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The Happy Latrine Project

Everything is complete for the Happy Latrine Project grant—except the budget. We’ve been limping through this process slowly. I have to remind myself that it’s all about the process. You can’t hurry love and you can’t hurry budget reports.

When I brought my cohort Chetra into this project, he seemed dazzled by the Peace Corps way. For our three-day Planning and Grant Writing workshop cohorts were given a very modest per-diem, which he received happily. But his roommate did not arrive until late, so Chetra spent a lonely Sunday afternoon watching TV in his room. Khmers are not accustomed to being alone. He missed his family although he’d only been gone for a few hours.

The workshop began Monday morning at 9 a.m. When in Phnom Penh I’m usually up at dawn to take photos in the blooming light. At school Chetra rides his motorcycle from one classroom to the next. (He’d fit right into motor-happy California.) I had the impression he was not fond of walking, so suggested he take a tuk-tuk to the office with the other non-walkers, but no, he wanted to go with me, although it was a 20 minute walk. We stopped for a western breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee at a restaurant near the Peace Corps office. Pretty exotic fare for a provincial high school teacher.

Chetra owns the classroom in my village. He struts in, tells boys to tuck in their shirts, yells at students, “Hurry up, time is money!” which no one laughs at but me. But in the big city of Phnom Penh with all those other language teachers and directors and ardent PCVs, he was not as assertive. At the workshop he deferred to me, often saying, “It’s up to you.” Unlike some cohorts he seemed quite interested in the process, procedure, and what was expected. But by the end of the week he had morphed into a true partner. He took charge and confidently led our presentation. He proudly posed for a photograph with his Certificate of Completion with Alissa, PC Director of Programming.

Back at school we presented our four-page report to the school director, which Chetra translated. When we got to the budget I explained that we would make a chart to show the flow of grant money and tasks, and where it all was going. Chetra said, “We put the money ON the table, not UNDER the table.” This is what transparency looks like.

The director had already drawn schematics for the new latrines and compiled some details for the budget. We probably startled him with how much his simple plan had grown. He asked for four new latrines. We came back with a plan to also refurbish the six existing latrines, hook-up to the water main (instead of having the kids bring buckets of water from the pond), added hand-washing stations, and asked that maintenance be part of the plan, as well as ongoing hygiene education. Everyone wash your hands!

Nearly all my communication problems in Cambodia still stem from my own cultural bias. When I ask the director for budget changes by the end of the week he always says yes and I always fall for it. It’s become a running joke. The so-called deadline zooms by as I wait on a bench and wave. Now I realize when he says “Yes” what he really means is: That depends on everything else in my life. Politics. Ceremony. My wife and children. If I have time. If I remember. If there is no other crisis that needs my attention.

We missed the first grant deadline; the next deadline looms large next week. How happy will the Happy Latrine Project be if we don’t get funding because we did not apply for it? Time will tell.

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