to the one I follow in Phnom Penh, unable to say the amount because her face has been disfigured and her vocal chords shattered by one of the several thousand landmines still buried in Cambodia, wails instead.  Possibly for a one-dollar bill, she sticks out her hand, sitting near a tourist toilet outside a historic site.  The single finger of this hand is dotted by a tiny drop of red nail polish, perhaps lovingly painted on by her mother.

Four other little children asking for a dollar I encounter outside the boundaries of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where 17,000 people were executed between 1975 and 1979 when Pol Pot ruled Cambodia in his attempt to create a classless society through an ultra-Maoist regime.
“One dollar and we share it,” they keep begging me from where they are sitting on three different hammocks tied from a tree to the wire fences separating the Killing Fields from the outside.  “I buy water,” one of the little girls adds quite self-confidently, having repeated the same line perhaps a million times to every tourist visiting the area.
It is very hot in August in Cambodia.  Like a monster in the sky, the sun seems to be enjoying frying us alive, but the little girl keeps walking, ignoring the cruel sun, ceaselessly looking for potential buyers.  When totally exhausted, the little barefoot girl in Phnom Penh who chooses selling books to tourists over begging, sits on a sidewalk, waiting for more tourists to pass by, sometimes alone, sometimes with other children who try to sell books all day long.
At noon, the usual lunch time in Cambodia, I expect the little girl to go home to have a bite to eat with mama, but she goes to sits in front of a restaurant, waiting.  Clearly, she does this every day.  Having felt her presence outside, someone from the restaurant comes out and gives her a bowl of rice topped with some vegetables and a few tiny pieces of meat.  She dips her little fingers into the rice and greedily devours it; not a single grain is left.  She has none of the comforts I used to have when I was her age.  My family and I would sit around a table under the orange tree in our garden and eat at a leisurely pace the food mom prepared for us each day.  There would also always be some ‘icing’ to top our lunch – some fresh fruit from our garden.
The little girl is not offered any fruit so she gets back on her tiny bare feet and starts walking the streets again.  My little Cambodian heroine does not smile much.  Wouldn’t you think that her mind could sometimes drift off and that she would start playing with something?  But she never does.  She is always running around after tourists, hoping to sell her books.

We spend almost a whole day in the streets, the little child and I, she trying to sell her books and me trying to feel what a little girl her age must feel.  Her final stop luckily turns out to be my own guesthouse.  She tries her luck with every single one of the tourists sitting and watching a movie in the dining room of the guesthouse.  She repeats the same lines I heard all day:  “Want buy books?” and “Give me one dollar,” to no avail.  Today has definitely not been her lucky day.

I keep watching and listening to the little girl’s pleas and thinking about the children street beggars in a totally different part of the world, in Egypt, even though in my eyes the little Cambodian girl is far from being a beggar.  In Egypt, children are taken from their families and sometimes sold, moved to a new city and forced into begging.

“I once was offered a little girl,” Tom, an American friend who has been living in Egypt for a long time, once told me.  Begging is apparently a very profitable business in Egypt, with up to 50 to 100 US dollars a day and an average of 20 to 30.  Would the same be true, I wonder, if Cambodian children begged instead of selling books?

I comfort myself that the little Cambodian girl I follow in the streets of Phnom Penh is not a 13-year-old prostitute either, like the one Tom saw in Egypt negotiating with a 70-year-old man.
My little girl from Phnom Penh, at the stroke of 7 pm, now seems quite tired.  She sits on a chair, with her box of books in her lap and starts watching the movie even though it is in English.  It is a comedy and everybody is laughing.  The little girl only stares at the screen, with tiny sleepy eyes.  She sits there for hours and hours, just staring, with the same solemn expression she wore the whole day.
When I started blankly staring at the TV when I was the little Cambodian girl’s age, my mom would know I was tired and sleepy.  She would then pick me up in her arms, help me brush my teeth and put on my pajamas.  I would then happily fall into the fresh and clean sheets and inhale the smell of snow-white jasmines.  My mom would have picked them from our garden, threaded them onto a thin long thorny date leaf, and placed them next to my pillow every night.  And then I simply disappeared into beautiful dreams.
The little girl from Phnom Penh certainly dreams, too, when she falls asleep at night.  Which child does not?

When no longer able to keep her eyes open, the little girl slowly stands up with her box of books and moves out of the dining room.  She starts walking, very slowly.  Sometimes she seems barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  I feel like picking her up in my arms and carrying her as if I were her mother or at least helping her with her box of books.

As if she felt my motherly instinct to help her, she stops all of a sudden, but instead of turning around to look at me, like I almost expected her to do, she turns into an alley which leads to Boeng Kak Lake.

Several wooden shacks on stilts line the lake.  She disappears into one these, a mere ghost.

“Home at last?” I ask myself in a whisper.

“The place where she ends her day is perhaps home to her,” I sigh.  “The place where she can perhaps get some sleep before she starts all over again early morning the next day – to march the streets of Phnom Penh, with her books.”

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