Changing Planet

Counting Chickens and Pigs

Kampong Thuch, CAMBODIA— After observing the first day of school for deaf adults in Kampot, I joined the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) outreach team as they went into the field. These visits had a dual purpose: follow up with the families of the students who didn’t come to school on Monday and to check on the beneficiaries of their farm project.

The DDP Farm Project is a small-scale project in which they identify deaf people in rural Cambodia who have either elected not to join the Basic Adult Education project or are graduates from the Basic Education program but are not enrolled in the vocational training project in Phnom Penh. Participants in the Farm Project are given a choice: chickens or pigs. DDP gives them a starter kit for raising chickens or pigs and the deaf people are responsible for raising the animals. Some of these families, most who are poor subsistence farmers, have come to rely on the deaf person’s contributions to survive.

For two days, I rode on the back of a motorcycle for about 150 kilometers [93 miles] each day over smooth paved highways, through tall grass on narrow paths on curving berms lining dry rice fields, and jouncing down broad red paths lined by tall, gaunt trees. We passed pagodas and schools hidden in a copse of woods, bumped over train tracks, unused since 1975, and rounded craggy rock formations thrusting into the sky. At one point, we were 5 km [3 miles] away from the Cambodia-Vietnam border, close to Kampuchea Krom territory, where many ethnic Khmer still live.

On Thursday, we rode towards the first deaf person of the day in Kampong Thuch, a remote part of Kampot province. We had just passed a cluster of people by a bridge, all in big hats and faded clothing and bent over large nets blooming in the water. After passing this group, Sopeak Sreang, Cambodian Sign Language interpreter (and my driver) suddenly skidded to a stop in the middle of the red dirt road and pulled out his cell phone to call the other half of the outreach team, whose motorcycle had disappeared far ahead, leaving a swirling cloud of red dust in its wake.

I asked Sopeak, “Why are we stopping?” He twisted his torso away from the handlebars so I could see him sign. He signed, “deaf,” then pointed to a lone young man standing about 25 feet away on the other side of an irrigation canal, a tattered brown net bunched in his hands.

I looked at the man standing, still holding his net but not moving. He didn’t particularly look any different from anyone else we had seen alongside the roadside on our long journey to this spot. I signed to Sopeak, “How do you know?” He explained that they had met before; the man was one of the beneficiaries of the farming project but his pigs had all died so he was fishing now. I marveled to myself at how Sopeak had recognized him from this distance. At this point, I realized that despite the long distances they had to travel, the DDP outreach workers had solid relationships with the beneficiaries they worked with.


A deaf man is standing on the bank of an irrigation canal, trying to catch fish with his nets.
A deaf man is standing on the bank of an irrigation canal, trying to catch fish with his nets.


After the other motorcycle returned, I learned that nobody was home at the house they had gone to. We went on to visit a woman who had graduated from Basic Education. She lives in a thatched one-story home with her extended family, as her parents are away in Phnom Penh, working. She had sold her pigs so the outreach team asked her what she wanted to do next. She said, “It is boring here. I want to go to Phnom Penh to be trained in cosmetology.” She explained that her deaf boyfriend came to visit sometimes but she was alone a lot. We spent some time with her, chatting about this and that; however, we had to leave. There were more chickens and pigs to count.

As we got off the motorcycles at the next house we visited, a man emerged from the house. The deaf man’s father went to call him into the clearing to talk to us. As the deaf man shuffled towards us, I could see that it would be difficult to communicate with him because his cerebral palsy had twisted his body in a way that it was nearly impossible for him to sign.

As I watched the hearing outreach worker talking to the father who was standing there with crossed arms, dusty sandals on his feet, the deaf man waved me over to the thatched chicken coop. When I peeked inside, I saw that there was a hen sitting on eggs. Narith Chum, also deaf and one of the DDP outreach workers, saw me peeking through the thatch, gripping my camera. He motioned me to join him inside the coop. I shook my head, primarily because I am somewhat terrified of beaked creatures, especially the big roosters found in Cambodia, their deep red wattles burning bright against glossy black feathers.

Narith lifted the hen from her roost and motioned to me again. Sighing, I slipped inside to take a look. Keeping my back to the walls, I decided that I was close enough after I noticed the hen’s beady eyes staring me down. I craned my neck from two feet away, giving the eggs a perfunctory glance, then signed, “Finished now. Thank you,” to Narith and made a speedy exit out of the coop, keeping a wary eye on the hen flapping her wings in the opposite corner. Making my way to the motorcycles, I smiled and nodded at the deaf man who was standing with his father, with a big grin on his face. Even though I couldn’t communicate with him, it was clear that he was excited to see us and pleased by our attention.

On that day, we visited several households, all at great distances from each other. At each one, we were warmly welcomed by the whole family and invited to sit down for a while.

When I returned to Phnom Penh, I learned that deaf people living in rural Cambodia wait with great anticipation for these visits from the Deaf Development Programme outreach teams. As Justin Smith, Deputy Director of DDP, explained to me, “For many of them, it’s the only time they can communicate in sign language. Imagine what it must feel like, waiting day after day, watching the road for the DDP motorcycles. When they finally arrive, its a relief from loneliness; but then the fieldworkers have to leave.”

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 will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented.
  • Deb Weiner

    Very insightful. Thanks.

  • David Bennett

    Erin, I just saw your work and stories. Thanks! I have a favor to ask. It is related to the following paragraph you wrote in an interview.

    “Some NGOs have asked me to share my data to better guide their work and I look forward to being able to share with them what I can so they can better support deaf people in Cambodia. I also hope to help spark discussions about how deaf people in rural areas can be better served or get the access/education they need.”

    My favor…. I would also love to have this same info. I travel extensively serving the Deaf world and have many experiences with Deaf who know no SL of any type. I have done some teaching myself of these folks. SO, your information may be of some help to me in regards to similar Deaf another countries where I travel…. from Argentina and Bolivia al the way to Myanmar, Malaysia, and China to name only a few.

    Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing from you… and hearing more about your work in Cambodia. David

  • Sherilynn Macale

    I loved this story, Erin. I read it mainly because I always keep an eye out for new motorcycle news, and stumbled onto this piece on National Geographic.

    As I was reading, my first thought was, “This editor rode motorcycles through Cambodia to sign to deaf people?! That’s awesome!” Then, I scrolled up to see who the writer was, and discovered it was you! A WOMAN. Which is even MORE amazing, because I don’t meet very many female riders.

    But then, after looking at your Instagram, I see you didn’t actually drive the motorcycle yourself, but rather, rode passenger. But that’s STILL awesome!

    It’s good to see people using two wheeled vehicles to spread goodness throughout the world. 🙂 Keep it up, and keep writing!

    Maybe next time, you won’t be so afraid of chickens. 😉 Sounds like it was an adventure.

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