Poo Lao is a villager from Ralouch village in Kracheh province. The first time I met Poo Lao he was standing in the middle of a road, with a krama (a Cambodian red checkered cloth: a towel) around his waist, shaved head but sporting a goatee, shirtless and with a bulging belly. If you ever wondered what stereotypical Chinese Mafia looked like, have a look at Poo Lao! I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet this new Christian at all!
Poo Lao was one of three initial Christians in the village of only five hundred people. Two are still together, but the other got a city sponsor to build him a building/house so he split up the small group of Christians in the village. If Poo Lao was as mean as he looked, he wouldn’t have taken kindly to the split in the group, but inside his gruff façade, he is quite a gentle and forgiving man. Poo Lao has been a Christian for about ten years now. Together, over the years, we have done various community building projects together including drilling wells and providing cows to villagers on a loan basis, so that they can literally raise their own assets (see “Cows for Cambodia”). He is a hard working and smart guy.
Last month, we had Ben and Pam Wolf with us from Baptist Global Response (BGR). They came with more than twenty years experience in community development and are partnering with our organization, Imparting Smiles Association, to train community development workers. Poo Lao was one of the students. After a week of training we were talking about what it would take to implement various projects. We knew we needed three things: key resources people, local authorities and the neighbors in the community at large. In the past, many organizations in Cambodia who do community development seem to have one strategy. . . come in, build something, take pictures and leave. After a few months or a year you see broken down projects, dry water wells, water filters growing maggots, and the like. All were great projects with good intentions, but they are not what the community wanted. It was just what the donor was willing to give at the time. After the photo ops, the impressive reports and a promotional DVD to raise money for the next project, the lives of the villagers remains pretty much unchanged. They are still sick, still poor and still in need of real community development.
BGR offers to come along side people like Poo Lao, not to give them what they want, but to help them find ways to solve their own problems. Need water? Don’t just drill a well that dries up in six months, teach them how to drill a well, or harvest rain water, or create ponds, low-tech filtration systems and micro-irrigation projects. By coming along side guys like Poo Lao, the community builds itself.
But there is a big issue. What about education? Even though Poo Lao is my friend, is he smart enough to handle the responsibility? Does he have the mental capacity to accomplish effective community development? Can his mind process and develop a strategy and implement it with the village leaders and community at large? Honestly, what I wanted to know was: would the village follow a guy who often goes shirtless and stands in the middle of the road staring at cars as they drive by? He is my friend, so I asked him. His response humbled me.
Poo Lao told me that he only had received a 3rd grade education. He didn’t even know how to read. Then civil war came to Cambodia. Even though he was a young boy, as various armies came through his village he was conscripted. Whether it was the Vietnamese, Cambodian government or Khmer Rouge, they were all the same to him. He was a young boy who quickly became a battle hardened man. Military education was simple. Pull the trigger and kill. If he doesn’t kill them, he will be killed. No training, no tactics, no education, after all he wasn’t even a teenager when they took him into the army. His first “mechanics” course was taking apart an AK-47, his second was defusing land mines. He had a steep learning curve. I wish I could say he came out unscathed. He is missing some of his fingers and has other battle wounds he doesn’t talk about. This all happened before he became a teenager.
Then one day the wars were over. He was now a man. He went back home to his village and got married. He just did what he could to survive. He tried his hand at farming, raising cattle and making doors and windows. He did well, not great, but ok. This he did on a 3rd grade education. Then he found Jesus. Another battle hardened Khmer Rouge soldier, turned soldier for Christ, had led him to Jesus. Then his whole life changed, starting with his mind.
Poo Lao then he told me the secret to his success. He told me, no one with a 3rd grade education would dare to be involved in community development. The village leaders are all high school graduates and consider themselves the smartest people in the village. A 3rd grader would never give a suggestion, much less lead a high school graduate who is a representative of the government. In Cambodian society, people know their low position, and they know to stay there! Poo Lao couldn’t even read previous to becoming a Christian. When he came to Jesus, he was given a Bible. Poo Lao said that he began to read that Bible again and again. He read it every day. He carries it with him wherever he goes. Because of Jesus, and his Word, Poo Lao has been given a good education. He confesses that he knows God’s word and studies it constantly. Because of that, he can read, he can strategize, and he can know what are good and bad decision for the village. He learned about agriculture and business and how to treat people right. Most importantly, he learned how to listen to God’s voice. That education, Poo Lao affirms, is better than any high school education anywhere.
Imparting Smiles Association and BGR have full confidence in men like Poo Lao. They are village leaders and visionaries. They are hardworking and honest people. They are not looking for their own benefit, but for the betterment of the whole community. They can be a catalyst in developing their community, on their own, and according to God’s plan and purposes. It is an honor to work alongside Poo Lao, who loves his Bible and who has a good education.