August 21


From the Pearl of Asia – The old women and their tobacco in Ratanakiri Province

As part of my induction at CARE, I spent couple of week going around Cambodia, one of  provinces I visited is Ratanakiri.  Almost 10 hours drive from Phnom Penh and well known for its ethnic minority communities.  GSK is not involved in any of the programs here, but it was really fascinating to be immersed in a different nature and culture for a while and to immerse myself into what CARE does.

Rainy season - Ratanakiri Province

Rainy season – Ratanakiri Province

On our 4×4 truck we drove through dusty and bamby road and small villages with little kids waving at you and following your car along the way. As you might know, it is rainy season in this part of the world and the contrast between green forest and red ground is amazing.  I discovered later that Ban Lung, the main city of the province,  is known as ‘dey krahorm’ (red earth). Which brings my memory back to a southern part of Italy, where I lived  for a while, quite know for its centaury olives trees and its red ground. I keep saying to my friends that I would like to retire there to farm potatoes and live in a “masseria”, but that is another story and this is not the right occasion to discuss my old ladies wishes.

In the middle of the afternoon, we arrived at Ban Lung: not so many western people around but a lot of construction works again. You will understand later in this blog, why I was really surprised by that and I started asking myself for whom and why they are building so extensively. Ratanakiri’s nature is stunning and it provides roots for several minority groups. The Jarai, Tompuon, Brau and Kreung are the Khmer Leu people, with their own languages, traditions and customs.  CARE work focuses on  those who experience social isolation, discrimination and economic exclusion as a result of their ethnicity, with particular attention given to the situation of women and girls.

There are many activities going on in the province, I had the chance to participate to couple of them. I will blog about education and schooling in my upcoming one, let’s focus on health services and pregnancy support.

One of the projects is called Partnering to Save Lives, with the main objective to save the lives of women and newborns in Cambodia through improved quality, access and utilisation of reproductive, maternal and neonatal health services.  There are health centres in the province which provides support to ethnic minorities and to remote villages.

Pregnancy training- Ratanakiri Province

Pregnancy training- Ratanakiri Province

Regularly trained women they give sessions to pregnant ones from the villages to convey key messages about their health during this precious period, how to involve their husband and also what to do when the moment comes.  I am always amazed by the commitment of those women who take the responsibility to really support them, The girl pictured here, she was not just really confident in taking them through the flip chart materials, but also ready to answer to questions and ready to provide support if necessary.

If you think that was the tough part, driving, dust and a lot of Khmer music on the radio, well you are wrong. Here we are to an small indigenous village, where I met the famous old women smoking leaves! Don’t worry, after my long experience in respiratory, I will not start talking about tobacco or their roll your own techniques, however their role is quite important.

In those villages, elderly people are quite important, they are wise and rule the life in those community. On my way there I had to read instructions on how to great and talk to them.  The interesting one is about greetings: if elderly people great you, shake both their hands – which is different from the usual putting palms together Cambodian one which is called Sampeah.

Well, I did it. Shake every hands I could with a huge smile on my face and after that I managed to take pictures of them and attend the pregnancy training. I was expecting a lot of young ladies, like experienced before, but not. The old ladies were there smoking and having a great time. They have to attend the training to make sure they understand what we are trying to do and why certain old customs are not healthy or dangerous now.

We all have old wise grandmothers who were so good in taking care of kids, cooking and washing stains from clothes. We all respected and loved them. This is not so different!  Making sure that the entire village is aware of what services and help, health centres and midwives can provide is crucial.

Indigenous Village Old woman

Indigenous woman – Ratanakiri Province

And here it comes the funny part. I was there attending the training and my photography heart was attracted by those amazing old ladies. I smiled at them, asking for permission to take pictures and of course they nodded at me smiling back. I’d probably saying giggling not just smiling. And then all suddenly here they are, tobacco leaves on their hands, rolling them up, lit them up and smoke everywhere.  Pictures to witness that!

After saying goodbye, shoke hands and crossed another plantation. We arrived to another village where the pregnancy club was held.

The trainer was waiting for us, with an old music cassette player and a battery in his hands. They have developed a series of audio programs with all different characters: the pregnant woman, the husband, the old mum or grand mum, the midwife in different situations from the moment they discover to be pregnant to 6 months after the newborn arrival.

All of this is done in the language of the village and also husbands are requested to attend.  I had the chance to ask couple of questions and it was good to hear how those women have decided to have their second baby at the health centre and they could see the difference with the first pregnancy. Empowering women to be able to decide for their health and kids, it’s a crucial step in the development of those areas. Which it brings back my thoughts around construction works and how development will change this place in the next couple years. And not always for better!

This is all for now.  Next blog on educational programs in those areas and the interesting reflections on backpacker!

See you soon