That time I went to Cambodia and worked in the Best Job Ever, and then explained the details of this further so people could get all inspired by Rosa Borg
So at last I arrived in the Cambodian capital in mid September – monsoon season. Phnom Penh city had developed insanely swiftly since I had last visited three years back and seemed in a state of modernisation flux. In a way, the atmosphere was a little disconcerting, and made me anxious to sink my teeth into the Trade Aid project for a bit of stability. So I headed into CHA as soon as the directors would let me.
My first day is a bit of a blank. The CHA headquarters was situated a little dauntingly beside Phnom Penh’s genocide museum. Tourists flock here on the day to day to learn about Cambodia’s harrowing recent history. By contrast, the neighbourhood surrounding the museum was gorgeous and green and sunny and welcoming. A lush South East Asian community that, despite said social landmark, seemed like a really lovely place to be based for the next three months.
Upon arrival I was quite nervous as I tested the waters, pretending I knew what I was doing in the hope that this might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But almost instantly I realised there was really no need to worry. The women of CHA were so welcoming, as were the founders, and the workshop atmosphere was great. Pop music was blazing, women were beading on the floor, chats were happening, jokes were being made.
I was immediately impressed by CHA’s facilities. Their headquarters included a workshop for production, a retail space, a storeroom with craft goods (what would soon become My Happy Place), a classroom for the women’s thrice daily English classes, cooking quarters for food production and lessons, an office, and sleeping facilities. An all-in-one. As a lot of the members had polio and are unable to walk, the floors were all kitted out with an interesting green lino that helped them to slide along from place to place, with any small stair equipped with a ramp. These little details made things just that much easier for the members, the result of the thoughtfulness of CHA’s founders Mr Kim Tha and Miss Thaily.
It seemed clear from the get-go that these two were just phenomenal people. Their work ethic was insane – 6am till late, seven days a week, all year round. They were mentors, managers, parental figures, cooks, nurses, teachers, and friends all rolled into one. Their drive and constant can-do attitudes were mind-boggling. The sort of people who are the definition of selfless, and make it clear that this term should not be used lightly in other circumstances. CHA seemed to have its greatest assets in Kim Tha and Thaily, and hearing some of the background stories of the organisation’s members, they were beyond lucky to have them.
So right from the start this place seemed pretty inspiring. Kim Tha and Thaily’s introduction to me included an overview of the work they did, how they initially came into contact with the disabled trainees, and how the training programme worked. They noted that many of the women loved CHA so much that they actually stayed on for years, rather than ‘graduating’ as such from the school. I had a run-down on material supplies, including how the Vietnamese and Thai manufacturing markets have pushed a lot of Cambodian counterparts out of business, therefore making it difficult to source locally made haberdashery. I was taken to the various local markets where CHA sourced their bits and bobs to finish their silk products, and was shown how their design-to-manufacturing process unfolds – this centred around Thaily’s amazing skill at figuring out how a design works, and then passing on her wisdom to the assistant teacher, who then creates a domino effect of learning.
Soon, my days became full up with mornings drawing up designs and corresponding with the Christchurch craft team, then heading into the workroom to start creating samples and to generally partake in CHA’s activities – singing pop songs, eating a lot, listening to gossip. Having uncovered a bevy of amazing silks and cottons, and with a little thinking, Thaily and I got onto a real roll with the product designs. The beauty of CHA’s resources is that with simple, effective designs, the quality and stunning aesthetic of their fabrics can just speak for themselves. Mock-ups of handbags, silk bracelets, necklaces, and men’s ties were sprawling from our dated Singers, with the trainees always eager to see (a.k.a model) the latest designs which they would soon be making themselves. It was all very exciting.
The skill level of many of the members also made the design process a lot easier. Knowing that they had such strong capabilities meant there was less restriction on what was possible. The ladies’ work ethic was outstanding, despite there being no pressure at all from the managers as to when and for how long they worked. Perhaps it was their gratefulness for having found paid employment in a country that has no state support and little social respect for people with disabilities that drove them. Or maybe their sheer enjoyment of the job. Whatever it was, the women just had a knack for getting stuff done. And that is one lesson, the value of a job and the work ethic inspired to keep hold of it, that I will not soon forget.