Africans in Cambodia
The Cambodia that my African partner and his friends live in is a very different Cambodia than for me or my western colleagues. They must overcome phenomenal injustices just to survive here each day. This is an extremely difficult topic that I’ve wanted to address for a long time but have found it hard because Cambodia, like most countries in the world, has two sides to it. I’m in the middle of both where I can see the positive attributes to living here as a westerner and the negative as an African.
An African person doesn’t have the same freedom here that westerners do. If I weren’t with my partner, my lifestyle would be very different. I would not experience many, if any, restrictions, I would be financially stable, and I would not keep myself socially exempt from my own culture. I choose to keep myself away from my fellow mankind because it is difficult to explain to most what our lifestyle is really like. I’m hesitant to explain it to people because it changes their perception of who we are. There is pity in their eyes I’d rather not see.
There are two main reasons an African would live in Cambodia: business (either private enterprise or through English education) or football. When in a private enterprise, the majority of Africans understand that to survive in this quasi-law-ignored society they must play the game in the same way. It doesn’t work the same way for footballers. Unfortunately, they are at the mercy of the clubs that sign them, or rather, don’t.
In any other South East Asian country, a footballer is a respected visitor. When they’re signed to a club they’re paid, given the appropriate visa, accommodation and living support, in addition to their football kits and training needs. Life is what you would expect of any FIFA recognised club.
In Cambodia, the opposite applies. If they sign an African, most will not pay adequately, less than $150 per month. There are many clubs that don’t pay at all. Few clubs take care of their players visas or worse, will hold their passports for the duration of the contract telling the player they have a processed visa, only for the player to learn that they’ve overstayed because the club didn’t process anything. In instances like this the individual’s circumstances are dire, with no job, no money and no visa their lifestyle quickly turns to survival mode.
The sadness of this example is that it’s all too common. Immigration do nothing to help the disadvantaged because they’re a part of the revolving door of taking advantage of Africans. From charging them exorbitant fees for common visas to conducting raids on their homes, not to arrest them but to take anything of value from their homes or person in fees. An African is rarely arrested for an overstay, there is no value in this, nor are they deported at the cost of the Cambodian government, if they go to the immigration jail they’ll stay there until they can raise the funds to clear their over-stay and the flight home themselves.
Many blame Africans for their state of affairs because they believe the stereotype that Africans are conniving con-artists who thrive on conducting illegal business. It cannot be denied, that like any citizens from any nation, it is possible for them to conduct themselves illegally here but it should also be clarified that these are the Africans who know who to pay. It is the footballers that get lumped into the same negative stereotype and receive the wrath because they have no means to pay.
Most footballers are brought to South East Asia, and ultimately Cambodia, from Africa under false pretences of grandiose and football fame. It’s fair of them to expect this because they have no means to doubt their managers or agents. They expect a lifestyle reminiscent of European clubs and are sorely mistaken when they arrive here. Their families have raised thousands of dollars to get them out of their country, going home is not an option. To an African, travelling overseas represents to your friends and family that you have made a success for yourself. No African can return home empty handed because their culture depicts that they must share their wealth among those less fortunate at home. This pressure means that when things don’t go well most Africans are reluctant to call home for help. Family and friends would struggle to believe that a country outside of their own is worse. Comparatively, to the average African here, Cambodia is not a better country.
The determined African spirit is resilient in all they must overcome living here. On a daily basis, they are insulted, stared, spat or sneered at by local people. This is the bizarre two worlds that I see all the time and why this is hard for me to talk about. It’s hard to know why there is such a deep-felt hatred in the hearts of some Khmer; to be clear, it’s not from all people, most people stare or talk about them out of curiosity, but those that do hate Africans seem to not be able to give a consistent reason either, it seems fuelled from ignorance than the education-based racism of western countries.
One day my partner went to the market, during the purchase an old woman approached from another stall and without acknowledging him, took his arm and began to rub it fiercely, as though she wanted to remove his skin. The seller translated the old woman, “you’re very dirty, why don’t you wash?” My partner laughed gently thinking the old woman was going senile, “I’m African, this is the normal colour of my skin,” he replied. “Oh,” she said. “You must have a black heart too, you’re a bad man.” My partner’s charming smile dissolved, but he didn’t get angry. He replied calmly before we walked away, “my blood is as red as yours.”
If for no other purpose, I hope that by my highlighting their difficulties you might learn not to stereotype them together and consider each for the beauty they have. They are a victim of a greater problem here; only when the Cambodian Football Federation changes their ways will it be okay for African footballers to live here, in the meantime, may I pray that no more come.
Image Credits: Football (authors own), Khmer Woman.