Seeing the world in a new way

Sophia is a Gap Year Volunteer with CAFOD and shares with us some of what she has experienced over the past few months.

Sophia running for CAFOD as part of her walk for water and half marathon training.

This academic year I am taking part in Step Into the Gap, CAFOD’s gap year programme. In a usual year, I would be working with schools or in a retreat centre and we would be taking an international trip. The times being what they are, I am working from home doing tasks for the education section, and there is no international trip.

Yet, sometimes a loss can be a gain: instead of focusing on learning solely about the country that we are due to visit, we have instead been meeting a country representative or programme officer from a different country each month, which is giving us a fuller picture of CAFOD’s extensive work around the world. This Lent, I shall be sharing some reflections from these calls.

Find out more about Step into the Gap

Sophia on her travels through Malaysia.

In 2016 I travelled around South East Asia for three months because I was told that it was beautiful and inexpensive and that it was better than working in an office in London during the winter months. It has been rare for me to look back at these travels. Singapore has much to teach us about architecture; Vietnam has excellent food; Thailand was in a period of national mourning; and with its unending miles of palm plantations, Malaysia makes for a most uninteresting road trip.

Guidebooks and blogs proclaim that Angkor Wat is unmissable. A fellow traveler told me that he had been held at gunpoint when trying to enter Cambodia, and other travelers had similar — though less extreme — stories of their time in the country. I had decided to give it a miss and thought little more of it.

A shift in perspective

Four years later I found myself on a Zoom call with CAFOD’s country representative in Cambodia. We (the Step into the Gap team) had the call as part of our four-day training during that intensely hot spell in August 2020, a hot spell which was roughly equivalent to a Cambodian winter. This was the first in a series of perspective shifts that I was given during this call.

My undergraduate degree (which I completed in my pre-Catholic days) was in History, with a ‘specialty’ in the Economic and Social History of Industrial Britain. One thesis in this area of studies roughly runs as “sure, things were terrible for many people at the time, but we can all agree that the progress that we had means that the whole process was worthwhile.”

In Fratelli Tutti 220, Pope Francis speaks of “a different notion of progress.”

Cambodia and CAFOD

The country rep took us virtually on a rip-roaring tour through the projects and partners that CAFOD supports. Almost one-third of Cambodia’s 14 million population lives on less than half a US dollar a day – I write this sentence as I am drinking a cup of coffee which costs roughly the same amount as this daily living allowance. The widespread planting of cash crops has led to mass urban migration and substantial biodiversity loss.

The pandemic has caused an increase in unemployment figures, and large numbers of Cambodians working in other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries have returned home to also find that they are unemployed. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government declared a state of emergency.  

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The country rep told us about a farmer that a larger farm has been trying to buy out for fifteen years. CAFOD has been working with him and his community for most of this time, both advocating for them legally, and giving them training in sustainable farming methods.

I shall blame the heat of the summer, but the old industrialist in me rose inside me. “Why on earth would you spend nearly fifteen years fighting something that most of the continent has given in to? It just doesn’t make economic sense.” I asked the question in a more muted way, and the response came along the lines of, ‘We do not believe that what is happening to this community is just. There have been a number of successes over the past years. We believe that it is a fight worth fighting.’

In a small way, this shattered one way that I looked at the world. I had spent many years looking at GDP, but much of what we remember is stories about individuals and their small triumphs. We might even say that these are stories of grace that give us hope every day.  

Find out more about CAFOD’s work in Cambodia

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