The Princess and the Paupers
As the tuk-tuk approached Pann saw us coming, which may have something to do with my traffic-light hair. “She just yelled out to Vichika ‘your mother is here’.” Soma translated. Mother? Okay, if I had whelped, Vichika would have been the ideal daughter, so I will accept that. Well, sort of, but I’d still rather be the eccentric Auntie Mame.
Vichika rushed up to hug me even before Nick stopped the tuk-tuk. Then she glanced up and recognized Soma – whom she had met at the International Day of the Girl event at Meta House on 11 October 2013 – and her eyes widened. Really, Princess Soma Norodom – the cousin of King Norodom Sihamoni – had come to visit at the dump as she had promised?
I met the unpretentious Soma in July 2013 when I helped organize the premiere of Girl Rising at the French Cultural Centre and had to find a “star” mistress-of-ceremonies. We hit it off. Remember I was a princess in Nigeria for two years so I sort of understand the responsibilities and demands that go with the position.
Soma was raised in Long Beach after her family went into exile from the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and grew up to have a rather “ordinary” life. A few years ago she returned to the Kingdom with her father as he wanted to die here. I wrote a piece about the foundation she is setting up for Audrey magazine in America. “Education is my platform,” she often says “it is the only way out of poverty.” When their spring issue comes out I will pass on the link.
Meanwhile, if you want to check out Soma and the dump women in action take a look at Brad’s 11-minute video of Out of the Dumps. It takes you into the guts of Stung Meanchy. Pity about the frumpy red-headed interviewer getting too much air time. But I digress.
Arms wrapped around each other as though they had been friends forever, Vichika took Soma off to meet her extended family. With camera in hand, Brad videoed the encounter for posterity. Vichika has been doing home-improvements since she started making money with her breakfast business – thanks to your Down in the Dumps micro-loan . There are now three wooden ladders to her elevated house – when I met her there was one rotting door with plywood patches on it – and the floor covering are new. Truly a space to entertain a princess. Well done us.
The friends and relies – Australian-speak for “relatives” – gathered at Vichika’s lounge/bedroom and the women chattered away in Khmer, which Soma has learned to speak since she returned to the Kingdom. The shy younger ones sat in the adjoining room and peered in through the door. Nobody could quite believe a real live royal was there, so they had to check it out for themselves. A jovial sense of camaraderie wafted through the air.
Soma bonded with Vichika’s 80 year old grandmother and promised to bring her something special from the US. She is going to spend the next six months there as her mother is having surgery. The plan is to look after her nephew and do some networking for the foundation while she is in the country.
I wandered off with Nick—our official translator and tuk-tuk driver – to see the renovations to Vanie’s house at the back of the dump. It is hard to describe how her hovel went to penthouse status – even though it still looks like a shack to us – with a bit of material.
But it did thanks to Ernest and Anna, two Americans who slipped me the money specifically to do the repairs. The wall that was a rather nice blanket Vanie found in the rubbish now sports a window. The tin extends to the newly repaired roof so she won’t get washed away in the monsoons. She is absolutely over-the-moon that she now has a door – rather than a chunk of wood she slid across the open space – complete with a lock. And the flowers are a nice touch. So much joy for so little. Such is the reality at the dump.
Back in the tuk-tuk Soma squealed, “Jodeeee, thank you sooooo much for taking me to the dump. I love the people there and will do as much as I can to help them when the foundation is set up.” Yes, Soma, and we at Mums and Bubs and Down in the Dumps will be delighted to spend any money you can slide our way. No offices, no overhead, no salaries. Just straight to the people who need it. And the books are open to anyone bored enough to want to go through them as every riel is accounted for.