In a remote Cambodian village, Chantha Nguon created a cottage industry that gives dozens of women power over their own lives.
In late October, I’ll board a plane for Phnom Penh to spend two weeks learning all I can about her and the lovely, broken place where she’s found her life’s work. My job for the months after that will be to help tell Chantha’s life story—to endeavor to assemble her recollections into the form of a memoir.
It all started more than a year ago. I interviewed her for a magazine story—about a wonderful partnership between two women who live across the world from each other. Chantha Nguon created a silk-weaving cooperative in a tiny Cambodian village to employ young rural women who’d have few economic choices otherwise; and Ann Walling, a Nashville Episcopal priest, joined forces with her to help line up marketing and website design. (Read the full story here.)
I listened to their stories, rapt. I’d read Half the Sky not long before and was fascinated by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s reportage on courageous local women standing up to violent bullies, sex traffickers, and repressive governments in India and Pakistan, Cambodia and Africa. And here, sitting right in front of me, was someone doing exactly what Kristof and WuDunn suggest works best: one local person sees big problem, addresses it in a small-scale fashion, makes a few lives better in measurable ways.
The big problem Chantha saw, in her work with Doctors Without Borders (and other medical aid nonprofits), was that so many young women were infected with HIV and living terribly short lives as a result. With little or no education, women from rural areas had few options: marry young or look for work in cities, where many were coerced into prostitution through force or economic desperation. And that systemic exploitation, too often, was slowly killing them.
A decade ago, Chantha founded the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center in Sre Po, a tiny village in northeastern Cambodia, in hopes of providing a better option for women from remote areas. Her husband Chan built a few simple structures and dozens of wooden looms, and Chantha went to work teaching young women how to dye and weave exquisite silk garments. SWDC even started its own silk silkworm farm, and offers English classes, health training, and free lunches to all employees.
Now, says Chantha with a modest smile, the women who work at SWDC can marry if and when they want to. Her employees are delaying marriage, having fewer children, and even building their own houses. Most of all, she says, they’ve begun to understand their own value—in a part of the world where discrimination (as Kristof and WuDunn point out) is often lethal.
I listened in awe, and scribbled my notes, and nodded furiously. It was a revelation, meeting these two modest women, who’d quietly found a way to render a remote, poverty-wracked corner of the world pretty radically better for a few people.
And then, a few months after the magazine article ran, Ann invited me to a coffeehouse and asked me whether I’d be interested in doing a rather large job.
I found it inconceivable to say no to Ann Walling and, by proxy, to Chantha Nguon—a team of steel-strong, unpretentious women who don’t get intimidated by rather large jobs. They’d accomplished impossible feats; how could I possibly decline a merely difficult one?
In the end, I agreed to do my very best to help Chantha Nguon share her life story with the world. And if the world has any sense at all, it will listen to what she has to say.
And so: since December, Chantha Nguon has gradually shared her wrenching history with me. It’s a strange process: I type questions into an email and send them halfway around the world in an instant. Often, I find myself apologizing for how personal the questions must seem to her—a woman who’s not comfortable with attention, who’s from a culture that doesn’t believe in baring its wounds to the world.
And then I’ll open my email, and there’s a dispatch from Phnom Penh. Sometimes, it’s a few weeks before her reply arrives—invariably, she’ll apologize back, for how long it took her to summon the energy to face her difficult memories. “I was exhausted from crying too much,” she told me in one message.
And then I’ll scroll down to find the attachment.
The little icon always looks so small and unassuming, and it’s usually titled something simple, like, “April questions.” I click it, and a whole world opens.
“When the bad things started to happen to us,” begins one such document, “my mother and eldest sister said it was because I was born in the year of the buffalo.”
When the Bad Things Happened to Everyone
There are no Cambodians born before 1970 who don’t have horrific memories. My fascination with the place began with an unlikely friendship—with a young Buddhist monk, far from home, whom I’d agreed to tutor in English. (You can read that story here.) He didn’t talk much about his life under the Khmer Rouge; but what little he did say…was enough.
If Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge era aren’t on your geographical and historical radar, begin by knowing this: during the years between 1975-79, Cambodians endured one of the most horrific genocidal “revolutions” ever perpetrated upon mankind. Only now are a few of the leaders being tried for war crimes; and earlier this month yet another mass grave was unearthed in a remote area near Angkor Wat.
What’s unique, and most unfathomable, about this particular revolution is the degree to which it utterly erased an entire civilization. Every city was evacuated, every citizen forced into the country to work the fields, and an entire class of educated, skilled people massacred. Imagine Nashville, Birmingham, and Atlanta emptied of human life, and one-fifth of all the people you know murdered, or dead of overwork and starvation. Now imagine trying to rebuild a society after that. I do not know how it can be done.
Yet somehow, Cambodia lives on.
It lives on, to my mind, the way Chantha herself has done: after losing everything, she not only survives; she thrives. Out of nothing, she made a life for herself and her family, and she didn’t stop there.
I imagine that after the worst happens, and you lose everything there is to lose, there’s not much left to fear. Maybe that’s why Chantha never fretted much about whether her ambitious project to help rural women achieve financial independence—and thus, control over their own bodies and lives—might fail. Perhaps that’s why she loves working twelve-hour days to see to it that the ladies of SWDC can keep working at their looms and sending their kids to school.
“I prefer my day full,” she said in one email, “which has more meaning than having no job/no income like so many women in Cambodia.”
Stay tuned—much more to come. If you’ve been to Cambodia and have travel advice for me, if you’ve ever co/ghost-written a memoir and would like to share your experience, or if you have any questions about this project, please message me, or post here, or talk to me via Twitter.
*And most important: Would you read a memoir like this? Is it of broad interest, marketable, and therefore, helpful to her efforts? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Click here to learn more about SWDC and Mekong Blue.
Recommended reading about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge era.