Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mekong Blue

Today I picked up a sample of the pouch we'll be giving away to anyone who purchases 10 or more finger puppets. These are made out of beautiful silk and sewn at Mekong Blue. Mekong Blue is a great, great non-profit organization that helps communities in Stung Treng. I'd always intended to visit their production center when I lived in Ratanakiri (deep north-east of Cambodia, ST is on the way, almost) but somehow never did. Then a series of small world coincidences resulted in our connecting and working together.

A couple of my friends have bought silk from Mekong Blue in the past and currently a close friend is having her wedding dress made there (actually two, but that is long story). I went with her for one of the fittings and its turns out that the owner's daughter is one of my students! Chantha, who runs the store, and I are also connected through various other people, volunteers and consultants who worked or still work in North-Eastern Cambodia. I also really believe in their project and their work and it seemed perfect to ask them to help with small pouches for the puppets. This way I get to plug Mekong Blue and have a gorgeous little silk bag to give away.

So, now you need to go the Mekong Blue website and check out their online store. Of course you don't really have to, but if you are looking for a stunning Christmas (or other occasion) gift, their silk scarves are gorgeous. The weaving is top quality, the colours are beautiful and well worth the price. The best part, the sale goes directly back into the project and contributes to the support of over 400 women and their families. For those of you who like to purchase items that give back, this is a perfect one for you! The site is here:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Last day of training before Water Festival

So yesterday was the 7th day of training and the last before a week long break. Today is a holiday for the 5th year anniversary of the current King's coronation, tomorrow is a holiday for the former King's birthday and Monday-Wednesday are off for the Water Festival. Cambodia has the most national holidays of any country in the world except for Sri Lanka. Not for me though! The knitters have come in for a couple days of sewing together finger puppets are we are way behind!

The training has been going really well. One knitter has quit.... she just could not understand. She tried really hard the first week and I had really hoped she would keep fighting on, but she decided she wouldn't be able to do it. Of the rest of the knitters, about 4 or 5 are exceptionally good and pretty much ready to start making things for us! The rest are doing really well, but still have some problems like rowing out, twisting stitches or not doing the decreases correctly. When we go back next week, we'll focus on those that need to improve their technique and we'll bring some plastic eyes and tapestry needles so everyone can finish what they've made and have some finished products to be proud of. They can give these to their children or as presents or keep or whatever they want. There are also dozens of pairs of booties around and I'm going to contact the national hospital and see if we can't donate them to newborns from poor families.

The last of the sponsored knitter photos... I think. If you're a sponsor and you haven't seen a photo of your knitter, send me an email.

Mao Mun sponsored by Melanie Aswell.

Sok Mei sponsored by Vivian Nguyen.
Leong Ratana sponsored by Lynn Walma.

Ven Thy sponsored by Laurel Dougherty-Seto.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Short and sweet

Only one knitter photo today, down below. Still having issues finding a translator to come with me! Grr.

I completely forgot to write about the donation we made last week to an orphanage on the outskirts of PP. We had a bag full of toys that were from the first round of knitting in the round and less than perfect, but still lovable and in need of love. One my students (I teach part time at an English school) invited me to join her youth group on an excursion to this orphanage. They were planning on distributing food, clothes and toys. Yeng and I didn't have time to join the activities, but we did hand over all the monsters that we had to pass onto the little ones. It was reported the children were very happy to receive them and we are happy they have a new home.

Sim Soeun sponsored by Carol O'Neil.
He is the son of Kung Pisey who is pictured in an earlier post.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Dance of the Accounting Fairy

For those of you enjoying a Sunday off, I envy you. My husband, darling, has been bothering me for weeks to budget and account for everything related to CK. Today he basically forced me to do it. A Sunday afternoon spent going through receipts and trying to understand accounting software is not what I call a good time. At all. However, thanks to the accounting fairy, I now have a better grasp of what is going on and what we can do in the next few months.

I gave most of the sponsored knitters photos of their sponsors on Friday. They were happy to see your faces and learn where you are from. If you haven't sent me a photo yet (you know who you are) do it!

And since there is not much more to report, I give you a slice of life in Cambodia. Below are some photos of the rural Cambodian equivalent of a 7-11. It sells everything from water, laundry detergent, canned sardines, hair accessories to shampoo, snacks and cooking gas. It's not air-conditioned and there are no slurpies, but it's basically the same thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

One week of training down

The first week is finished and most of the knitters are already able to make an elephant puppet! I still don't have any more information for you as the translator stood me up yesterday and I wasn't able to collect any stories. Grr.

Chan Thyda sponsored by Kasia Zygadlewicz.

Kut Jan Kosal sponsored by Jocelyn Pederick.

Noun Soka sponsored by Colin Alfred.

Soy Srey Chan sponsored by Lynn Walma.

Sok Srey Pouv sponsored by Jo-Ey Lee.

Krouch Koun and Sok Srey Mao sponsored by Juan and Shelli Mosley.

Yu Tra sponsored by Kylie Mannion.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Find us at Living Room!

I finally got the act together and put some of our final products on display on Living Room. If you're interested in picking one up, head over there for a delicious coffee and shop away! Some puppets will be there tomorrow as well.

Final training day for the week tomorrow. Sorry I haven't been posting photos, but I haven't had the chance to go out there. Tomorrow I will 100% for sure and with the added bonus of a translator! That means stories and more photos (if the cameras start behaving itself after acting all spazzy today) tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sponsorships call is over!

We've had more people interested in sponsoring a knitter than we have knitters! While it's great that all participants now have a distant supporter, I'm sorry that some of you won't be able to sponsor a knitter this time around. If all goes well, I hope we can train another group in late December or the new year and then we'll look for more sponsors.

I haven't been able to go to the training at Toul Sambo the past couple days as I've been stuck at the computer doing boring admin type things instead. The trainers get to have all the fun! I'm actually really happy that they can go out there on their own and are more than confident and competent to carry out the training without me. We're taking a very informal approach to the training, no modules or tests, no books or note taking. Most people when they learn from their friends or mama's simply sit nearby and ask lots of questions. Nothing is more important than just practicing and frogging and learning from mistakes. Our approach will need to change somewhat once we're working on the patterns, but that brings up a whole other issue...

Many of the participants are illiterate and we have to find a way for this not to be an obstacle to them. The trainers think that those that can't read can get help from those who can to get through the patterns. I don't think this is ideal because it will create a dependency and a power dynamic that might lead to disempowerment and frustration. While I'd like to think that those who can read the patterns will always be willing to help those that can't, in practice we should be more pragmatic. We can try modified knitting charts. It will just take some time to teach everyone how to understand these. We'll also have to rewrite all the patterns using a whole new system...

Any knitters out there have any suggestions?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Training Day 1

The first day of training this morning went very well. Three knitters, pictures below, were able to finish knitting a bootee and were eager to start on the second one as we were leaving. I'm sure there will be many more finished tomorrow. Everyone who signed up on Thursday attended, which is great. When I called for a break at 10am, they all told me to basically shut up and let them get on with it. They also wanted us to stay longer as everyone wanted to keep going.

Some photos from today:

Ven Vireak sponsored by Stephen Seto

Kung Pisey sponsored by Ali Sanderson

Heng Srey Neang sponsored by Clairone Delaney

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An interesting perspective on globalization

I just loved reading this so much a few weeks back, I decided to post it here too. This might as well be the story of my family (minus Oxford scholarships) from small Polish potato farm to Polish-Japanese, Polish-Greek, Polish-African and eventually Polish-Cambodian children all over the globe. I'm sure its the story of many readers too...

This is written by Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyer, about himself. Published in The Times of India.

In 1992, I wrote a book titled Towards Globalisation. I did not realise at the time that this was going to be the history of my family.

Last week, we celebrated the wedding of my daughter, Pallavi. A brilliant student, she had won scholarships to Oxford University and the London School of Economics. In London, she met Julio, a young man from Spain. The two decided to take up jobs in Beijing, China. Last week, they came over from Beijing to Delhi to get married. The wedding guests included 70 friends from North America, Europe and China.

That may sound totally global, but arguably my elder son Shekhar has gone further. He too won a scholarship to Oxford University, and then taught for a year at a school in Colombo. Next he went to Toronto, Canada, for higher studies. There he met a German girl, Franziska.

They both got jobs with the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC, USA. This meant that they constantly travelled on IMF business to disparate countries. Shekhar advised and went on missions to Sierra Leone, Seychelles, Kyrgyzstan and Laos. Franziska went to Rwanda, Tajikistan, and Russia. They interrupted these perambulations to get married in late 2003.

My younger son, Rustam, is only 15. Presumably he will study in Australia, marry a Nigerian girl, and settle in Peru.

Readers might think that my family was born and bred in a jet plane. The truth is more prosaic. Our ancestral home is Kargudi, a humble, obscure village in Tanjore district, Tamil Nadu. My earliest memories of it are as a house with no toilets, running water, or pukka road.

When we visited, we disembarked from the train at Tanjore, and then travelled 45 minutes by bullock cart to reach the ancestral home. My father was one of six children, all of whom produced many children (I myself had three siblings). So, two generations later, the size of the Kargudi extended family (including spouses) is over 200. Of these, only three still live in the village. The rest have moved across India and across the whole world, from China to Arabia to Europe to America.

This one Kargudi house has already produced 50 American citizens. So, dismiss the mutterings of those who claim that globalisation means westernisation. It looks more like Aiyarisation, viewed from Kargudi.

What does this imply for our sense of identity? I cannot speak for the whole Kargudi clan, which ranges from rigid Tamil Brahmins to beef-eating, pizza-guzzling, hip-hop dancers. But for me, the Aiyarisation of the world does not mean Aiyar domination. Nor does it mean Aiyar submergence in a global sea. It means acquiring multiple identities, and moving closer to the ideal of a brotherhood of all humanity. I remain quite at home sitting on the floor of the Kargudi house on a mat of reeds, eating from a banana leaf with my hands. I feel just as much at home eating noodles in China, steak in Spain, teriyaki in Japan and cous-cous in Morocco. I am a Kargudi villager, a Tamilian, a Delhi-wallah, an Indian, a Washington Redskins fan, and a citizen of the world, all at the same time and with no sense of tension or contradiction.

When I see the Brihadeeswara Temple in Tanjore, my heart swells and I say to myself “This is mine.” I feel exactly the same way when I see the Church of Bom Jesus in Goa, or the Jewish synagogue in Cochin, or the Siddi Sayed mosque in Ahmedabad: these too are mine. I have strolled so often through the Parks at Oxford University and along the canal in Washington, DC, that they feel part of me. As my family multiplies and intermarries, I hope one day to look at the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona and Rhine river in Germany and think, “These too are mine.”

We Aiyars have a taken a step toward the vision of John Lennon. Imagine there's no country, It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too.

My father's generation was the first to leave the village, and loosen its regional shackles. My father became a chartered accountant in Lahore, an uncle became a hotel manager in Karachi, and we had an aunt in Rangoon.

My generation loosened the shackles of religion. My elder brother married a Sikh, my younger brother married a Christian, and I married a Parsi. The next generation has gone a step further, marrying across the globe. Globalisation for me is not just the movement of goods and capital, or even of Aiyars. It is a step towards Lennon's vision of no country.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope one day you'll join us. And the world will be one.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Busy Monika

Sorry for my slackness and not updating more as we head into the first week of training. I really thought that with my thesis out of the way I'd have lots of time, but instead I have been running around all week, catching up on all the things I put off while writing. Finally, some catching up this weekend!

We went to the community on Thursday to hand out information about the training next week and to get a final tally of those interested. The trainers have been doing a great job the few times they have gone there the past few weeks and everyone was eager to show me the swatches they had been working on. There were heaps and heaps!! Some are already onto increasing and decreasing and almost everyone is knitting even, neat rows. A few people had crossed stitches, but still they were even. They're a nice group and my knitters really like working with them and I think everyone is looking forward to having them there, teaching, all week rather than just every few days. Mony especially is really great at forming relationships and making people feel comfortable and relaxed.

I have the final list (although we are quite certain a few people were away on Thursday and might sign up on Monday morning) and will be matching names to knitters this weekend and sending those out to all the sponsors. A big, huge thank you to everyone who offered to sponsor a knitter! We're all full and no longer need any more sponsors for this group. If all goes well, maybe the next training, in another community, will take place next year in February, but nothing certain for now.

Back to running around now. Definitely check in on Monday for news of our first training session and, I hope, our first "Knitter, up-close-and-personal" story ;).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Great news story from India

Just a quick update: I am free from the shackles of academia! I sent in my final dissertation yesterday afternoon and put away all the study material today. What a relief!!

More tomorrow on CK, but for now take some time to read this article about a young man in India who has taken it on himself to educate the poor young children in his neighbourhood:

Now he's a true hero!!!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Quick Update

Things are hectic as I am trying to get the products ready to go to the shops, organize the training at Toul Sambo and complete my MSc. dissertation which is due next Friday but needs to be sent off by Monday afternoon. Most of my focus is on the last one but I try to squeeze in time with the knitters as they work on new patterns, improve their seeming technique and happily knit away. Here is a lovely photo of Tyna, Mony and Rofi with their latest work.. They love love love making these monsters. You would too (go here for your very own pattern).

In other news, we're up to 24 sponsors! A great, big hug and thanks go out to my brother, Kuan-Neng Foo in Milan who is sponsoring 5 knitters!! You're the best brother a girl could never have. You might wonder how it is that I have a brother with a very obviously Chinese name living in Milan, when I am so obviously Polish and living in Cambodia... well it is a long story about our wonderfully globalizing world. For another time! Also a big thank you to the Trandem clan, sponsoring a knitter each (for a total of 4) and of course everyone else too!

Also, I have secured a factory supply of the safety eyes that we need at extremely good rates. And I didn't need to order a minimum of 100 000 pieces either. The order is placed and now just waiting on some documentation from the Cambodian side to process the shipping. By next week, if all goes well (breath deeply held), we should have them. Next task: yarn from Beijing.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Knitting School

We went back out to the community today to make sure that everyone that is interested has a pair of needles. Quite a few of the people we met on Friday had kept going over the weekend and we saw a few finished pieces of all garter and some stocking stitch! Some of them were amazingly good for beginners. Mony, Tyna and Rofi continued teaching and I asked them to also show the continental style of knitting. Not everyone learns the same, not everyone knits the same and I think that if someone is discouraged with one style, the other might be more suitable for them.

I spent the morning working with a group of women trying to teach/convert them to continental (I confess, I am a continental knitting snob and not only do I prefer it, but generally think it is the superior method... this might offend some of you English style knitters and I am sorry, but whether our knitters choose English style or continental style we will of course support them, but I will try at this early stage to get them on my team ;)). Ooops, long digression there.

Anyway, so knitting school was in full swing today, with about 20 people sitting in small groups giving it their best. I really have to give extra props to the handful of male knitters for joining the training. One of them is learning really fast and could potentially be our best knitter!

In sponsorship news, we have found 14 sponsors so far! I've added a "donate" button onto the right hand panel of the blog to make it easier for interested donors. I can send you a PayPal invoice, but a couple people had trouble responding to it. Or if you are in Canada, direct deposit to RBC is the best way to go other than Interac by email (a new magical thing I only just found out about). Please spread the word and let your friends and family know about the project!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sponsorship call!

Sponsor a Knitter – Support a livelihood

You could help a struggling community help itself, stitch by stitch! Cambodia Knits is hoping to find sponsors to support knitters-to-be through a three-week basic knitting training period.

Starting October 19, 2009, Cambodia Knits will be training members of the community at Toul Sambo, Cambodia. Once trained, participants will have the skills — and guaranteed employment — to earn an income and support their families. That means your one-time support will launch a livelihood for years to come.

Who you’re sponsoring

Toul Sambo is located 25 kilometres outside of Phnom Penh, where there’s little access to employment opportunities. The families living here were recently relocated from Phnom Penh and due to the high prevalence of HIV infection among the community, it has received the unfortunate nickname of “the AIDS village”. This relocation made international news and was widely condemned. The stigma of living in the green metal sheds that make up the relocation site, further marginalizes the people there. We hope that through training and gainful employment, Toul Sambo community members can overcome these recent struggles and work towards a brighter future. 33 community members are interested in taking part and we don’t want to deny any of them the opportunity.

How it works

Cambodia Knits is offering training in the community to anyone interested in learning how to knit. Participants will receive a small daily fee in lieu of what they might have been able to earn otherwise during training time. They will also get a bonus on successful completion of training. These stipends are where your funds will be used.

Sponsorship cost

You can sponsor a knitter-in-training for only $30US per participant.

Sponsor as many as you like! Every cent you contribute will go directly to the knitters to support them during the training period. We provide all materials, so no part of your sponsorship goes towards production costs.

About Cambodia Knits

Cambodia Knits was started in June 2009 with five knitters and is still in the early stages of its development. Our goal is to become a sustainable social enterprise, enabling women in poor and marginalized communities access to fair, flexible and rewarding employment. CK knitters produce quality hand knit toys, which we distribute for sale throughout Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia.

We believe our model works for everyone involved:

· Knitters receive training before they begin to work for us and get continued support for skill development afterwards

· Knitters do not need to leave home to produce products, can work on their own schedules, and do not need to invest in materials

· Knitters will have a guaranteed market for the goods they produce, as CK will purchase these directly from them at fair rates

· Profits will fund expansion of the training program to more communities

We feel it’s important to pay learning knitters a training incentive to support them through the training period. Though we would love to provide these incentives ourselves, we’re not yet in a financial position to do so.

As we are not a charity or NGO, we’re not able to provide tax receipts for your donation. However, we’d be happy to provide information about the knitter you sponsor, including photos from the training period.

If you’re interested in sponsoring a knitter, or have any questions, please email

Thank you for your support!


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy happy happy

Needles galore and mini-yarn balls for Toul Sambo:

Deep sigh of relief.

This morning on the drive out to Toul Sambo I had many worries floating around in my head. Not having enough needles, not being sure how many people would want to sign up for training, the yarn being too thin for teaching, the village leader not having prepared a list of names, not knowing where in the community to set up the training and so on. Today could be potentially messy, I thought.

The morning couldn't have turned out better (well, except for the lack of needles).

When we arrived, the village leader was nowhere to be seen. Another community member had taken on the responsibility of talking to everyone and making a list of interested people. Great initiative and the list was well prepared. Without it, things would not have gone so smoothly. We told everyone the problem with the knitting needles and not having enough and although they were disappointed, they seemed willing to share with one another until we come back on Monday with more.

We met with every interested person, gave them a pair of knitting needles and small ball of yarn and directed them to Rofi, Tyna and Mony, who were ready to teach them casting on and knit stitch. The official training has not started, but we wanted everyone to have a chance to learn, practice and get the hang of the bare basics. This way, when we start the training in a few weeks, the foundation will already be set.

And this is where it gets exciting and 'happy'. I was really worried about Tyna and Rofi and how comfortable they would be. They are young and shy and they had both, along with Mony, expressed concerns about working with HIV positive people. As you can expect, there are a lot of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS here and a lot of fear. They seemed to understand that the disease could not be transmitted easily, but feared that they might be open to other illnesses. Davy, Yeng and I have been reassuring them that we would not ask them to work in a situation that put them at risk and that if they felt really uncomfortable, we would need to talk about it some more.

So today, I really thought they would be nervous working with the community and I had no idea how training that was so unstructured and informal would go. We didn't have a chance to prepare too much or talk it through, I just asked them to cover the basics. I didn't have a chance to give them any support either as Davy and I were busy going through the list, getting names right, trying to learn the situation in each household.

I only found out when we got back in the car how it all went.

Tyna and Rofi are usually very quite, shy, reticent. They don't ever say much unless asked a question and even then only with some encouragement. When they got back in the car today, though, there was no shutting them up! For most of the ride back it was all excited, happy chatter in the back seat. I could only catch the recurrent sabay sabay sabay (happy in Khmer). Turns out everyone was happy. The community members were happy to be learning and my knitters were happy to be teaching them. They even said they would be happy to go there on their own on a moto (they know the next 10 days I'm busy with finishing my MSc) and continue training.

Yeng, my amazing husband, had said something to the knitters the other day about learning new skills. He said, and I paraphrase, when you learn a new skill of any kind, you should never think its just yours to keep. It can only become truly yours when you pass it onto someone else and help them grasp it as well. I don't know if my knitters got that or really internalized it, but I do think they reveled this morning in being able to teach others. It seemed it was fun, exciting, rewarding for them. And it clearly made them happy. There was no need to worry about location either. Although not ideal, a woven mat in the shade of a banyan tree can make a learning space. It's the teachers and students that make it what it is.

For me, it was an emotional morning. When I started this journey, expedition really, to establish Cambodia Knits, it was moments like these that I had hoped and aimed for. Seeing the Toul Sambo (a community whose misfortunes I had only been following in the news until a month ago) people sitting in small groups, smiling and really happy, eager to learn makes it worth all the stress, doubt, minor debt and worry. Oh, and of course hard work. It's moments like this morning that show that it is possible for these families to improve their lives 'stitch by stitch'.