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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Hilltown Ten Thousand Villages staffers visit artisans in Laos, Cambodia

By Erin DuBois
Associate Editor

With no electricity or running water, and sometimes even with no hands, villagers in Laos and Cambodia craft objects of beauty from the remnants of war. Deanna Husk, assistant manager at Ten Thousand Villages Souderton store, witnessed the transformation process during a trip Feb. 6 to 20 to visit some of the fair trade retailer’s international artisan partners.


Hilltown Ten Thousand Villages store assistant manager
Deanna Husk at the Potter's wheel with Artisans


The learning tour is an annual event for Ten Thousand Villages employees, and 12 staff members traveled to two countries, which Husk said are “every single day still affected by land mines.”

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disabled persons in the world, due not only to land mines, but also to polio and untreated diabetes, Husk said. United Nations estimates suggest that Cambodia still has 4 million to 6 million unexploded landmines, and 7,300 casualties have been recorded from 1999 to 2008, Husk said.

Rehab Craft Cambodia is operated entirely by Cambodians with disabilities, half of whom are landmine amputees. The organization strives to improve their quality of life and their status as contributing members of society.

“The smiles on their faces really touched my heart,” Husk said during a presentation at Dock Meadows retirement home in Hatfield March 29.

Check Chan has worked his way up from messenger to production manager despite the loss of both his hands. Many employees are hired with no education or training, and working at Rehab Craft Cambodia allows them to gain valuable skills.

“They are being provided something that no one can take away,” Husk said.

Artisans incorporate renewable resources into their handiwork, carving ornaments from dried coconut shells. They also make the silk ikat purses available in Ten Thousand Villages stores. The Rajana Association employs 40 full-time staff and supports 130 families living in rural villages, selling their products in its Cambodian shops as well as in Ten Thousand Villages stores.

Dove pendant necklaces are made from bomb casings, with the word “peace” in English and Khmer stamped on the wings.

“They are making something beautiful and making money from something that is still tragic in their lives,” Husk said.

The Rajana Association logo is three elephants, a symbol of joint labor and solidarity. In the rural villages, families work together to make soap, do metalwork and weave silk, often in difficult conditions.

One learning tour participant bought 100 small baskets, allowing a family to pay its electric bill. Villager Chin Sovann previously rode her bike an hour to get to work; but with her earnings she was able to buy a motorbike, reducing her commute to 20 minutes.

“Now she can spend more time at home with her family,” Husk said.

Husk learned to weave baskets in one village without the aid of a translator.

“That moment was beautiful because of the common language” of touching and smiling, Husk said.

At Phontong Handicrafts in Laos, silk weaving is no longer a dying art thanks to founder and director Kommaly Chanthavong. Chanthavong was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize and was invited to Washington, D.C., to be honored by first lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for winning the 2011 International Woman of Courage Award, Husk said. Chanthavong grew up in one of the most impoverished regions of Cambodia, and her vision is to expand silk production into the poorer areas, engaging silk farmers in the entire production cycle, Husk said.

Her granddaughter, Phoukham, is currently working in the Ten Thousand Villages Souderton store through Mennonite Central Committee’s International Visitor Exchange Program. She arrived August 2010 and will continue until July, serving in all areas of the store’s daily operations, according to Husk.

“It’s a great way for her to see the items they make in Laos sold in the store,” Husk said.

Ten Thousand Villages partners with artisans in over 38 developing countries, creating income and bringing the artisans’ products as well as their stories into its markets, according to Husk. The goal is to develop long-term fair trade relationships, treating both the artisans and the environment with respect.

Artisans receive half of the purchase price in advance and are paid in full before their products are shipped, with Ten Thousand Villages paying shipping costs. Establishing long-term relationships allows artisans to depend on future pay so that they can invest in community development.

Ten Thousand Villages employees collaborate with artisans on product design so that the artisans’ traditions can be preserved and so that the environment will be protected by using renewable resources, Husk said.

Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit program of the Mennonite Central Committee, operates over 150 stores across the United States. The Souderton store, which was the third store to open, began in 1975.

For more information, visit Souderton.tenthousandvillages.com  

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