When I was 6 years old, I caught the poliovirus and we strongly suspect there was medical negligence. I had played in the rain for hours and got a bad fever. My parents called for the doctor who gave me injections, three times in one day. Three days later I couldn’t walk properly.
My mum was very upset – she was surprised and shocked. They went to a traditional doctor, no longer having any faith in the medical doctor. They spend lot of money trying to find a cure, but after some months they came to accept I was not going to get any better. They became very emotional when they look at me and I couldn’t walk. I heard my neighbours say it was because of karma – that I must have done a bad deed to a person or animal. I don’t believe that.
I went into hiding at home because I couldn’t move around and felt shy about my disability. Both my legs became smaller and smaller (chicken legs). I couldn’t go up and down the stairs in my house. I was too scared and did not dare to do it. But my mother said “YOU CAN DO IT” and encouraged me to learn how to go down the stairs one step at a time. I kept trying and gradually, after a month, I could do it. I was frightened and excited all together. Mum was so happy when I managed to do it.
Sakun (front, left) at a family ceremony as a child
Then she asked if I wanted to play with other children from the village. I said “Yes”. I was bored from staying home but still ashamed of my chicken legs – they didn’t look strong or attractive so it was hard to play with the others. Mum asked other kids to come over and play. They knew about me and were okay about my disability. They didn't stare at me, so I went out to play with them. Occasionally they would put me on coconut leaves and drag me along to where they were going. I could play with marbles and hide and seek just like the other kids. My life was getting better and I was starting to forget about my polio legs. I played like this for months.
Kong Kimsy, Sakun's mother with her granddaughter
To beg or go to school?
When I was 9 years old my parents decided I was to go to the government school. She joked that she should send me to the Kampot market to beg! She took me to be enrolled at school and before long I was learning with students who did not have a disability. I was good at school and learnt quickly.
For 6 years my mother gave me a ride to school there and back each day on her bike. People said to her while she was taking me it was a waste of time because even if I have knowledge I have a disability and couldn’t find a job. Luckily my parents disagreed and for them, education was a priority for all their children.
When my father passed away I was in grade 8 and my family went from happiness to misery overnight. Every morning my father would leave early to find work somewhere, and this allowed mother to look after us and run the home as well as look for some work. They were farmers but looked for work anywhere. When Dad passed away it was a disaster for our family. Mum now had to find income from somewhere and my sister left school to help mother find work.
Each morning I would get up very early and basically try and arrange a lift to school myself. Middle school was 8 km away and too far for my mother to take me. I had to use my handbike – a wheelchair – to go to parts of the village where my school friends lived. Each day I would have to ask them for a lift. I was heavy and it was an 8km ride so what I was asking was not easy for them. Most days I found someone to take me.
Crawl into class
When I got to school I would have to crawl into class. I often did not have money for lunch or water. It was hard but I stuck at it for 6 years. I was very proud of myself when I graduated.
I had been good at English since I had started at the pagoda with a monk. We would learn by candlelight. When I was at secondary school I also had lessons after school on the road to Kep. A friend and I would go there and we would motivate each other, and practice. This would cost 500 riels (12cents), which is not so much now but was a real sacrifice for mother.