The great, graceful absurdity of laughter in a land of tears.
by Brad Miller
I’ve experienced a lot of different things in my travels for World Next Door: excitement over stepping off a plane into a new land, surprise from cultures and customs I had never read about, delight in unexpected hospitalities and heartwarming generosities, confusion over just how to eat something that truly does not look (or smell) like food.
But never before fear.
Sure, there has been some concern over hurdling through back alleyways on a motorbike in India, and a healthy caution walking alone in a South African game preserve, but never fear like this.
Never the fear that I had met something too big, too difficult, too terrible. Never the fear that this was one injustice I just couldn’t write about, one evil I just couldn’t face.
But on this trip that’s exactly what happened. I saw the truth of injustice here and I was overcome by fear. Over the course of one late-night stroll, however, unconquerable fear became uncontainable joy.
It began with a normal day in the kitchen.
Behind the Green mango Café and Culinary Training Center rests an additional structure. Three concrete rooms provide a simple office, classroom and storeroom for the restaurant. The storeroom houses a few derelict beds, which are very often covered with girls chatting avidly on cell phones between shifts.
They were out of uniform, and only minutes from the lunch rush. As I followed Ponleu, their evening manager, back to the Mango, she poked her head inside and chastised them in a reflexive, almost absent-minded way.
The back door swung open as we entered the bakery. Ponleu continued on to the front of the house, a yellow pen behind her right ear. Her long hair was in a loose ponytail that drooped over her left shoulder. Small braids woven into it were tied with yellow rubber bands.
Her evident exasperation gave her the air of an older sister, and the mad giggling that exploded from the bakery behind me sounded a lot like a half-dozen younger ones.
The kitchen was mostly empty, as was the dining room. Then Ponleu poked her head through the service widow and called to the girls. An order had arrived.
Within moments, the kitchen burst into life.
With a dull woomp gas burners caught. The sizzle of butter in a pan filled the air. I could smell garlic, and caught the machine-gun rattle of quick knife work as a head of lettuce was reduced to shavings.
An order of pork dumplings came through. The pan was hot and one of the girls motioned me over to the stove. I helped her select the best dumplings from a pre-formed batch before they were cooked.
Within minutes, the stove was crowded with pans. Tomato sauce bubbled contentedly, and the one thing that caught me was the sounds. The crackling explosion as chips were dumped into a fryer, the submerged bursts of an electric motor on the smoothie maker, the unapologetic hammering of garlic cloves being smashed by the flat of a knife. Even the low hum of the industrial fridge added to the culinary cacophony.
Above all of it was the laughter.
Peals of adolescent laughter cut through the kitchen. Great guffaws when someone told jokes. Snickers, sidelong glances, and very often attacks of giggles whenever I tried to do something on my own.
As I watched Kunthea busy herself with frying rice and Theangly hurriedly stacking dishes all I could think to myself is, I can’t imagine how all this is related to poverty and trafficking.
Then, all at once, it hit me.
I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know the stories behind these girls. I didn’t want this image of smiling and laughing to change. I didn’t want to learn where these girls came from, or think of their lives before they came here. I wanted to imagine that these girls were exactly how they seemed: laughing teenage chatterboxes untouched by the injustice of poverty or exploitation.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to hear the story of injustice.
I walked out the side kitchen door and down the cement path to a small garden rimmed by banana trees. To the right there’s a tiny clearing almost surrounded by their great umbrella-leafs.
I made my way to the clearing and stood, unmoving. Unattended ferns poked out between the husks of a discarded coconut. And very quietly, I started to cry.
Fire and Strife
Over the last century, many tears have been shed in Cambodia. Once home to a vast ancient empire, Cambodia’s recent history is one of strife and instability. I spoke with one man who has lived through four regimes: a French colony, a republic, communism and the Khmer Rouge, and now a fledgling democracy.
All this turmoil has resulted in vast, entrenched poverty. Many families are only one disaster away from destruction, and an illness or injury or simply bad weather can mean destitution.
When disaster occurs, some families fall back to their only remaining resource: their children. Children, especially young girls, can be rented out to a local brothel for a few nights. This will provide the family with enough money to get by.
As much as I didn’t want to face it, this was the injustice I had come to see. The girls at the Green Mango have either experienced this, or were only one disaster away from the possibility.
But they are not the only ones; poverty and exploitation go hand in hand. While reliable numbers are hard to come by, across Cambodia it is estimated that tens of thousands of girls are rented to brothels every year. Such injustice would seem to warrant fire and brimstone.
But although Cambodia is hot, I haven’t seen any fire from heaven. And the longer I’ve been here, as numbers became faces and statistics became relationships, I don’t feel anger. Just a great, gnawing sadness.
Laughter and Muffins
I didn’t want to be away from the kitchens for too long, it might call attention to myself and make a scene. At midday, Cambodia is too hot for tears, so it was easy to compose myself before I returned from the garden through the back door of the bakery.
A half-dozen girls stood clustered around a great wooden table dusty with flour and breadcrumbs. Warm, buttery biscuits had just been popped out of their baking tins and the girls chatted amiably as they munched on the bits stuck to the pan.
Phearum hurried in, her short ponytail bobbing behind her as she plopped a great baking tin with a fresh loaf on the table. With only a single mitt she somehow managed to remove the tightly baked bread without burning her fingers.
Moving the tin aside, she placed it against a plastic bag that holds bread scraps. Immediately, the bag shivered and crinkled – melting in the heat. And of course, all the girls laughed.
Phearum grinned. After moving the tin and putting the bread away, she collapsed into a plastic chair. Her work temporarily done, she stretched and wiggled her blue-painted toes. Thunder sounded outside, and small patters quickly transformed into the roar of a rainy-season deluge.
Suddenly, there was a shriek from the kitchen. In a green-uniformed blur, one of the girls came rushing through the bakery and out the backdoor – she’d left her laundry on the line.
For one moment everyone looked at each other, then, as if on cue, all the girls started laughing. I realized that I was laughing too.
One of Many
The Green Mango is only one of the Center for Global Impact’s projects, but if there’s one commonality that stands out to me, it’s the laughter.
Whether visiting the Imprint Project, or By Tavi, or their newest initiative called Kien Svay Kids (see “The Lottery,” later in this issue), laughter may be the greatest evidence that CGI is at work.
It wasn’t always that way, however.
Three years before the Green Mango opened its doors, a woman named Tavi lived 200 miles away in Takhmau, a city just south of Phnom Penh. Tavi was quiet, and certainly not one to laugh. She had lost a husband and a daughter to AIDS, and had the disease herself. With two children and an aunt to care for, and her own disease progressing, she was out of options.
That is, until she heard about a brand new organization called the Center for Global Impact.
When she found out that CGI had provided a sewing machine to help local women, she immediately got involved and joined up. Now she could get medicine. Now she could provide for her family. And when other women saw her, they wanted to get involved too.
Before long, byTavi was born: an entire purse and tote line dedicated to economically empowering Cambodian women. Tavi’s story had become the inspiration for an entire ministry.
Today, byTavi has its own workshop: a two-story building filled with rolls of fabrics, the rattling of petal-powered sewing machines and, of course, laughter.
Just downstairs is the home of another CGI program: The Imprint Project. More sewing machines, but here the bag designs have been replaced by dress patterns, and well-clothed mannequins stand sentry beside workstations.
While byTavi focuses on empowering mothers and women, The Imprint Project works to transform the lives of young, at-risk girls. Their job-training program gives them the skills to make dresses, while intensive one-on-one mentorship gives them life lessons and a spiritual foundation to last a lifetime.
But when I met the girls for the first time, all I noticed were their smiles, and the laughter as I haltingly tried to introduce myself in Khmer.
They dress in stylish, American-style clothing as well as dresses and blouses made in the shop. The current class is skillful enough that I can’t distinguish between the clothes they made and the ones they bought.
Not even an hour away, however, there are children who can’t afford proper clothes for school. The cost of uniforms, books, tuition, and transportation can prevent many children from receiving a proper education. And in a culture where the most talented are given extra investment and the stragglers are often left behind, many children see school as a hopeless obstacle.
Kien Svay Kids is working to change that. Their dream is to address the needs of impoverished communities by first addressing the needs of their children.
Stopping by a partner school of Kien Svay Kids in the small community of Kien Svay, many of the kids were too shy to speak. Most did not know English. Not knowing any Khmer, I did the only thing I could think of: I picked up some stones and started juggling.
Shy, curious faces broke into smiles. I was starting to get sweaty in Cambodia’s oppressive summer heat, but I kept going. I knew what would come next, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The kids started laughing.
The days in Cambodia may be unbelievably hot and humid, but the evenings are best described as idyllic. A perfect old-fashioned summer night: warm with a breeze and just enough heat to make the ice cream cart across the street sound like a great idea.
My day in the kitchen came to an end and I returned home late. As I passed groups doing synchronized calisthenics or children in white outfits demonstrating martial arts, I felt restless. I was still troubled by the moment in the banana grove and the greater tragedy behind it. I still didn’t want to think about this injustice, much less spread the word about it.
It was great what CGI was doing, but the reasons it was needed: poverty, exploitation, genocide… I just didn’t want to think about it. Before coming here, it was fine in the abstract. But now that I know their names, how can use the phrase “at-risk girls” so casually?
I tried to put my finger on exactly what was wrong. I turned the corner and began walking up a long boulevard lined by grasses green and heavy from the rain, stone benches interrupted only by the occasionally roundabout topped with a Buddhist statue or historical figure.
It was around the time I passed the second crowned rider I figured out what bothered me so much: I didn’t want to face a world that worked this way. I had visited slums and hospitals and orphanages, but for the first time I found myself asking, really asking, “why?”
Why did such evil happen to these girls? Why were they born into abject poverty, or given up by their parents, or subjected to great evil? These aren’t numbers; these are girls that I know. Why them?
I was afraid of this tragedy. I was afraid to think about, much less tell their stories. Because their stories beg that question, and I didn’t have an answer.
I didn’t get an answer, either. But I did get another question,
“Would it be better if they never lived?”
I thought of Tavi, a mother with no hope whose life was transformed and is now a symbol of hope to untold numbers of women.
I thought of Kunthea, who is using the money she earns at The Green Mango to study English and pay for her sister’s tuition as well.
I thought of kids in Kien Svay, who can now attend school because their families were supported with new school uniforms.
And I thought of Sreyneang and Channah and Em. I thought of painted toenails and chatting on cell phones and jokes and of laughing.
The women and girls that I was mourning for were laughing.
I didn’t know why evil had happened; but I suddenly realized it had been defeated.
All at once, I wasn’t afraid anymore. And I knew I had been looking at this all the wrong way.
A New Story
The girls that I was crying for; they’ve had their joy returned to them. They have hope again. Because of the work of CGI, their potential is limitless and their future bright.
These girls were not children of injustice. They were children of hope.
I used to be afraid imagining these girls without laughter, but now I imagine countless unreached women with their joy returned to them.
Now, it is no longer a question of how bad these girls’ lives were. It is a declaration, a joyous declaration, of how great they can be and how many others can be saved as well.
That is what CGI is doing in the kitchens of the Green Mango,
In the sewing shops of byTavi,
In the classes of The Imprint Project,
In the schools of Kien Svay Kids,
They are declaring hope. They are growing laughter. And they are turning poverty into potential and changing the story from how bad it was into how great it can be.
Tears of Joy
Picking my way around sections of shattered sidewalk, I felt blindsided by this vision of laughter. I was dazed, walking in a dream.
I was laughing. And I was crying. Overcome by the great, graceful absurdity of it all. Overwhelmed by God’s ability to ensure good will always overcome evil.
And utterly sure that I would no longer be afraid to spread the story of injustice in Cambodia, because the story of hope is even greater.
By producing these products, the women at byTavi earn four times more than otherwise could.
- Pray: We asked how we could pray for each individual girl at the Green Mango. These are their responses about the most important issues in their lives. Click here to pick a girl (or more than one) and commit to pray for them this month.
- Shop: Make more than a fashion statement – make a difference. By purchasing from byTavi, you can empower women and their families. Every purchase does more than provide a paycheck; it provides dignity and brighter future. Click here to shop for bags, scarves, ties and lots more!
- Sponsor: The Imprint Project
One way you can help continue the work of The Imprint Project is by choosing to sponsor a girl.
- Click here to get more information about how to become an “Advocate” for an Imprint Project girl.
- Click here to read what current sponsors have to say about their experience.
- To make a one-time or recurring gift to support the Imprint Project’s ongoing financial needs, click here. Be sure to select “Imprint Project” from the drop-down list.