Volume 1 No.7

What's New

Place of Interest

Phrase Of The Month


The Fabric Of Culture
By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter. ( December, 2001 Volume 1 No.7 )

In Prey Kabash District, Takeo Province, the cavernous space under nearly every house shelters a loom, and silk threads of every color hang in skeins outside. Takeo was once a silk weaving center of Cambodia, in the days before the war when mulberry trees, the natural food of the silk worm, grew plentifully and the daughters of every family learnt the ancient trade from their mothers, and their mother's mothers, according to locals. "I am 83 years old now. Perhaps I am the oldest weaver here, and I remember my mother teaching me the secrets of the patterns all those years ago," Thon Yeav said. But under the Pol Pot regime there was no call for the fine cloths that Cambodia had been famous for throughout the world. Weaving was banned, many of the master weavers died, and secrets were lost. After the war, too, the economics of the country changed and gradually more and more people from this region have been forced to go to the city to look for work to support their farming families.
That often includes the daughters who would once have stayed at home and supplemented family income by creating the intricate patterns that become sampots (skirts) and sarongs. "When they go to the city, they hope to find work in garment factories, but sometimes, there is no work, or they end up working as beer girls, in karaoke parlors or even prostitutes. Whatever happens, they are a long way from their families," said Mr Chea Pyden, Director of the Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization (VCAO). VCAO was set up in June, 1994 by professionals, individuals and consultants who wanted to make a difference to the lives of young people in vulnerable situations, Mr Pyden said. And in Takeo, where the weaving tradition is still struggling to regain its former strength and master weavers are in short supply despite the number of looms in evidence in the area, VCAO hit upon the perfect solution, both to the problem of children migrating away from their homes, and of reviving that culture. The Silk Weaving Training Project for Poor Young Girls was born, sustained by a small budget supplemented by Echo and Save the Children (UK). Recently, the NGO Friends has also leant a hand.

Experienced local weavers agreed to work as teachers for small salaries. Looms were brought in and lined up in rows under a traditional wooden house. Then VCAO workers selected 20 girls from Takeo Province who were deemed at risk from trafficking or exploitation to stay in their native province and learn the trade. VCAO has a range of projects in operation in cooperation with various complimentary NGOs, from setting up peer group support groups to providing libraries, non-formal education programs for groups like child domestic workers and children who live by scavenging the Phnom Penh garbage dump and scholarship funding for underprivileged women and children. Because of the number of girls migrating to the city from Takeo, and the levels of poverty in several districts in the province, VCAO decided small-scale skills training in weaving, the traditional mainstay of the area before the war, was the best option. "Girls in the countryside usually don't finish school. They have little education and when they go to the city and leave their families behind, they are very vulnerable. Teaching this skill allows them to stay here and earn a good living to help their family," Mr Pyden said. "The girls we selected were between 14 and 17 years old. They were all school dropouts and their families had no skills to teach them. They had no jobs and were often the children of widows. Some were at risk. Some had already returned from the city."
That was nearly six years ago. Today, the eight month course has been completed by 100 girls who have returned to their families better able to supplement their income and free from the pressure to travel to Phnom Penh to find unskilled, low paid and sometimes dangerous work. And for each girl trained at the center, many more at village and family level will be able to watch and work with her and in turn learn those new skills without ever directly entering the program. "On average, one piece of silk (called a kben) will sell for $30 to $35. Each one takes about a week to weave, so you see, they can support their families very comfortably with this work," Mr Pyden said. "We identify the markets for them and make sure they can sell their product on. Once they have finished the training, we extend micro credit loans so they can buy their own equipment and set themselves up. Most of the product goes to Takeo before being sold on to wholesalers from the city."
Not satisfied with just teaching weaving, the older Khmer masters began to teach the girls traditional methods of dying the threads, enabling them to find the ingredients for the rich blues, yellows and reds of the traditional sampot from their local environment more cheaply than they could buy environmentally unfriendly and expensive chemical dyes. "For blue, we take red dye from this resin found on certain types of trees, called sramar, and mix it with tamarind leaves," a supervisor at the Trapaing Tear village explains. "Yellow comes from the bark of the phohut (combogia guttai) tree this tree which produces a sour fruit. We mix a kilo and a half of it with a couple of hundred grams of rose apple nut and four liters of sangker potash and have enough for one kben. "Green comes from the leaves of the indigo plant. We use limestone, palm sugar and sangker potash as a catalyst. The main ingredients grow all around here. It is simple when you know how to do it." The richly colored threads are the basis of silk cloth which will reach the tourist markets of Phnom Penh, and, from there, countries all over the world. "Now only our silks have to go to Phnom Penh. The weavers can stay here in their own villages. They have that option," Mr Pyden said.