By Dr. J B Niwagaba
“Dear John Binagirwe Baptist Niwagaba, We are pleased to inform you that your e-visa application to the Kingdom of Cambodia has been approved…” read in part the e-mail confirmation of my travel to this Kingdom. The journey had started about 2 months earlier, interacting with Ms. Channe Suy, the head of InSTEDD iLab South East Asia (iLab SEA) and Joe Agoada, the Global Communications Advisor. I was to spend 3 weeks with geeks sharing prototypes developed in Cambodian context and reviewing how it could scale to a different environment. We were to share experiences from my work both as a physician but also from running my “Hello Doctor” platform that allows Ugandans to call and talk to a doctor 24/7.
Before leaving Uganda, I had a lot of anxieties. Everyone I told about my Christmas trip wondered where Cambodia is. Some labeled me insensitive, not sharing my first Christmas after wedding with my wife. Internet searches returned scary historical issues like Pol Pot and genocide but also good features like Angkor Wat, the 12th century Khmer city. I had made up my mind to travel come what may.
The flight was long, 12 hours to be precise, with breaks at Nairobi and Bangkok. I arrived at night. Though my bag was missing I was upbeat about this new experience. First shock, the taxi guy in a nice car couldn’t speak English! Later I would realize almost 90% of informal and some formal people can’t comprehend English. It’s all Khmer, a language with cracking sounds and special characters on print.
My room, a full suite, complete with a balcony offered a vantage point to see Phnom Penh. The wood workshop opposite the road, the multiple Tuk-Tuk riders streaming by day and night, an elderly lady pulling a cart with ready-to-eat food –such a vibrant city.
A visit to the Aeon Mall, a new ultra-modern shopping facility in walking distance of my hotel shows another world. The rich and middle class in massive SUVs or very new motorbikes. Though prices are fair, you feel the wealth and vanity, just like other capitalistic setups.
The InSTEDD iLab SEA, a modern space perched on 4th floor in the Phnom Penh Center is a home away from home. A team of geeks coding away, free flowing snacks, very fast internet, contrasted against a regular hospital setting I am accustomed to, makes this a holiday experience.
Then business begins; the technologies developed like Verboice are extensive and thorough. Developed through multiple prototyping, it’s supporting a number of organizations here and beyond, even close to home in Nairobi. The organizations are across the divide, in health, agriculture and now social protection.
Through short introductory lectures, I am introduced to the different technologies, most of them mobile based including one for tracking health information and resources-allocation and usage.
The most exciting however are the face to face meetings with end user organizations. Social Health Protection Association (SHPA) headquartered a few Tuk-Tuk kilometers away from the InSTEDD iLab SEA is running a social helpline for informal workers. Holding 2 meetings, a week apart, the first involved a 50 minute presentation on my experience running a call center in Uganda. It was a fruitful meeting with the managing director, Mr. Sao Chhorn appreciating the simplicity of our call extension model. The second meeting was to follow up on their readiness to manage their hotline on the Verboice platform and other management issues. This model of technology transfer was new and very practical especially for sustainability.
The busy pace at this hub meant that sometimes we held dinner meetings. One with the hotline manager of Marie Stopes International was particularly exciting. In a relaxed setup we shared experiences of dealing especially with reproductive health issues across cultures.
Cambodia, the Kingdom of long ago, offers lots of scenic Buddhist Pagodas, an elaborate Royal Palace and Museum. Although the time didn’t allow me to travel to Seam Reap to see the Temples, I was nonetheless thrilled by what Phnom Penh could offer. The informal sector is vibrant, markets are packed, the Tuk Tuks are an experience and better still the Mekong River, the lifeline of Asia is adorable.
Not forgetting the food; lots of food and dining experiences. The hospitality, even from the roadside makes you feel a tourist. This small country, tucked away in the east, overshadowed by the big boys; China and Malaysia, unknown to most of the world is truly a wonder.
The writer is a Ugandan Physician.