An ancient tradition becomes a way forward
Chantha NguonWorking with Doctors Without Borders as a translator and nurse, Chantha Nguon saw firsthand the toll poverty took on her fellow Cambodians. Young women living in rural areas were particularly vulnerable. With little education and few real opportunities, their choices were limited: they must either marry or move to a city where most often prostitution was the only work available. Chantha was seeing women at the end of this cycle—after they became sick with AIDS and had returned to their home villages to die.
Chantha was determined to help bring about change. With her husband, Kim Dara Chan, in 2001 she established the not-for-profit Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC) in Sre Po, a village in a remote area of Cambodia. Years earlier Chantha had worked as a silk dyer and so knew a little about the ancient Cambodian tradition of silk production. She decided this was the best hope for providing women with marketable skills while at the same time creating a product that could be sold to help sustain SWDC. Through tireless effort and with funding from a handful of NGOs, Chantha and Chan were able to cobble together the tools they needed, and soon they had a small group of women learning to dye and weave silk, and thus Mekong Blue was born.
Today SWDC has helped nearly 500 women and their children as well as more than 50 men from the Stung Treng region through education, vocational training and employment. The silk production program has expanded to include sericulture (the cultivation of silk worms through to the production of raw silk) and the operation of a Mekong Blue boutique in Phnom Penh. SWDC also includes the following programs:
- Literacy and health classes
- School sponsorship that provides the money and other resources needed for children to attend school
- Vocational training in carpentry and building
- Child care and nutrition for SWDC participants
- Free lunch for all SWDC participants
Mekong Blue silk products are wearable works of art
From the production of the raw silk through to the weaving of the fabrics, Mekong Blue silk products are painstakingly hand crafted.
The women of SWDC spin raw silk into thread and dye it in an array of rich, vibrant colors. Looms are set up to create the various patterns of silk cloth. It is at this point that craft becomes art. Depending on the complexity of a pattern, setting up a single loom can take more than a week. Once a loom is ready, weaving begins. Weaving a scarf typically takes another one or two weeks. Larger or more complex items may take more than a month to weave. The work requires attention to detail and a sophisticated appreciation for color and design. The end result is a stunning work of art that reflects the skill, care and artistry of its creator.