We’re just launching a new video called “Spirit of the forest” that features Chanthy Dam, a woman I met in northern Cambodia last September who is doing courageous work helping indigenous communities protect their land rights. Chanthy and many others in Ratanakiri province survived some of the most tumultuous decades in the 20th century in her country, so I asked her a lot of questions about her experience growing up there. In this post I want to share some of her personal story that did not make it in to the video or the magazine article coming out this week, they serve to round out the story of her life and her struggles:
Growing up in Ratanakiri
Chanthy grew up in a community called Andoung Meas, which means “Golden Well” in the local language.
“There are no words that can describe my childhood…I was so poor. My parents were farmers, they hardly earned enough to eat. My family was too poor and illiterate.
“The most delicious food we had was cassava leaves, my mother put them in a pot of boiling water with a lot of salt. It was our most delicious meal. The most delicious desert was ripe bananas, we put them in a hollow bamboo and cooked it. On special occasions my father would get a civet cat, we would grill it in bamboo like that.
“I saw people reading, and I asked if I could look at what they were reading…I wanted to read those letters. I looked at them and did not understand anything. I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time. I decided to teach myself to read, and I started to read to myself. But I could not write. I dropped it because we were so hungry, and I just had no time.
“In the late 70s Vietnamese soldiers were in the province, and they were growing cassava and sweet potatoes…we were struggling and did not have food and I did not understand why they had so much food… So I went in to their fields to steal some and they caught me and told me I should have just asked and they would have given me some. I realized it was bad to steal. And I told myself that when I grow up I would have a big farm and grow a lot of things and not be hungry.