KK’s Story: Hip-Hop Healing in Cambodia
I wrote about my day at Tiny Toones Youth Drop in Center for my column in Hindustan Times, this week. You can read it here in my very own section on Hindustan Times’ website!
I’ve been traveling like a woman possessed and just haven’t stopped long enough to post an update! I’m staying in Phnom Penh for two days and it’s time to catch up! Boy do I have some crazy stories for you!
So, have I told you that I’ve near perfected the ‘art of getting lost’? Well I have, with a lot of help from the Tu-Tuk drivers here in Cambodia of course. They all seem to have a serious aversion to stopping to ask for directions! They get lost, go around in circles; completely ignore all my attempts at backseat driving and friendly suggestions. Ensuring that I’m either late, pissed off or traumatized by the time I reach my destination. So obviously, I’ve been walking a lot. It’s less painful, often quicker and cheaper for sure!
So, after my Tuk-Tuk driver got us terribly lost for an hour, in the mid day heat, I reached Tiny Toones ready to either cry or bite someone’s head off! Once I was there, there was no room for my mood swings though. It might have been the loud (really loud actually !) Hip Hop music. Or all the oh-so-cool teenagers who made me feel oh-so-old! Immediately I had bigger things to be hassled about than a lousy Tuk-Tuk ride. It was like high school, I just wanted to fit in!
I felt transported to some hip but slightly dangerous neighbourhood in the west coast with all the funky graffiti and the kids with seriously cool hair-cuts and attitude!
Tiny Toones is an amazing organization. It’s a safe haven for the streets-kids of Phnom Penh- A city of stark contrasts. One moment you’re driving by plush tourist traps with beautiful women vying for the coveted tourist dollar- dripping from the pockets of middle-aged men; most actually believe the young girls fancy them despite their bald spots and pot bellies. And the next moment you’re in a poor neighbourhood where the destitute struggle to keep life as close to normal as possible, faces hardened from a lifetime of manual work and deprivation.
Sprawling new buildings under construction on one street and filth oozing from broken down shanty homes in the next. Bright red Hummer with a stylish young owner parked next to a one-legged landmine victim’s cycle-shop.
Growing up poor in Pnom Penh can’t be easy. To watch the excesses of tourists and the neo-rich while being young and poor must be even harder. Making a quick buck (or camera) off some unsuspecting tourist, or peddling drugs to the over eager college-crowd isn’t just easy and quick- it’s also very rewarding.
I admire the kids who make the hard decision of choosing a different route. The choice is really between honour despite prolonged poverty, over the fast life with easy cash and all the creature comforts it can buy. But, even the kids with the best intentions need a catalyst to help them make this difficult decision.
KK is that catalyst. They respect him because before he was the ‘guy who runs an NGO’, he was a ‘kid on the streets’, just like them. He helps them reconcile with the truth that ‘life isn’t easy, it never will be, but how it shapes up is in your hands alone’. He’s living proof that where you come from, doesn’t define your entire existence and won’t determine where you end up either.
No textbook, sermon or counseling session can communicate this lesson to a kid who’s homeless, abusing drugs, illiterate and hopeless. KK draws the kids into Tiny Toones, by word of mouth through his band of loyal B-Boys.
The kids come to the center looking for a place to belong, to escape the ugliness of daily life and some desperately in search a strand of hope to hold on to. What they find here is a real sense of community, attention and concern from an adult they can look up to and most importantly- the opportunity to be terribly cool and rebellious while being moral, accountable and hardworking.
Where else would these kids find the opportunity to be creative, appreciated and rewarded? The other alternatives are juvenile detention homes that are possibly more brutal and unforgiving than the streets they come from. I visited two more organisations that work with street kids in Pnom Penh, and in all the time I spent there, they couldn’t quite explain what exactly they did for the kids. All I understood was that ‘here, take our business card, it has a phone number you could call if you see a child in distress’. After one night in the ‘rescue center’ the organization passes the kid on to a different NGO depending on the ‘case’ (drug abuse, sex work, petty theft etc). And it’s on to the next one, from there. I’m certain they have an abysmal success rate.
What works for Tiny Toones is that they’re an ‘opt-in’ community; the kids choose to be here. They gain more, stay longer and pick up some tangible skills along the way.
Also, it’s not just the beneficiaries of the center that are young. The board members and staff are just a few years older than the kids they help. I met Michael Otto, an American, who’s a board member and has been living in Cambodia for four years now and speaks fluent Khmer. Michael facilitated my visit to the center and is a passionate advocate for Tiny Toones’ work. I learnt that 62% of Cambodia’s population is under 24. With a weak education system and no social security, unemployment is high and poverty is edging the youth towards gang violence, theft, sex-work and drugs. Gun violence, gang rapes and drugs are peaking with new incidents reported in the newspapers everyday. The program coordinator is a young Australian girl, Romi, who’s also spent six months in India working in a small village near Vellore in Tamil Nadu. She rued that she felt unsafe walking the streets sometimes.
Tiny Toones’ work is so relevant in the harsh urban landscape of Cambodia. They offer hope and healing when it’s needed the most. You really can’t top that.