Along for the Ride
Soy sauce, sewage, and impoverished philanthropists
in floral prints
by Anna Teeter
I arrived home one Saturday afternoon to find five women in our house. They were all our neighbors. The room was filled with two enormous bags of rice, two big boxes full of individual noodle packets, and 26 bottles of soy sauce.
Leang and Srey Tou were measuring rice, Kane and Sane Lee were distributing soy sauce and noodle packets, Tavi was assembling everything into individual bags, and Nary was arranging them outside her back door. I began to feel very useless just standing there and watching. I asked what they were doing, which began a series of attempted second languages, hand gestures, and dictionary references. They finally managed to convey that they were delivering rice to the “poor” people. I looked at all of them, confused. Didn’t they know they were the poor people?
I’d spent all summer living in Takhmau and poverty was everywhere. Although it is practically a suburb of the capital, Phnom Penh, very few homes in this village have running water, it floods every time it rains, and there is visible raw sewage and trash almost everywhere. Most of the families here have multiple children, which requires the mother to stay home and take care of them. The father usually has a low-paying job that demands long hours. It is hard to support a family here. So what were these women, in this same situation, doing walking around their village and giving food to other people?
Instead of explaining, the women simply loaded my arms with heavy bags filled with six kilograms of rice, five packets of noodles, and two bottles of soy sauce each. We began walking. We walked through trash and small “rivers” (that were really just runoffs of sewage). We walked past people’s homes and caught their attention. They looked up at us with a glimmer of hope in their eyes. It was as if they were thinking “maybe one of those is for me.” Some people even got up and started following us. “What are you doing?” and “Where are you going?” are the only two phrases I was able to understand with my limited knowledge of Khmer.
Our first stop was an alley full of houses that were built on stilts so they would not be washed out in the rain. We walked down the alley and one by one the women delivered bags of food to these families. The recipients were overcome with gratitude. Many of them said, “arkoun” (thank you) repeatedly, their eyes filled with tears. Many of them came over to thank me and gave me a hug. My Khmer wasn’t strong enough to tell them that I had nothing to do with any of it, so all I could do was hug them back and then point to the other women. I did not deserve or want any credit, but I was the stranger with the large camera. I felt very awkward and out of place in this situation that I walked into. These women were spending their afternoon truly living out the kingdom and I was just walking with them, along for the ride. We left the alley to go back to the house. But we weren’t done. We returned to load up our arms with more food.
Walking behind Leang and Nary and thinking about what I had just witnessed, I understood even more that byTavi is so much more than employment. It provides a safe and healthy environment, a generous paycheck (up to four times the poverty income here), an example of how a managing staff should treat their employees, opportunities for families, and exposure to the Gospel.
Many women in Cambodia work in factories that require long hours, intense working environments, and high demands for daily products. byTavi has a more flexible work schedule that presents a new concept to these women: choice. They have the choice to go into the workshop. They have the choice to stay home because their child is sick, or they have housework to do, or they are not feeling well. They have the choice of which products to create and how many they want to make. Unlike most business in the area, byTavi employees are paid per product completed, not how many hours they work.
But perhaps more importantly, byTavi gives these women a healthy community. Many of the women live in a poor village close to the workshop. They are all friends and are able to talk with each other at work. They know about each other’s lives and their families. Many of them know each other’s successes and struggles. The workshop has a positive influence and impact on their lives. It is a community, not a facility, which they get to be a part of. This concept of choice is seen in their lives and they are choosing to be lights in their own neighborhoods.
As Tavi filled my arms with another load of food, my mind was brought back to the work at hand. We began walking in a different direction this time. We walked over crushed bricks and pieces of shattered cement that had been laid down to help avoid the flooding. I walked carefully to keep my balance and not stub my toes. I could feel the sharp corners of the bricks through my sandals, and then saw little kids walking with bare feet beside me. Suddenly the discomfort didn’t seem quite so bad. We made our way to a street very close to the alley we had just visited, and the byTavi ladies once more gave bags of food to welcoming families.
Nary began to walk towards one of the houses. We had not been in any houses yet because everyone kept coming out to us, but this time, something was different. They opened the door. The room was dark. I removed my shoes and looked around. It was a one-room house that was oddly empty of personal possessions and decorations. It had a distinctive stench, one that I had smelled before during my time in Cambodia. It was the smell of someone who had not bathed in days.
Once everyone made their way into the room I could see a body lying on the ground. Her back was facing me. She was not moving. My heart began to race and my body started to feel limp. I thought I had just walked in on a dead body. Hesitantly, I made my way to the other side of the room so that I could see her face.
She was alive, but she was in pain. She was lying on her right side on dusty tile floor. Her name is Riyon. Nary whispered to me that she is a former byTavi worker. A recent stroke had left one side of her body paralyzed. Her eyes were full of fear. She had no shirt on. Her comma shaped body was clinched. Two of Riyon’s neighbors walked in after us, got down beside her and started saying things to the byTavi women. They looked concerned as well.
Nary gave a bag of food to Riyon as well as money – a gift from byTavi and CGI. I walked out of her house reminded once again that byTavi is so much more than just employment. Yes, it provides safety and a realistic income to be able to provide for their families, but it also provides a caring community where people love and care for one another. My love for byTavi grew a little more in that moment.
We left that area, but there was still food to be delivered, so we began walking in yet another direction. This time, I was at the back of the group with Nary, the manager of technical training at byTavi, who was also my host mom for the summer. She has graciously allowed me to live with her as I have been living the life of a byTavi worker for two months. Every day I wake up and walk to the workshop with her. We eat breakfast together and then get to work. She works on processing orders, buying materials, and doing quality control, while I take pictures and write. We eat lunch. Back to work. We lock up. Time to walk home. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Watch television. Shower. Paint our nails and study Khmer and English. It is our daily routine. She treats me like her daughter. Soon after I started living with her and spending time with her, I realized that Nary treats everyone like her family with so much love and care. It didn’t seem out of character for her to be doing this for the people in her community. Walking beside her that day made me feel so fortunate to be her “daughter.”
As we were walking, I noticed that we were going much farther than the first two trips. Nary thought that I must have been hot, so she stopped and bought a can of ice-cold apple juice for me. We arrived at what I believed to be an outdoor factory. There was a lot of organized lumber and gravel as well as big machinery. I didn’t think we were at our final destination, but we were. I quickly discovered there were families living in between these big stacks of lumber. We walked up to one house that did not have any doors. As we approached I could see an elderly woman, thin and frail, sitting on a bench. When we got closer I saw that she was crying. Leang walked up to her, wiped away the woman’s tears with her sleeve, and handed her the bag full of food. The elderly woman started to cry harder. No words, just tears. They seemed to me to be both tears of sorrow and tears of gratitude.
I wanted to sit down and talk to her. I wanted to hear about her life and why she was crying, but all I could do was look at her and smile. The feeling of helplessness crept in once again.
Far from the workshop
We walked behind this woman’s “house” to discover yet another family living between the woodpiles. A woman stood up and approached us. Her face was bruised and swollen. She looked like she was in so much pain. I don’t know how she was able to see us with such terribly swollen eyes. They handed their last bag of food to her.
I walked away from that “house” with my heart wrestling and churning with various emotions: brokenness, sadness, joy, and confusion. I looked up at the six women around me. They were quiet, recognizing and respecting the array of difficult situations we had just witnessed, but they were also joyful. I could see the positive effects of byTavi all around me, and we were so far from the workshop.
The women of byTavi have the opportunity to provide a positive impact on their families, their community, and me, a photojournalist residing in Indiana. Their hearts reach so far beyond themselves. They want to help and bless people in the same way that God and byTavi has blessed them. I wonder how many of these women would have sold themselves or their family members into the sex slavery industry in order to make more money? How many of these women would have lived the majority of their lives in deep debt? How many of these women would have deprived their children of their education so that they could provide food for their families? I will never know the answers to these questions. Because of byTavi these women don’t have to sell themselves. They don’t have to go into debt. Their lives have been transformed by this ministry, and now they are transforming their own communities. The byTavi workshop is a little glimpse of the kingdom of God, and that kingdom is starting to spread.
We all walked back to Nary’s house. Our pace was a bit slower. The women were somber as they recognized the importance of what they had just done. I wanted to ask so many questions, but realized that it probably wasn’t the time. Instead, I stayed quiet and tried to process all that I had just seen. I walked alongside Tavi, our different languages making conversation impossible. Instead of speaking, she simply linked her arm around mine, looked up at me, and smiled.