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How the other half live - The slums of Lu Teok Sa-ouy

My late, great dad would always say that when it comes to writing, the very first sentence is always the hardest. Not so in Cambodia because with so much going on, these reports just write themselves.

The plan for today is arts and crafts, and the children will be designing large banners with the legend "Drama Rocks" - cause, you know, it really does. Our Cambodian partners, however, had different plans for me, so while Chiara and Gaby distributed gifts to the children sponsored through DO Cambodia, and Petra and Emma got the banner, paints and sparkles ready, Dr Alexandra and myself, together with Martina, were taken to see where the children we work with actually live.

Walking through the Lu Teok Sa-ouy slums was never going to be pretty, but walking through the narrow pathways during monsoon season is decidedly worse and we had to balance from broken plywood sheets to rocks in order to wade through the mud that separates one shack from another.

As Martina's foot gets stuck in the sludge we are told that, up until a few days ago, parts of the slums were shoulder-deep in stagnant, septic water in some places and, of course, the children would be cooling off and playing in this filth.

Within these narrows lanes a community thrives and some shacks are used to sell groceries, cleaning materials and such. Women are busy doing the laundry outside their homes and cooking happens outside on special pots similar to the Maltese kenur of yore and in spite of the obvious hardships these families face each and every day, surviving from hand to mouth, they call out to us to have their pictures taken.

Children as young as two, clearly fascinated by my height, would hang on to my legs as their parents laughed and egged them on. They know we're here to help.

I wasn't at all surprised to hear my name being called out because many of the children we work with at LRDE live in this overcrowded place, but with typical Cambodian hospitality they were keen to show us the inside of the box they call home. Sreymei, our aspiring doctor, took us to meet her grandmother who invited us in but had to warn me to watch my head on a wooden beam.

I had smashed my head hard on it when I visited two years ago, and the whole place shook. Nobody laughed.

The families living here pay rent. It's not much by our standards, but it's often a lot more than they can afford which is why the children have to chip in by begging in the streets for handouts or scavenging for plastic bottles or aluminium cans.

Often the children work during the night because this is when the drinkers and drunks are out in the street which, putting the obvious dangers aside, means the children are too knackered to go to school the next day. These bottles and cans are sold to the waste separation plant located at the entrance to the slums for about 50cUS per sackful.

The DO Cambodia sponsorship programme provides food and other basic requirements for the families, thus freeing the children from working into the night, indeed schooling is a condition of our sponsorship programme, and I can't describe how gratifying it is to see so many children standing outside these shacks in their sparkling uniforms having just returned home from school.

As we entered deeper into the heart of Lu Teok Sa-ouy we came across, sticking out like two sore thumbs, a couple of smart young Americans who are studying Khmer while doing voluntary work here amongst the poor. Meeting these young people doing these amazing things so early in their life makes me yearn for my own youth.

How I wish I'd had these opportunities growing up, but as the saying goes it's never too late and Gaby and I are doing it now, and I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to recommend what we're doing to any of my peers as long as they do it for the right reasons and not merely to tick something off their bucket list.

Back at LRDE the party was still going strong, so we joined the kids in a little spot of freestyle hip-hop/ breakdancing which the children absolutely loved. Pero, as we say in Maltese, irrangajt ruhi ghall-festi.

We have much to think about. And much to do.

Alan Montanaro

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