My first trip to the Stung Meanchey Landfill site in Cambodia was overwhelming. It was pretty hard to find, which was odd, considering that it was enormous and in Phnom Penh, but kind of indicative of the fact that people turn a blind eye to it. I asked everyone about it, hardly anyone knew what I was talking about and much later, when I was doing under cover filming from The Intercontinental Hotel, from where you can clearly see this burning mountain, I asked many people if they knew what it was. Nobody did, which is most peculiar, if there was a giant fire in the middle of London, which you could see, surely one might be intrigued to know what it was. If they had found out, they might have been interested to know that this burning shit heap was the home to hundreds of children. Not exactly out of sight but certainly out of mind!
When I finally persuaded a tuk tuk driver to take me there, he parked at the edge of the rubbish dump and proceeded to wretch and throw up. It is literally like being in a skip of rubbish, through film and photography I am and will attempt to show you how horrific landfill sites are but it is hard to convey the competely overwhelming stench of rotting, decomposing rubbish, toxic waste, and stagnant water, it is totally overpowering and makes you gag. I think with all senses, the revulsion or pain your body feels is a physical warning to move away. Clearly on a landfill site my noes was saying- go away and I could, I could leave, unfortunately the children on the dump cannot. They are trapped there, by ill health, by slavery, by poverty, both mentally and physically trapped.
The first thing that I was asked for on the rubbish dump was my boots. I was wearing wellington boots and everyone was pointing from them and begging for them. This is where the idea of Small Steps came from, the simple fact that all these people were absolutely desperate for boots. Many people criticised my decision to give out boots: I was encouraging them to work on the dump and to trample over glass and syringes and toxic waste. Encouraging? I disagree, they were doing bare foot anyway, I gave them the boots to protect them.
I researched other NGO’s who were working with the children and families scavenging on the dump and met someone from Amnesty, who’s current nanny, he told me, had grown up on the rubbish dump. Her name was Mey and she worked with me tirelessly throughout the project, both as my translator and as project co ordinator. She worked unpaid and, as she says in the film, ‘I want to help these people because I was like them, but I don’t have the money.’ So I provided the money from getting people to sponsor me and then Mey and I, through discussing what she had needed when she was living on the dump and through speaking to the children and families, provided them with the things that they needed, right then. Not in a month, or six month or a year but what they needed right then so that they would survive.
It was agreed that almost everyone on the dump wanted wellington boots but as well as that we provided mosquito nets for the families living in makeshift huts on the dump and surrounding slums as well as food, water, clothes and I did basic first aid.
It was not hard, there were people who were in desperate need, they told me what they needed and we provided it. There was no money spent on meetings, consulting, graphs, diagrams, plans. It was and is very simple: People are dying of starvation, lack of water and injury on rubbish dumps and it can be prevented if action is taken immediately and that is what Small Steps does.
Mey had been rescued off the dump a decade earlier by the NGO Pour Sourire D’Enfant (PSE) an amazing NGO which helps thousands of dumps children and their families, they have a huge complex, with a mediocal centre, bedroom and classrooms.
However as NGO’s get bigger and busier it i hard for them to do what they started out to do: Go onto the dumps and help those who are most vulnerable.
Through the project we met a little girl called Win, who, after we had fed her and given her boots, Mey and I took her into PSE to get her off the dump. She had been living there for two years.
This November going to Australia and screening the documentary we made of the project on Stung Meanchey dump and the lives of Mey and Win. An amazing company called http://www.bongiorno.com.au/ is flying me over to screen the film at two events they are doing in Sydney and Melbourne and have also bought me flights to return to Cambodia on my way home. Because of them I will be able to go back to Stung Meanchey and check on the children from the dump and see how Mey’s life is as well as try and find out what happened to Win.
Is she still at PSE? I have written to them several times to see how she is getting on, but because they have so many thousand children there, they are, as of yet, unable to tell me how she is doing. It doesn’t help that I do not know her surname, because neither did she, not her age though I think she is about 12 years old.