New Workshop Celebrates Success for Red Dirt Road Women and Village

By Menghun Kaing

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Kids run around. Chickens cluck. Cows wander the village. And then there’s the squeaky noise from the sewing machines of the women of Red Dirt Road. One can often hear laughter and chitchat as the women paddle on their machines, stitching beautiful clutches and shawls. That is a typical day at Tramoung Chrum, a small remote Cham village in Cambodia with no electricity or running water and accessible only through a red dirt road.

But today, the women were not on their sewing machines. They were gathered under a tamarind tree in front of Saly’s house for something much more exciting—the opening ceremony of their new workshop!

“I’m so happy I can’t describe it in words!” said Saly, Red Dirt Road’s founder. She had never imagined that she and the other 12 women seamstresses would be opening a new workshop of this size and importance.  

Saly’s parents grew up in the same village and got engaged through an arrangement by their parents just two months before the Khmer Rouge genocide took over Cambodia and went on to kill almost two million people. Cham, a Muslim ethnic minority in Cambodia that Saly and her parents belong to, was disproportionately targeted by the regime due to their religious beliefs.

During the genocide, Saly’s father, Mout San, was told to marry another woman (forced marriage was the regime’s widespread practice and refusing to accept an arrangement was often viewed as betraying the regime and could result in death). But Mout San did not know the woman and had no interest. “I lie that she was my relative, so they did not force me,” he said.

After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Mout San and his fiancé, Mai, reunited and finally tied the knot. They started a new life in the turmoil of the post-genocide Cambodia. Four years later, Saly was born.

Mout San and Mai had modest hopes for their baby girl. “I only hoped that she would be able to farm in the future.” It was not possible to send Saly to school at the time, Mout San said. After all, both Saly’s mother and her grandmother never went to school. But one thing was clear to her father: Saly was a strong spirited child and was going to be okay. “From a young age, if she wanted to do something, she went and do it,” her father recalled.  

As she grew up, however, Saly had much bigger dreams. “I used to sing to myself when I tended to the cows in the field,” she told me, laughing. Saly laughs easily. She radiates her positive energy to those around her. She dreamed of going to school, getting a job, and traveling far from her village, to other parts of Cambodia to see other people and their ways of living.

But with no education and limited employment options in Tramoung Chrum, at the age of 19, Saly packed up and moved to Phnom Penh city to work as a seamstress in a garment factory. She first started with stitching buttons to shirts every day, six days a week. Her basic wage was $45 per month. After six years in the industry, Saly was tired and knew that she needed something more sustainable. “They will stop hiring me when I turn 35 or 40 years old,” Saly thought to herself. So she had a new dream: to run a sewing business in her village where she could work from home and live with her family.

In 2009, Saly met MIT professor Alan Lightman and his daughter Elyse Lightman. Saly shared her dream, and Elyse bought her the first sewing machine and provided an initial seed funding to start a sewing business. At the start, the business struggled, because Saly’s products did not sell, as Saly lacked marketing and sales skills. But she did not give up. In 2011, Marie Eckstein, a successful corporate executive from America, met Saly. “I was impressed with her tenacity, her energy, her determination...in some ways, she reminded me of myself,” Marie recalled her first encounter with Saly. That connection convinced Marie to support Saly to continue her business.

Now 7 years later, Saly is employing 12 women in her village. Many of the women were either former garment workers or had no employment in the village. Red Dirt Road provides an opportunity for them to work for a fair wage and live with their family. Sid Tith, 33, one of Saly’s first employees, said that she had previously worked as a garment worker in Phnom Penh city, but joined Red Dirt Road because it allowed her to live with her parents, and now her 16-month old baby and husband.

“Working here, I can live with my family. And I can chitchat with my friends [colleagues] while working. In the factory [in Phnom Penh], you are not allowed to talk and laugh while working,” Sid said.

Red Dirt Road has transformed Tramoung Chrum beyond providing employment opportunities. Today, part of the business' profit goes to the Red Dirt Road Foundation, which supports an English program for children in the village. Additionally, through the Red Dirt Road Foundation, under the leadership of Lin Alessio, a new latrine and sanitation initiative, as well as a farming program that provides nutrition and improves well-being of the villagers have been introduced. 

Saly beamed with tears when talking about the new workshop and how far she has come from her first sewing machine. “I feel that I have been successful. My mother would have been even happier than me, because she was always there to support me early on in this business.”

Looking to the future, Saly wants electricity, roads and a health clinic for the village. She also hopes to employ 100 more women. “If 100 more women have a job here, it means 100 women less going to work in Malaysia as maids,” she said, her eyes lit up with excitement.

For now, Sid Tith has a bitter sweet feeling about the workshop. “I’m excited to have a nicer and bigger workspace. But I will miss the old workshop, because there are many good things and happy times there.” As the sun went down on the roof of the new workshop, the women sat down to clean a pile of dusty dishes that they had borrowed from the village’s mosque for the opening ceremony. Excitement, laughter and hope filled the air.  

 Front view of newly completed workshop

Front view of newly completed workshop

 Red Dirt Road workshop for the last six year in saly’s family home

Red Dirt Road workshop for the last six year in saly’s family home

Red Dirt Road Introduction to Traverse City a Resounding Success!

More than 1,000 people visited the Red Dirt Road exhibit during the Traverse City Film Festival, held July 26th- 31st in Traverse City, Michigan. The exhibit included hourly screenings of the award winning documentary, "Red Dirt Road" by film director Rodney Rascona, a re-creation of the actual Red Dirt Road workshop in rural Cambodia, and an extraordinary collection of handmade Red Dirt Road bags, purses, and scarves available for purchase.

The 14 minute documentary was filmed on location in Cambodia, and follows the life of Hab Saly, who quit her job in the garment industry to follow her dream to start her own sewing business in her home village, which has no access to electricity or running water.   After being introduced to Saly and the story of Red Dirt Road, viewers had the opportunity to walk through a replica of the village workshop seen in the movie.

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The workshop re-creation was designed by Lin Alessio, and was augmented by photographic images taken during her and Marie Eckstein's visits to the rural village to mentor and work with the seamstresses. The simple tools used to make the Red Dirt Road products were on display, including treadle sewing machines and coal heated irons. 

The documentary movie and village workshop set the stage for a memorable introduction of Red Dirt Road products to the Traverse City area. Visitors repeatedly noted the very high quality and contemporary styles of the handmade items. A recent addition to the product line, the Red Dirt Road hand painted silk scarves, were a top seller, and can be purchased on-line at www.Red-Dirt-Road.org.   

 

Welcome to the Sisterhood, Khat Suh and Sunn Aisah!

We are pleased to welcome two new seamstresses, Khat Suh and Sunn Aisah, to the Red Dirt Road team in Cambodia! These young mothers were recently hired because of the growing demand for our products. Two more young mothers can now support their families while working close to their families! 

Saly, our lead seamstress, left her depressing job in Cambodia's garment industry to follow her dreams to start her own sewing business. Alan Lightman, founder of The Harpswell Foundation, had offered to cover the expense of sewing lessons for Saly in Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh. In exchange, Saly agreed to teach her new skills to other women in her home village of Tramung Chrum. So, after six months of training, Saly made the three hour trip home and began to fulfill her end of the bargain. 

Aisah and Suh were members of the class of twelve women Saly trained upon her return from the city. Thanks to the growing number of women who love Red Dirt Road silk purses, bags, and scarves, Saly has been able to hire more seamstresses.

Women in the U.S. buy these products because they are beautiful, functional, and bring us pleasure. And because it feels good to be a part of the global sisterhood of women helping women to realize their dreams.

The measure of success for Red Dirt Road is not profit dollars for shareholders. Rather, it is measured by the number of young Cambodian women employed in their home village, close to their families and children. Away from the monotonous, long hours of the garment industry and a life of poverty, far from home.  Score two more for the sisterhood!

 

RED DIRT ROAD .. Takes 2016 GRAN PRIX-Com award...

RED DIRT ROAD .. Takes the 2016 GRAN PRIX-Communications award... at the International Deauville Green Awards in Normandy France. The Director Rodney Rascona, and Executive Producer Marie Eckstein, represent a London based post production team who gave the film life.

RDR was recognized among some 300+ films from 5 continents in competition for awards bestowed on films centered on environmental, ecological and sustainable solutions to challenges around the globe. Red Dirt Road's film presents a compassionate, empathy creating short film that adds it's voice to continue greater human understanding through the creation of strong story, strong picture and high end post production values.

Please drop us a note in the CONTACT US section if you have a thought on the film you would like to share with the film makers.

CONTACT US

RED DIRT ROAD... A new year and a new site..

CAPTION: Sun Ley and her daughter in the rice fields surrounding the village of Tramung Chrum in Kampong Chhnang Province, rural Cambodia.

Fresh from the jungles of Cambodia, Red Dirt Road is launching it's new website to bring you the finest hand made fashion accessories created from luxurious Cambodian silk and beautiful fabrics. From purses to scarves, each product offered has been created by the loving hands of women who previously worked in the oppressive garment factories of Phnom Phen.

Through your purchase, these women are realizing their dream to live at home and raise their children, and still provide desperately needed income to feed and care for their families. Women helping women. You are part of the global sisterhood.

Look to these pages for updates about Red Dirt Road and new product offerings. And please pay close attention to stories about the positive changes being brought to this small remote village, to this handful of women and their families. Wear your Red Dirt Road designs with pride, knowing that you are an instrument of change.

Thank you and good luck to all of us this new season ahead. 

Marie Eckstein and the Red Dirt Road team

TALK TO MARIE