Clowning, Not Swimming, to Cambodia

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      for “humanitarian
clowning.” This is an account of the trip.
*(the title is a reference to the movie Swimming to Cambodia,
made in 1987 by Spalding Gray, while he was working on the
movie, The Killing Fields. Swimming to Cambodia is really
worth seeing).
Thirty six hours to get to Cambodia from Washington,
D.C (four planes). I grumbled to the other clowns: “why do
we have to go so far in order to clown with suffering people?
Seems like the US is full of them, we can stay right here.”
Who are we? We are “humanitarian clowns” which means
we use the antics of clowning for purposes of change. Like
activists and medical practitioners, we
try to change the condition of suffering,
going to hospitals and orphanages as
well as checkpoints and refugee camps.
In the airport we arrive in full clown costume,
some accordions and fiddles, and
clown with the airline staff, waiting passengers,
and at the security stations
(NOT in the US, we’d be guillotined).
Pain? Boredom? Deadly serious power
over? Here we come. We try. I’m an
accordionist, a beginning clown.
On this trip, we were 13 people: 11
clowns (two from Italy) and two cameramen
from Chile (who couldn’t resist
clowning at times).
In the Phnom Peng airport, a French
journalist angrily said to our clown
group, “I don’t know how you Americans
have the nerve to come to Cambodia.Are
you aware the US bombed this country
for 180 days, night and day? That bombing
ruined the irrigation system that had
been so carefully set up here for centuries??!!”
I recognized in his voice a performance that I would have
done, too, if I were he: helpless anger, accusation, in confronting
the revolting innocence of the perpetrators. “Yup,
yessirree, we’re just a bunch of carefree americans going on a
tour of this here oriental country, heard it was cheap, women
are purty, gee did people die here, don’t know anything bout
that, lots of old feuds I guess, barbarians fighting barbarians,
I’m an american, I pay a lot for my ignorance, yup”.
So the French journalist was right to be mad. Right on,
Only in this case, I told him we WERE aware; we humble
clowns went to places to counteract the damage done by our
bullying country. He was mollified, almost friendly. I think
the sheer fact that Americans KNEW about the US bombing
in the 1970s was a relief to him.
When we finally arrived in Phnom Penh, the country took
my eyes: the streets wildly busy with motorbike travel (up to
six people on one bike), the people seeming small to me, slender,
graceful, and not pugnacious. A common Cambodian
greeting gesture: people put their hands together to their chest
in a prayerlike position, which looks like a gentle “At your service”
How could one out of four people have been killed in this
country, mostly by Cambodians themselves (Khmer Rouge
soldiers), between 1970 and 1995?
Statistics I was told: in 2003, 60% of the population is
under age 24; and of that, 50% are under age 15, a consequence
of the terrible last 30 years of the country. 1 out of 4
people were killed in the time period between 1970-1995,
partly as a consequence of US foreign policies (excuseme, I
mean the foreign policies that the US people do not know
about but the men in power do) which killed between 300,000
to one and a half million people, and partly as a consequence
of the dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. 24% of the
women can read; 36% of the men can read. There is 80%
poverty, with people living on 50 cents a day. Rachel Snyder,
our guide, said: “Women and children have no rights. There is
law, but no justice. Cambodia is riddled with corruption” (but
who will solvethis riddle, who?).
Beggars all over, some sliding on the ground when without
legs. The voices of beggars, of shop women in the market, trying
to get your attention (your 50 cents,
their food, their survival).
What if you were too shy to beg? To starve
from shyness.
(There is a story by Chekhov of a starving
father and son, and the father too
ashamed to beg, and starving son who on
a dare eats oysters fed him by rich men).
Financially, our trip was sponsored by the
actress Angelina Jolie, mother of an
adopted Cambodian child, refugee camp
visitor, and poster child for
UNHCR(United Nations High Commission
for Refugees).Organizationally, the
trip was sponsored by Patch Adams and
Wildman Adams of the Gesundheit!
Institute, who both did a huge amount of
detail work to bring 13 people to Cambodia,
and who had the vision for it.
On the first morning of our visit,we visited
the actual “killing fields” and the
prison camp where thousands of Cambodians
were murdered. I was grateful to
our guides Rachel and Paul for starting
the trip this way – showing us the traces
of suffering created by power over and violence. Though visiting
hospitals also puts us into contexts of suffering, illness is
quite another thing from avoidable humanly-caused misery.
And that we witnessed. A detail I can’t forget: we were shown
a tree against which babies were killed – in order to save precious
bullets, the Khmer Rouge battered the babies against
the tree until they died. “In order to save precious bullets.”
We visited children with AIDS (Cambodia has the highest
rate of AIDS in Asia), people who had been hurt by landmines,
children who had birth defects (some a result of the
chemicals used in warfare). We clowned in a huge school
(formerly a factory) for street children where they learn
trades. The organization that runs this school has three parts:
one part is out in the streets trying to help the children, the
second part is the running of the school, and third part is follow-
up work to keep the children in jobs and not going back
into the streets (they said this was the hardest part–-drugs,
despair, and poverty working more quickly than education).
We ate in a fine restaurant, run by street kids.
The strangest sight, the one my eyes won’t easily digest, was
our clowning at a school which is IN the city dump for the
children who scavenge there. As a huge number of kids spend
their lives in the city dump looking through the huge, thirty
feet high mounds of garbage for salvageable things to sell, this
French agency set up a school right there, IN the dump.When
our bus of clowns arrived, hundreds of smudged and seminaked
kids ran towards us. Normally I bend down, accordion
to my chest, to meet the eye level of the kids. In this place, I
was so overwhelmed by anger (hiding inside was grief), I
couldn’t meet the eyes of the children. I couldn’t look at any
one of them directly. In the background were the mountains
of garbage smoking with dust, with little figures on them (the
kids).Who is to take care?
Eating a nice dinner in a hotel, and the dinner’s cost is
$2.00.What is this? My stinginess gratified (wow, a bargain),
my brain kept thinking, What? What? What? Take care?
Maybe the garbage is taking care.
Who is to take care?
It’s tricky, this “humanitarian clowning”–-my impression
is so strong when I’m there, the desire to help so strong, and
then I come home, and Christmas in this country is brewing,
I get a stomach flu and other things happen, and there I am.
TV and newspapers smirk at me in their slick grind of producing
one more day of expensively calculated ignorance.
Why? Why did this happen to/in Cambodia? Why this
The question “why” arises strongly if you’re thinking while
you’re in Cambodia. Or if you think about it afterwards. The
people seem especially unwarlike.
The explanations that people give you constantly bring up
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and very rarely the US or other
countries. I don’t trust the question “why.”
Why? (ahem,hmmm, errr, whoops, walked into my own
Herbert Brun was more interested in the results of the
question “when,” than in “why.” “Why” is answered by means
of “because,” “when” is answered in terms of specifying conditions
– not “why was there genocide,” but “when does genocide
If it was Pol pot and the Khmer Rouge who killed all the
people, then under what conditions could this have happened?
When does genocide happen? Under which conditions?
The subject of a future article…

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