I spent a good bit of my childhood living in a small, worn down home, raised by a single mom on welfare. And still, it wasn’t until I stepped foot onto the small village in the Lung Tam district of Northern Vietnam that I saw poverty for the first time.
This tiny village, nestled beneath rolling hills just a mile from China’s border, is home to the artisans from the Hmong workshop who make handicrafts from hemp they grow and harvest on their land.
Sung Mai Thai sat at her picnic table and poured us tea. I couldn’t help noticing the stains on the miniature tea cups that almost looked more suited for a doll house. The red and white flowered tea-pot was faded, and I wondered how long it had been in her possession. Her hospitality was endearing. She was proud. I looked at this woman dressed in colorful traditional Vietnamese attire and I saw a leader. And as she sat there explaining her story, through the help of a translator, I knew I would remember this day forever.
Mai is the founder of this workshop comprised exclusively of female artisans. She explained that she employs about 120 women — each skilled in a specific handicraft. Her workshop grows hemp and uses it to produce a variety of goods like skirts, bags, and pillows. The hemp seeds are planted in early April and are harvested only 2 months later. And from this harvest such beautiful crafts emerge.
The sisterhood that bonded these women was identifiable in an instant. Each and every day these women come together to work in their tiny dirt hut. Their plights, foreign to me, were the very thing that secured their connection to each other. Their bond was rooted in a common suffering, a sisterly understanding of the trade-offs they make to give their children a better life.
We watched the women pull apart the hemp and weave it into sturdy tightly woven cloths. We watched another woman hand paint a batik pattern, her paint made from beeswax. The pattern was intricate and flawless. She masterfully painted each detail by hand…never making an error. No smudging. No crooked lines. Instead she painted a perfect and beautiful pattern with nothing but her imagination and a tiny brush to guide her.
The hut they worked in was made from bamboo and had a dirt floor. These women worked side by side — one sitting at the hand-fashioned loom, weaving hemp. The other sitting criss-cross applesauce on the dirt door, meticulously painting her imagined batik pattern onto cloth. The other woman, pulling strands of hemp from the freshly harvested crop.
After spending time learning the process of making fabric out of hemp we gathered for what seemed to be a feast. Steamed chicken, steamed rice, vegetables, pork…all grown and prepared just some 100 feet away. This was truly farm to table. I was humbled by their hospitality, and admittedly a little awkward.
By all accounts this had already been an eye-opening day. It was what I experienced next that transformed my thinking…and was forever burned in my memory.
I thought I had some sense of what poverty looked like. I was clearly naive.
Sung Thi Mai’s house was made from mud, bamboo and some oak. The roof was thatched. Inside were her family’s belongings. One bed…which was essentially a thin, horribly stained mattress on a makeshift frame, a few items of clothing hanging from a wash line, some pots and pans, and a dirt floor. This one room shanty is where she, her husband, and their two children live.
Out back were the animals that sustained them – some chickens, two cows – their pantry so to speak.
Sitting on a wood stool in her one room handmade home, she spoke to me about her life. She looked tired and I could tell she was not at all accustomed to talking about herself. She told me about the process of weaving hemp; how she works at the loom for up to 7 or 8 hours a day. It wasn’t until then that I glanced down at her hands. They were calloused but strong. She spoke humbly.
She is known throughout the workshop as “the best” artisan. But when I asked her to describe what she does, she was quick to recoil. She seemed embarrassed by the recognition. She explained that her work is necessary…it allows her to provide meals and education for her children. And if it were not for Fair Trade, she would be home tending to the crops and desperate for income. Her eyes widened, and I saw her smile for the first time as she spoke proudly of her oldest son, now enrolled in University. The lines on her face suggested she had seen some things. I saw a mom, much like myself, who would give anything for her children. But what I couldn’t relate to was how much was at stake. If Mai didn’t excel at farming and weaving hemp, what kind of future would her children have? And what if the domestic purchases stopped? What would she do then?
Her husband stood quietly off to the side. And I couldn’t help but wonder about him. What did he do all day? What was his role in providing for his family? After a bit of probing, I learned that he spends his day doing some farming and a lot of drinking. It appears homemade rice wine is a staple in rural Vietnam. Sadly it is common in the village for men to take to drinking, while their wives work the fields, among other jobs, to provide for their family. I contained my disappointment of this realization. And at that moment I truly came to understand the significance of fair trade to these women. What would they have without it? I will never forget the chills I felt cascading down my spine at that very moment. And I knew I would never forget Sung Mai and the dreams she works tirelessly to preserve.
A few minutes later a young woman arrived at Sung Mai’s home carrying her baby in a beautiful handmade sling. The young woman was 17 and after some inquiry I learned that she was adopted by Sung Mai and her husband. Her parents had both been killed when she was a small child. To think that this family who is living in remarkable poverty would simply take on another mouth to feed was incredible to me. They took her in and fed her and clothed her and provided her with love. A family, who already rations every meal, accepted, without hesitation, the responsibility for another life. She is now one of their own. I stood there in awe of this family bond. I felt selfish and greedy and so incredibly naïve.
I saw things that day that were unimaginable. A friend told me before I left to allow the experiences I gained on that trip to seep into my soul. And they have.
On my final morning in that tiny village, I stood there a world away from my home and thought about my existence on this planet. I felt small…yet, full. I remember tears filling my eyes as I stood in complete awe of the beauty that surrounded me. In the midst of extreme poverty I felt blessed and inspired. “These people are beautiful,” I thought. And I never want to forget them. They gave me the gift of perspective that day and taught me that life is only as complicated as we make it to be. And if you have love in your heart…you are rich beyond your wildest dreams.