Picture me. I am a newly arrived volunteer in a camp of Cambodian refugees: awkward, gawky, bamboozled. I wobble on a bike through squelchy red laterite mud and cross a makeshift plank bridge narrowly avoiding slithering into the water. I hear full throated laughter and turn my head for a second to glimpse the man: ancient, wrinkled, skeletal, brown, mouth-wide-open, gummy jaws bare of teeth. He squats on his heels and hoots with laughter. It is surely ridiculous that I can’t manage the bike, am lanky and blotchy and pink.
The young Cambodian I was appointed to monitor told me that he had watched his father caged by the Khmer Rouge and slowly, publicly starved to death. He had heard his father say, ‘Son when this is over our people will need healing’.
To be candid I probably came to the camp believing that I had something to offer– experience with community development and mental health and trauma. I cannot exactly recall. This thought slipped away very fast. My need was to recognize the goodness in this place and to work with it.
This was clear to see. My new colleague had, eight years ago, guided a frightened group of families through the minefields to the relative safety of this place. He had trained as a medic and worked as a battlefield medic. He still asked himself what he must do to bring healing to his people. If we were to work together, I was the one to be mentored. He was already sure of the first steps he must take. He would be a healer, but no longer in the battlefield or the camp hospital. It was a bigger dream. The task was healing of heart and spirit. Healing the whole community, step by step.
One hot mid-day we sheltered in a patch of shade, my young mentor and me. In this relaxed place he told me a fable.
‘There was once a village of very poor people. They were constantly hungry. Hunger is the great poverty; you sacrifice everything to put food in your stomach. The soil was barren. They ploughed the land the hard way, by hand. “If only we had a buffalo” they would say. Then one day they saw a wild buffalo in the lush jungle far away.’ He looked at me as he spoke. ‘They slowly coaxed it to their stony field: sloppy in the wet season, dusty in the dry. The buffalo was not accustomed to such a place, but they worked hard to break it in. One day the effort would be worthwhile. It could be coaxed to become useful’.
‘Me?” I said. He protested that it was someone else. He protested too much; we were beginning to understand each other. We laughed and laughed together.
That fable is still vivid in my imagination. I am sure that buffalo was albino. White with blotches of pink.