This Cambodian Independence Monument stands proudly at the center of Phnom Penh.
There is a park on one side (where I took the photo) and a shopping center on the other.
The serene park, with its lush plants, colorful flowers, and tall, shady trees, landscaped to perfection, seem to deny and defy the violence and brutality that once destroyed this small Asian country, and which are still too raw in our memory (at least in mine).
Here I stood in prayer that the re-emerging cultural, economic, social and political life of Cambodia—which was reduced to almost nothing and is undergoing reconstruction with the help of the UN, and economically, Europe, North America and Australia (and in our own small way, the Philippines)—will grow at a faster pace.
I did not cross over to the side which usually excites me. At that hot, humid hour, shopping seemed like a crime—or too insignificant to consider—in a place that is saddled with issues like illiteracy and poverty.
I had just made friends with a few Khmers whose life stories could melt even the coldest of hearts. I met—and got to know—them through the themes of their writings in an orphanage’s main hall where I conducted a Creative Writing for Children workshop.
Before I set foot on Phnom Penh, I was given a thorough briefing by the organization that invited me. I was to be given two translators to make it through 14 participants—ages 21 to 64. For their privacy, I will not mention names. Khmers are new at writing—at everything—since they are still rising from the ashes of devastation. I prepared a module (translated to Khmer way ahead of time) which was as basic as basic can be: from creation or ideation (as used in the ad industry) to wherever the four full days would take me.
I was prepared—for the worst.
What I was not prepared for was the excitement with which they embraced the idea of writing for children. And their speed in seizing concepts from each lesson. They were bursting with many, many stories waiting to be told. On our second day, they had created big ideas to leap from. And at the end of four days, they each had written a story, complete with conflict, action, and resolution.
I don’t know about their writing skills—for that comes with time, experience, and massive reading. But I know about their heart, which is what creative writing is all about. At the start of the first session, I talked about happiness and how a writer could translate his heart’s joy into powerful prose that touches young readers. Yet, as the day wore on, they wrote about sadness and ache and struggle that tore at their one captive reader: me.
How does one teach happiness? It can’t be taught—not even mandated; it can only be felt. And it will take some time before each of these new writers, some of them orphaned by parents slaughtered in the war, and all of them witnesses to other orphans who live in orphanages (the venue of our workshop included) run by missionaries, would know for sure.
But they know about hope. They believe, as I do, that beyond and beneath pain, there is Something far more important, and that happiness is forthcoming. These are 14 of the very small percentage of Christians in the whole country. Despite the sad tales of their themes, their endings speak of hope; of a Savior who understands because He did feel what they feel.
This is what makes them truly unique and remarkable. And what makes them astounding is the thought that—they are the core group of writers who will inspire young readers through books that brim with hope. It was, and is, our collective prayer that these books will usher in wounded children to a world of joy.
A part of the workshop was to read their drafts or tell their stories to the children in the orphanage. As I watched from the balcony, I could hear intermittent gasps and giggles. And I was, I am, certain that someday soon—when their works eventually get published—the underprivileged children who are their readers, would have more of the brief joy my own ears have heard.
(Last photo shows my foot on Cambodian ground.)