Through this article, I’d like to share my experience of an internship I did in Cambodia with Eclosio as part of the UNI4COOP programme with future interns who want to go beyond the simple practice of applying academic theory.
I did my work placement with Eclosio to conclude the third year of my Bachelor’s degree in international cooperation. But long before the Bachelor’s degree, I began by wearing the hats of graphic designer, advertising art director and web designer. In a slow and gradual ‘quest for meaning’, I changed my hats for new ones. First as a chef and then as an organic market gardener. These have fuelled a certain interest in food and farming, but above all they have made me aware of the state of the agricultural sector and the daily lives of those who are its main protagonists.
I already had my sights set on Eclosio as a place to do my work placement, as I had been interested in its work and programmes from the very start of my Bachelors degree. But that wasn’t all. In fact, in addition to their extensive expertise, knowledge and know-how, I also chose Eclosio because I felt I shared a certain vision of what cooperation should be, a vision focused on collaboration, capacity building and the exercise and respect of civil rights. When the time came, I decided to apply as a trainee.
© Luis, intern in Cambodia
The internship programmes offered in various other countries seemed to match my expectations, but from the outset I had a preference for the Cambodia programme and the interest in working in English to improve my command of the language. So, emails, interviews, discussions, jokes and coffee – that was it! Mum, I’m going to Cambodia!
Cambodia. No doubt for a certain mystical curiosity. An aesthetic nostalgia for the colonial period, or an idea of the end of the world as perceived in this tropical land that can only be reached over mountains and jungle on the back of an elephant, or a quest to reveal the deep spirituality of my inner self. In other words, to set off to meet another culture and live a human experience.
Professionally, without going into the details of my daily tasks, I’d simplify things by saying that this course didn’t reveal any major discoveries for me. Apart from a few theoretical elements I’d seen in class that I was able to put into practice, such as surveys and information gathering, the rest was déjà-vu. This is of course due to my previous professional experience.
From a relational point of view, with the local staff, apart from a few points such as a very structured way of working, it didn’t seem very different from what I already knew. On the other hand, they are very punctual at lunchtime. Noon is noon, and they’re not content (fortunately, I might add) with a simple bland sandwich with factory stuffing. We’re talking about a real meal with rice, crispy red ants and a few larvae or snake cutlets!
That said, it’s very pleasant to work with Cambodian men and women because you don’t feel any stress or pressure. That’s not to say that they don’t have them, but their way of being and acting shows very little of this kind of feeling.
© Luis, intern in Cambodia
Relationships outside the workplace, on the other hand, are something else. It’s a wonderful discovery and I could write a few pages on all the feelings and good times spent in the company of Cambodian people. I also had to take on board a number of rather unbelievable situations, but with a deep breath and a lot of relativism, the dark clouds quickly disappeared. But I can’t talk about relations with the Cambodians if I don’t mention this meeting with Sovandet.
Sovandet, a member of the local staff, is the boy who was with me throughout the course and even beyond. I can say that I have a friend in the noblest sense of the word. He’s Cambodia in a nutshell and I can’t avoid writing that I miss him. I miss my friend.
Having reached the end of my internship and returned to Belgium, I can only conclude that I am very satisfied with this professional, cultural and human experience. I won’t hide the fact that coming back was a very difficult time for me. I questioned the work I had done and my morale was at an all-time low. I felt so close to the Cambodians, culturally speaking, with my South American culture, that culture shock occurred on my return to Belgium and not the other way round.
© Luis, intern in Cambodia
But this experience clearly reassured me that I had chosen to be a future player in development cooperation and, what’s more, a player in the field and not (too) in the office. It also made me want to learn more and more, which is why I’m currently doing a Master 1 in population and development sciences at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
Finally, if I may offer some advice to future trainees, I’d say cover yourself up well with insect repellent, especially on your elbows, wrists, knees, ankles and feet in general. Despite the heat, I found myself having to wear socks to protect myself from bites! There are a lot of mosquitoes in Phnom Penh and fewer in the countryside. Wear long linen or cotton clothes. Finally, I’d advise you to try the local pastry shops, where a woman passes by the office with her trolley almost every morning. Otherwise, I’d advise you to keep your five senses alert at all times to appreciate the richness of this country and its people.
Luis, intern in Cambodia (2018).