D.C.J. Wardle



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Welcome to my blog


Having written a number of articles for various blogs over the years I've decided I should probably start sharing a few on my own website. I hope you enjoy them.

By DCJ Wardle, May 8 2016 09:05AM

From 2000 to 2003 I worked in Cambodia for an NGO, initially on a flood response project in Khampong Cham, and then for a village water supply project in the north of the country. Towards the end of that period I made one of my regular trips by pick-up down the dusty, unkempt laterite road from Preah Vihear to Khampong Thom, and then on to Phnom Penh.

That weekend, the group of expats I was spending the evening with had met up at a restaurant, and then moved on to a couple more bars as the night wore on. At the pool table a young guy on his travels was arrogantly holding court, giving a definitive explanation of what ‘Cambodia’ was all about for the benefit of those who were in earshot. The person next to me remarked, and I’m very much paraphrasing here, ‘that enthusiastic young gentlemen has barely been here a month and considers himself to have grasped a full understand of the people and their culture’. Or, as I say, words to that effect.

The implication of course was that we were old hands travelling through this mysterious land, and the naive,overly confident guy with the pool cue and can of Angkor beer didn’t really have a clue what this part of the world was all about. Unbeknownto the old, mildly sozzled hand next to me, he was preaching to the wrong choir. For sometime I’d lost any confidence in my ability to claim a deep or even a shallow understanding of where I was. Indeed I’d noticed a tendency for my convictions on cultural insight to ebb and flow from misguided semi-confidence to total bemusement at a moment’s notice. In 2009, after working for a few years in other parts of the continent, as well as a few jobs in Africa, I returned to SE Asia. Even now, despite a further six years,I don’t think my confidence in cultural enlightenment has changed very much.

After a time, there is a belief amongst expats that we understand. It’s easy to forget that we are always on the periphery, however hard we think we’ve tried to immerse. We know that ‘loss of face’ is a thing. We know this means that raising voices and showing anger is not considered appropriate, unless done in a deliberate way to demonstrate strength. We know that laughter can often be more about embarrassment or uncertainty rather than hilarity. We know that a crisis can be communicated as an understated piece of trivia, with the true problem almost undetectable. Meanwhile a trivial incident can become the topic for hours of intense controversial discussion. However, despite applying these and other cultural sweeping statementsand generalisation to a complex society of nationalities and ethnicity, I’m still largely aware of my overall ignorance in ‘understanding’.

Fortunately, unlike those playing pool thirteen years earlier, I’m nolonger overly concerned about my grasp on cultural enlightenment. It is the delight of the surprises that each new day brings, playing to my ignorance that delivers the greatest pleasure, and reminds me of my privilege to be here at all. I have come to terms, almost, in managing my expectations of the degree to which I can fully understand what’s going on. I choose to enjoy, and have tried to abandon the need to compartmentalise, categorise and label, accepting unanswered day to day questionsas unanswered. Where is the evident extreme joy of eating papaya salad that has more intensely-hot chili than actual papaya? Why is a long journey a series of short hops to the next village, evidently as famousas the previous village for selling fruit or barbequed meats, rather than a concerted effort to get from A to B? Why must Karaoke be the same three songs, out of tune, and why must it be on the bus? How is the distance between two petanque balls more important than anything else in the entire world? Why is there so much trust, but so little surprise when that trust is broken?

These are amongst the many queries for which I choose ignorance over wisdom, and it seems to make my experience in SE Asia so much richer for doing so.

By DCJ Wardle, Apr 17 2016 02:19AM

The protagonist of my new novel, The Feiquon Heist, is Mr Kheng, the night guard of a small provincial bank. He might seem an unlikely choice for a lead character in a novel, however, through my travels I’ve learned that some of the most interesting personalities of an organisation, with varied histories, backgrounds and motivations, are the office guards.

The first time I was ‘guarded’ was in Cambodia, about 15 year ago when I was working for an NGO in Khampong Cham. The office was downstairs and the accommodation for myself and another expat was upstairs. The guard was tasked with security of both office and residence, with the view that in the event a prospective burglar was deciding whether or not to break-in, the response time of the local authorities was unlikely to act as a considerable deterrent. Some on-site security was therefore required. This particular guard was memorable as he’d shown unabated empathy for a large white rabbit that he rescued from joining the menu at a new restaurant on the other side of the bridge. I was primarily made aware of this act of gallantry when returning through the gate late that evening and finding my ankles were being sharply bitten by a white fluffy creature that was maniacally circling me and making the most of his new lease of life. The next day I’d completely forgotten about the new member of the guarding team, reminded only when seated in the office having a meeting with some senior visitors from the organisation, and in the corner of my eye I watched the unlikely event of a large white rabbit lolloping into the room and sit on the floor next to the meeting table. My hopes that only I had noticed this were short-lived when the administrator and the cleaner both started the distracting process of ushering the animal from the building. This was made all the more difficult once it was clear that the cleaner was determined it should leave via the back door, the administrator was determination it should return outside through the front door, and the rabbit was even more determined that it should remain inside.

Since then I’ve been guarded in many different locations and countries. Often thankfully in places where security was heightened, but also with frustration, as having a guard in the compound of the house makes it difficult to fully retreat into your own space and extract yourself from work.

The guards I’ve worked with have come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and motivations, from retired government workers looking for extra income, to professionals in war torn places with few options for paid work, to former soldiers and policemen. There are people traveling from the village looking for work in the towns, and there are people whose options are limited by circumstance, but not by their capacity or ambition. There are very few people who started their employment aspirations with a view to becoming a guard and making it their long term priority. On a project where I worked in Northern Uganda, we had a lot of guards who had more capacity and ambition than the role could motive. Shortly after I took over as programme manager I realised that it was difficult to get a guard to do the Sunday morning shift. Regularly there would be absenteeism at the guard’s post, as attending the service at the catholic church in the hospital compound was by far the greater priority.

In The Feiquon Heist, Kheng the night-guard is joined by two other guards with whom he eventually teams up to carry out the robbery. Through this endeavour they all find that they have mysterious and chequered pasts, and it is the influence of these rich backgrounds that impacts on the operation. Indeed, mid-heist they find that each one has very different motivations for being there, and this impacts greatly on how each believes the robbery should play out. It is only through exploring each other’s colourful histories that they hope to eventually find some common ground and move forward.

Far from being an unlikely hero for the novel, Kheng the night guard provides a unique and grounded perspective from which to engage in the story.

By DCJ Wardle, Apr 10 2016 10:47AM

A while back I was working in a provincial town in SE Asia for an NGO. One Friday afternoon we received an instruction from the head office that we were to take all our petty cash from the safe and deposit back in the bank. There was a public holiday coming up, and so doing this would be a good security precaution in light of the long weekend. Unfortunately, the finance officer was already on leave and had closed the books the previous day, so I informed the logistician to organise a car so that I could take the money and deposit it myself. He looked at me with degree of uncertainty, both as he reflected on this radical change in policy and also in the knowledge that the banks quite like their long weekends as well. It was already nearly four in the afternoon so he decided to first ring someone that he knew at the bank to see if they’d wait for us to do this before closing. The good news was that we could go and deposit the money, but had to accept that it wouldn’t get fully processed onto the system until after the holiday.

I emptied the safe and we duly drove down the road to the main street in the centre of town where the bank was. The front of the building was locked-up and the shutters were down. However, because we were expected, we had instructions to make our wayaround the back of the building. To the side of the bank’s street front was a thin high-walled alleyway that led to a small compound at the back. The building had never been designed as a bank and the plastic sign and red painting of the street frontage was a façade for an ordinary aging town building which would normally double as a small shop and the residence for a local trader.

At the backdoor we let ourselves in, walking through the simple kitchen, past the toilets, along the corridor and into the centre of the bank. It was a hive of activity. There were piles of money everywhere, on counters, on tables, in open draws, on chairs and on shelves, and a troupe of bank employees frantically stacking wads of cash and feeding notes into counting machines. At the back of the room was an open safe, already half-filled with money. I had two initial thoughts. The first question: why are they letting us wander in here, unsupervised through the unlocked back door, with all this going on. The second: how on earth do they expect to get all those large stacks of money into that modestly sized safe. By this time, we’d been spotted by the logistician’s mate who came and counted our money and provide a receipt so we could leave through the same way we came. It was an interesting incite for me, and a memory that lingered sufficiently that it started weaving it into the idea for a new plot.

As a person with limited understanding and non-existent experience in the finer skills of engaging in complex heists, the experience at the bank presented away that the plot could easily flow without risk of getting bogged down in the technicalities of the caper, and being able to focus much more on the personalities and motivations.

Fortunately the bank in question has now moved to a new purpose-built location a few roads back from its old town house on the main street, so I feel I can now divulge this experience this without adding to the security risk of the bank’s contents or staff.

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