Two Australian Etsy makers walk into a Cambodian village…No, it’s not the set up to a joke but rather the start of a once-in-a lifetime experience that saw a group of extraordinary women sharing the joy of making and connecting despite differences in language and circumstance. Here we speak to Hepzabeth Evans (Cleanse With Benefits) and Sonia Lyne (Dandelyne) about the Make For Good skills exchange and what they learnt from their time in Cambodia.
Last year we launched an exciting project – a partnership with Plan International Australia that aimed to harness the creativity and generosity of our community and create a silver living for girls living in poverty. More than 400 sellers around Australia answered the call to Make For Good, with Etsy’s Australian community raising more than $30,000 to to change the lives of women in Cambodia through grants to start their own microenterprises.
Sydney-based soap maker Hepzabeth Evans won the opportunity to represent Etsy’s Australian seller community and visit Cambodia, see Plan’s work first hand and participate in a skills exchange program with local women.
In the spirit of generosity and community that underpinned the entire Make For Good campaign, Hepzabeth offered the +1 place that formed part of her prize to another maker, meaning miniature embroidery hoop maker Sonia Lyne joined the adventure. “I wanted to share the skills exchange with another Make For Good maker bringing another skill to the exchange. It was my way of thanking Etsy and Plan for creating this amazing campaign,” Hepzabeth said of her decision. “Gob-smacked, overwhelmed and ecstatic,” was Sonia’s response. “I love that we could support each other, celebrate and share the entire experience together. There are no words that will ever express the depth of my gratitude,” Sonia said.
The adventure begins
In early May the pair departed for Cambodia, accompanied by blogger and photographer Emilie Ristevski (Hello Emilie) who captured the journey. A week of travel across the country (courtesy of the generous team at Intrepid Travel) gave the makers the opportunity to learn about Cambodia’s culture, history and people before the much-anticipated main event – the skills exchange.
Travelling 4o minutes outside Siem Reap, Hepzabeth and Sonia arrived were welcomed to a remote village by local Plan staff and more than 20 local women who have been participating in Plan’s Empowering Families project which provides support and education to some of the region’s poorest and most vulnerable families.
It was the culmination of months of anticipation and planning for both makers, a moment tinged with equal parts excitement and nerves. “I was really looking forward to meeting the women and children in their community and understanding how Plan puts the funds we all helped to raise to good use,” Hepzabeth said.
“As we drove to the community my nerves crept in,” Sonia said. “I felt the enormity of what we were doing and why we were there and my nerves ran high. Not only was I there because Hepzabeth chose to take another maker, I was there because of the entire Australian Etsy community that came together to make it all happen. It hit me and I felt so proud of us all,” she said.
Taking a seat on a large green tarp that had been set up in the centre of the village and joining the circle of local women gathered there, nerves were soon dispelled by the broad smiles on the faces of all involved. Then it was straight down to business with the local women teaching Hepzabeth and Sonia to basket weave, an income source for many involved.
Hepzabeth and Sonia were taught basket weaving techniques by local women Som and Seng. Photo credit: Emilie Ristevski
The Australian makers took to the techniques quickly, with the teaching process punctuated by laughs all round.
“I absolutely loved being taught how to weave a basket by Seng, and the giggles surrounding me as I did it,” Sonia said. “One woman mentioned that she couldn’t believe she was able to teach a foreigner something. This comment struck me, and made me take a deep breathe. It bought the importance of the skills exchange to a whole new level for me.”
“Basket weaving alongside Som was very special and then in return teaching her later on in the day to make soap was an incredible moment. I couldn’t believe that she has 11 children and 8 grandchildren to look after and help provide for,” Hepzabeth echoed.
Stitching skills, making memories
Then came time to return the favour, with Sonia sharing embroidery kit packs to each of the local women and taking them through a series of basic stitches and designs.
“Embroidery has been such a gift in my life. When I stitch I am able to reflect, dream and importantly, be still. I was so chuffed at the thought of sharing this,” she said.
“I was surprised as how quickly they all took to embroidery. It absolutely blew me away. Every single woman and girl there threaded their needles and started stitching like they had been doing it for years. The silence, whilst stitching was truly golden and a memory that will stay close to my heart.”
The local women engrossed in embroidery. Photo credit: Emilie Ristevski
“I was asked at one point why I thought they took to it so well and I responded by saying that I thought it was because many of these women used their hands for various tasks on a daily basis. When I reflect on this, yes, the women are very hands on but what I didn’t mention, and took for granted was that these women are skilled makers and artists. Within the group there was basket weavers, tailors, labourers and farmers. They are skilled in everything that they do. They are makers, artists, mothers, carers, labourers, farmers and business women.”
“Stitching together, giggling and communicating by smiles, hands, stitches and hugs with each of the women was amazing, to say the least. There was a young girl that joined the group a little later on in the morning and watching her stitch is a visual that constantly replays in my mind. She was so engrossed in her stitching and it made my heart melt.”
Sharing the science of soap
Soap making was a skill Hepzabeth learned from her grandmother, one she was keen to pass on to the local women to bring both economic and health benefits.
“In Cambodia 75% of the people don’t have access to the simple commodity. Soap making is a skill that dates back thousands of years and most countries have their own soap making technique or special key ingredient that they like to use. It’s a skill that they can make money from as well as a skill to look after and keep their families healthy,” she said.
Preparing for the skills exchange wasn’t without its challenges thanks to supplies availability and climate.
“I was most nervous at finding all the ingredients to make soap. It was becoming increasingly evident as the journey throughout Cambodia went on that I wouldn’t be able to easily find the oils I specifically wanted and the sodium hydroxide, an essential ingredient to make cold process soap,” Hepzabeth said.
Much of the country’s manufacturing industry was lost during the Khmer Rouge regime, meaning many of the essential and plant oils needed for soap are imported rather than produced locally but the generosity of a soap maker meant Hepzabeth was able to find everything she needed. Then came the challenge of climate.
“One of the funniest moments leading up to the skills exchange was making pre-made batches of soap in my hotel room just to get a feel of soaping in the 40 degree heat and understanding how new recipe would react with the ingredients I found,” said Hepzabeth. “Some of the results were quite unexpected (and not ideal!), but I was able to use these not-quite-perfect bars to show the Cambodian woman what soap looks like when it goes wrong!”
The skills exchange participants were fascinated by the technical aspects of soap making and jumped at the opportunity to make their very own batch, each choosing their own combination of essential oils and ingredients.
“I didn’t expect every single one of the women would want to take part! It was amazing but in the end we ran out of ingredients,” Hepzabeth said.
Photo credit: Emilie Ristevski
“I hope I have taught the women that sanitation in a small community is important and helps to save lives and can prevent disease. Maybe I have inspired just one woman and maybe not now but in the years to come they might remember the skill I taught them and decide that they want to look into soap making further,” she said.
Making for good (memories)
Both makers saw they were deeply moved by the skills exchange experience and honoured by the generosity of all who took part.
“The entire day was emotional, moving and humbling. At so many moments I was able to look into each of the women’s eyes and smile and connect. This was a gift to me,” Sonia said.
“Being gifted this time to experience and hear what the women do on a daily basis was invaluable. For many of the women providing for their families was at the forefront and in order to do this they have to prepare meals, take care of the children, and some grandchildren, and their husbands, work 2+ jobs to survive, and so much more. The fact that they were there with us, taking time out of their day and immersing themselves in every single moment made my whole body smile,” she continued.
“The key thing that I learnt was what we had done as an Etsy community for these women is making a difference, and will continue to make a difference. I was thrilled to hear, see and meet people within the community, that Plan employ to manage and implement programs that are specific to the needs of the community. Supporting the women and education were two areas that were of high importance for the area, ” she said.
“You don’t need to be able to speak the same language to connect and communicate with another person.” Hepzabeth added.. “You just need to be willing to open your heart and that’s what these women did, let us into their community and home.”
Want to help change the lives of women and girls living in poverty? Good news for you – Make For Good will be back in 2016! Stay tuned for more news very soon.