Who is Ruth Keidel Clemens?

Ruth Keidel Clemens is in Cambodia right now as part of a learning tour. But who is she? She is the current International Program Director for MCC US – our supervisors’ supervisor – but her connection to Cambodia goes deeper than that.

After initial shipments of relief aid in response to famine, much of MCC’s work in Kampuchea during the 1980s was focused on rebuilding national capacity. The Khmer Rouge’s disastrous ‘year zero’ policies had almost entirely destroyed the country’s infrastructure.

Ruth and her husband Jonathan came to Cambodia (then Kampuchea) in 1988. They were the third MCC Representatives to Kampuchea. At that time, the country was still under embargo by the United States and China. They were forced to live in a hotel along with the few other Western expatriates in country (when they arrived in 1988, they were only 14 Americans and 80 Western expats in total). They were suspected of being Western spies and their movements were monitored closely. They were not allowed to have Cambodian friends outside of their contacts in the government and had to practice their faith in private as Christianity was illegal.

The Clemens were monitored closely and were not allowed to have relationships outside of their government handlers. However, they worked around this by exercising at the stadium every day after work. Young adults would jog with them and practice their English.

The Clemens raised their four children in Cambodia under these conditions. One of their children was a Cambodian orphan who they adopted. They managed to build relationships with Cambodians despite the barriers – even their government handlers – and implemented projects ranging from forestry to community health to irrigation.

In the late 1980s, Cyclos were are most common means of transportation around the city. There was very little traffic with very few cars. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed all of the automobiles and very few had been imported during the embargo.

MCC was one of only three American NGOs active inside Cambodia during the embargo. Due to this status as an isolated American witness, the Clemens hosted people like Edmund Muskie, Peter Jennings during filming of From the Killing Fields, Sydney Schanberg, and Dith Pran.

In 1990, Westerners were finally allowed to move out of the hotels and into homes around the city. This photo is of the first MCC rental house/office after moving out of the hotel. This housed 3 service workers, the office, and guest space for rural service workers.

The restrictions began to relax during the Clemen’s term. They were allowed to move out of the hotel and into the MCC Office/Guesthouse. They also brought in the first long term MCC service worker, Dr. Hélène Hege. She served in Prey Veng province and was the first Western expatriate given permission to live outside of the capital after the Khmer Rouge. Finally – on Easter Sunday in 1990 – Christianity was legalized and the Clemens were among the attendants at that first service.

Dr. Hélène Hege, the first Western expat to live outside of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge, and Ruth’s husband Dr. Jonathan Clemens (a pediatrician) trained Doctors, Nurses, Midwives, and traditional heath attendants. This helped restore Cambodia’s healthcare capacity after the Khmer Rouge’s disastrous efforts to reset society to ‘year zero.’

In the early 1990s, the Paris Peace Agreement resulted in the end of the embargo and the formation of a new government. Kampuchea became Cambodia and there was an influx of Western development NGOs. MCC, as one of the few NGOs with experience working in Cambodia, played a outsized role in establishing interagency coordination and cooperation. The Cooperation Committee for Cambodia was formed during this time with heavy involvement by MCC and the American Friends Service Committee.

In 1991, MCC was finally able to begin working in villages on a participatory level in Cambodia.

In 1991, Mennonite Central Committee was finally able to begin working in villages on a participatory level in Cambodia. As her term came to an end, Ruth worked to restructure the Cambodia program and recruited many new service workers to serve on the community level. These individuals started some amazing initiatives throughout the 1990s. I’ll highlight some of them in future alumni profiles.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. glendalandis says:

    How very interesting! I thought the name Ruth Keidel sounded familiar when I saw her pictured with Charlotte & Catherine in a recent photo, though didn’t really know who she was.

    1. Charles says:

      Outside of the Cambodia context, she was raised in the Congo by Mennonite missionaries and was the MCC East Coast Director before serving in her current role.

  2. rose graber says:


  3. Homer Wood says:

    My maternal grandfather was Alvin Clemens Alderfer. I also had an Uncle….Harry Bean Clemens. Probably more information than you care for.

    1. Charles says:

      One of the alumni here said that I have a “pathological obsession” with history so I do enjoy the connections. I just wish I had the materials to look it up and see if you related. I miss my neighbors at the Mennonite Heritage Center.

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