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In the press
Fond Memories of being a UNV in Cambodia
by Parvati Sharma

07 June 2004

Kampong Cham, Cambodia: Although I studied and traveled often outside of Bhutan, this was my first assignment abroad. Cambodia is not very far from Bhutan, but still it is quite different.

Before coming here I was worried, and so was my family, because all we knew about Cambodia was related to the war. My first week after arrival was shocking indeed, with two bomb blasts close to the place where I stayed. But, somehow this didn’t worry me so much, I was more worried about the motodops which didn’t look very safe to me.

During those first days I walked a lot. I felt more at home when I started learning Khmer, as I slowly was able to communicate with people. What also helped, was that many people thought I was Khmer, and treated me equally. But sometimes this complicated things, when people expected me to behave like Khmer, which wasn’t always the case.

During the three years that I have been in Cambodia, I worked for UNFPA, posted in Kampong Cham, where I provided assistance to the Maternal Child Health Courses. I was also posted to Stung Treng, where I assisted the Regional Training Centre for Nursing and Midwifery. Both duty stations offered me the opportunity to travel a lot, and I have visited almost every province. During these visits I was able to see how trainees were applying their newly acquired knowledge. Generally, they did very well, but were coping with a range of practical problems which we were usually able to solve together. By briefing these visits to the regional and national centres I was able to function as a connecting link between the national offices and the provincial reality, which in many ways are two different worlds, indeed.

My work in Kampong Cham was fairly technical, but in Stung Treng my job description was broader. My function was to provide overall management assistance to the Regional Traning Centre. This worked out to be very effective, since the technical capacity was there, but much could be improved in terms of overall management, planning and strategy development, and inter-institutional collaboration. In this way, I have probably been more useful than I would have been when providing only technical support. It was also more challenging, and rewarding. I have seen the performances of the Centre improving, especially that of the individual staff members. They do have good technical knowledge, but often they under-estimate their own qualities, especially the female staff. Through interaction and constant encouragement I have seen their self- confidence grow.

Unlike most of my UNV colleagues, I wasn’t posted in Phnom Penh but in a rural area. I have enjoyed that, since I would say that there is more need for us in the province (although I won’t say there is no need for us in Phnom). I also think that working in the rural environment is more effective because you have more interaction with the people you work with. Here in Stung Treng I know everybody, and everybody knows me. I can always talk with people about health issues, I can come and help in the Women’s Development Centre, in fact the people of my target group are at the same time my friends.

Of course I did sometimes get frustrated because of the long journeys. Our monitoring trips required us to travel long distances in small boats which can be really frightening, especially if you can’t swim. I remember one journey when we lost our way, there was water everywhere, and even the boat man didn’t know where to go. We had no food with us, and we spent many hours on the water. But when we finally arrived at our destination, there was this local midwife waiting for us, with a wonderful meal, which was such a relief. When I think back, I truly enjoyed it, the challenge of the boat trip, and the warmth of that lady.

As a UN Volunteer I have always felt supported by the organization and staff. They gave me a satellite phone so that I could always get in touch. They brought me on my way up to Stung Treng, and now they have come to take me on my final way back. Although physically I was far away, I always felt close to my colleagues. I have particularly enjoyed the multi-cultural scene we work in. I am strongly considering to go abroad again.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)