PHNOM PENH — In the bluish early morning light, we gathered by the gate of Deaf Development Programme (DDP) with our provisions of fully-charged smartphones, water, face masks, cameras and scarves for what promised to be a long day. The four of us, a teacher, an interpreter, a deaf interpreter and a tag-along anthropologist, climbed into a tuk-tuk and set off, navigating the morning traffic on our way to find deaf people in the villages.
The purpose of this outreach is to find deaf adults between the approximate ages of 20 and 45 who have never been to school or learned Cambodian Sign Language. The team is searching for deaf people who want basic adult education or job training at Deaf Development Programme; however, finding deaf people is harder than it seems.
On this trip, one of many made during a two-week period in late November, we traveled for about an hour north towards Kampong Cham to visit a chain of Cham settlements off of National Road 6. The Cham are an ethnic minority and largely Muslim population in Cambodia. Most of them live along the Mekong River and Tonlé Sap Lake.
After about a hour or so fighting a stream of motorcycles going the wrong way, coach buses screaming by, vans crammed with people, bicycles, chickens, and long five-benched wagons pulled by motorcycles, we arrived at the Sangkat building. A Sangkat, or commune council, is a body elected to represent the citizens in a commune; DDP works with the Sangkat to find deaf people because they know the households in their commune.
After waiting for about 45 minutes and a few quick phone calls on three different cell phones, we learned that the Sangkat chief is out doing commune business—officiating weddings, registering births and deaths, or mediating disputes—so we head to the next village on the list.
We leave the tuk-tuk and our driver by the Sangkat building and walk down a dirt path to the village chief’s house. There, we find a line of people waiting outside his door. We waited across the lane in the shade of a house—it is too hot to wait in the sun and the shade provides some relief. Finally, the chief’s wife waved us into the dim interior of their house, where we gratefully sank into our seats to wait for him to finish with a tiny, wrinkled, woman in a headscarf, mouth set in a grim line.
At last, their business is concluded. Sophary, the teacher, rose from his seat, sampahing the chief. He settled into the blue plastic chair next to the chief’s enormous wooden desk, piled high with paperwork. He handed his business card to the chief, an older man in a blue short sleeve shirt. Sophary explained DDP’s mission and asked the chief to lead us to the deaf people living in his village.
After the chief closely inspected the card, studying the Khmer script as if it divined the answers he sought, he stood, then walked over to the side of the room and plucked a hat off of a hook on the wall. We followed him outside and he mounted his motorcycle, which was parked just outside the door, putting off down the lane as we speed-walked to keep up with him.
The chief led us down winding lanes, deep into the heart of the settlement, to a house where a deaf woman lived with her extended family. After a quick back and forth in Khmer, the patriarch beckoned his daughter over. Chameroun, our deaf interpreter, who had been assigned the unenviable task of extracting demographical information from a person without a formal language, greeted the woman and started asking her questions, using gestures and pantomime: How old are you? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Do you want to go to school? Do you want to learn how to sew?
The family crowded us, asking questions. Suddenly, I found myself illuminated by several sets of gleaming brown eyes. Phyron, the interpreter, turned to me and signed that they wanted to know about Heather Whitestone—did America really have a deaf beauty queen?
While Phyron and I talked to the family about Heather Whitestone, Chameroun showed the deaf woman photos of the classroom at DDP and tried to explain to her that if she wanted, she could come to DDP to learn how to read and write. As he held the picture of the classroom for her, the deaf woman sat quietly in her chair, holding her niece on her lap.
Her father explained to Sophary that it really was too far for her to go every day. Sophary told him that many parents work in factories in Phnom Penh and drop off their daughters and sons on their way to work. The father was not convinced but Sophary left them a card and told them to call any time.
The day unfolded in multiple encounters that were a variation on the first one of the day. However, the third family we saw was a family with a person with cerebral palsy or an intellectual disability, rather than the promised deaf person. This happens at least once or twice per outreach trip. I am not sure if this is because of a conflation of deafness with other disabilities or if the families are simply desperate for answers. In those situations, the DDP team always chats with the family, explaining the various organizations in Cambodia that work with people with that specific disability.
A lot of work goes into simply finding the deaf person and then the team needs to convince the families that they are not human traffickers or a phony NGO. There are many horror stories throughout Cambodia about a family losing their child after they are promised work on a Thai fishing vessel or in Phnom Penh.
On another outreach trip the following week, we met a family who had sent their deaf daughter to an NGO for an education, but the NGO demanded $250 from the family for “sport activities,” which they couldn’t afford, so the daughter stopped going. Now, she works with her aunt in the market, selling vegetables. This organization, operated by a Cambodian woman who had worked with deaf people in the refugee camps on the Thai border, preys on the desperation of families who want to see their deaf member have better opportunities in life.
On these journeys into the countryside, I see both hope and desperation: hope for a better life for deaf people and desperation because resources are so dear. It is a leap of faith for these families in rural provinces to send their deaf family member to an unknown NGO in the city for services and education. It is clear how much these families care about the futures of their children. I am hopeful that in the future, it will become easier for these families to receive the knowledge and resources they need closer to home.
In this video, Chameroun explains DDP’s outreach work:
Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson is in Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf community and Cambodian Sign Language. Follow Erin on Instagram @ErinMHarrelson and on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH.