I want to share with you a short snippet of the life of a man that I visit weekly in search of the best coconuts Phnom Penh has to offer. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him Mr. Nara. Mr. Nara has a small coconut stand in front of his house on a street that is known as the coconut go-to of the city. Competing with probably more than 50 other coconut vendors, Mr. Nara spends his days from sunrise to long after sunset cutting open coconuts and selling them to thirsty passer-bys. He has a wife and a two year-old daughter who also take shifts to manage the stand – his wife has recently started making coconut jelly to sell as well.
I often pull up to his stand on my bicycle and comment how hot it is. He always invites me to come sit at the family’s table and is already cutting me open a cold coconut before I even have a seat. The first time I went to Mr. Nara’s coconut stand, I had been strategically trying to figure out among 50 vendors who might have the best coconuts. I selected Mr. Nara because he seemed to have the most simple stand and had the fewest coconuts. I took that as a sign of either selling well or part of a VIP coconut stock.
I chose well. His Kampot coconuts always hit-the-spot. I was very surprised during my first attempt to buy a coconut in Khmer that he answered me back in very fluent English. He introduced me to his wife and daughter and told me the story of his father. After the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1979, Cambodians began to slowly make their way back to Phnom Penh which was then a deserted capital. A city in rubble, most people began clearing up neighbourhoods and taking possession of houses or flats that had been abandoned. Mr. Nara’s father cleaned up three connected units on what was to be Phnom Penh’s coconut street for his family and friends.
Mr. Nara grew up quite poor, watching coconut street develop around him and the city of Phnom Penh slowly wake up from its years of abandonment. He dreamt of going to university but had no way to pay for it. He became obsessed with radio. Not simply to hear the daily news, but to learn about thoughts, ideas, and opinions. He listened to one local station discussing the economy and politics, and also to the BBC which helped him perfect his English and hear an outside view.
As he heard more and more, Mr. Nara became convinced that something was fundamentally wrong with the way his country was functioning. Why couldn’t someone like him have a chance to study in spite of all of his passion and motivation to find a way? Why were more and more black SUVs driving up and down the street while he couldn’t even make enough to buy a motorcycle? Why were surrounding countries like Thailand and Vietnam prospering so much faster while poverty continued to feel chronic to the vast majority of Cambodians?
One day Mr. Nara wrote a letter to a government ministry expressing his ideas and his deep concern for the direction of the country. He openly criticised the way things were being handled and even put together his own recommendations for how to better move forward. He received no reply. He began a sort of personal campaign writing more letters to different ministries and government leaders expressing his views on every aspect of the daily problems he and others faced. There was never any official response. However, he did receive a shocking unofficial response. One morning several unidentified men barged into the house that his father had once recovered from the rubble. Overpowering him as he awoke, they severely broke his right arm and gave him a warning about his concerned citizen efforts.
Mr. Nara still has difficulty to use his right arm and hand. He nevertheless always seems to smoothly cut open my coconut and give me a smile along with an update of what he’s up to, his thoughts on the state of the country, and the plans he has to one day take his wife and daughter to the zoo.
A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. -Aung San Suu Kyi