One day this week I traveled to a world I did not know existed.  I was introduced to a community of Muslim Cham people living in the remote village of Tramung Chrum, about 50 miles northwest of Phnom Penh.  The village has no running water or electricity. These Muslim Cham are of the Iman San sect. Of the roughly 350,000 Muslim Cham in Cambodia, just 30,000 are  Iman San and have beliefs and customs which differ from Orthodox Islam.  They have animistic traditions, they do not cover their heads or faces, and they formally pray just one time a week. I was taken in by their visible sense of community and their gentle and expressive nature.

Tum Yousos, a Cham friend of Alan’s who acts as our interpretor, and Man Hamath, the young teenage son of the Iman leader of all 30,000 Iman San Cham in Cambodia meet us at the hotel at 6AM.  We travel to Tramung Chrum in the comfort of a hired car with air conditioning, over unpaved roads of hard-packed dirt. Our driver is skilled in manuevering around the frequent pot holes and varying forms of traffic going in both directions.

We head north on Highway 5. Once outside of the bustle of Phnom Penh, the scenery becomes lush and I find it hard to take in all that I am seeing: oxen drawn carts carrying produce; moto bikes carrying three, four, sometimes five people; tuk-tuks used as transportation for anything that needs to get from point A to point B.  I want to take pictures of everything, but we are on a time table to reach the village where friends of Alan are waiting, and pictures from the moving car are too challenging for my point-and-shoot camera. Alan is a very punctual and considerate person; he does not recognize Eckstein Time (Mark and I are known for being late) so I do not ask to stop.

We pass dry rice fields and fields just beginning to flood. There are natural groves of coconut trees and other beautiful tropical flora all along the way.  My gardening instincts are on full alert.  I can’t take it all in, there is too much to see. After perhaps ninety minutes of driving, we turn west onto a more narrow road with even more pot holes (but fewer motos!) leading to the Tramung Chrum village.

We stop in a Cham village before reaching our destination, where Hamath  explains that he must leave us to attend school neaby.  As he departs, he flashes a bright smile, and I notice he is wearing a youthful black tee-shirt with dark denim jeans. He looks like a typical kid who hangs out at our house with my son Kevin.

Twenty loaves of bread

There is a market where we stop, and Alan wanders off to buy fruit to bring to the village. I ask Yousos for advice on an appropriate offering for me to bring and he suggests bread. I buy twenty loaves from a woman who packs them into a reused blue plastic bag.

Nearby, an elderly woman is playing a stringed instrument and I ask the young girl with her if I may take a picture. The girl seems to understand and not object, so I turn my camera to video. As we go to leave, I give the girl a US dollar to add to the stack of Riel in her hand.  Below is an embedded video, click on picture to launch.

It is another half hour drive from the market to reach the small village of Tramung Chrum.  Alan has been a regular visitor to this village of 600 people since 2003, and his family has accompanied him on many of the visits.  The first Harpswell Foundation project was to build a primary school, which opened in 2005. Alan has friends in this village who are like family. Our driver stops in front of a three-sided shop, open to the road, where about a half dozen people are waiting.  We are met with the traditional Cambodian greeting: hands placed palms together, fingers tips at nose level, pointing upward. The formality quickly falls away to excited laughter and hugs for Alan. I am introduced as a businesswoman friend interested in Cambodia. Plastic chairs are pulled up and the planned meeting to discuss a sewing business Alan has supported through the Harpswell Foundation gets underway.

It is a most interesting business meeting!

First some background: to help the daughters in the village avoid moving to the city to work in the garment industry,  Alan agreed to invest in four sewing machines, fabric, and sewing lessons for one of the young woman, Hab Saly, who would then teach others to sew. There is no electricity in the village, so the sewing machines are foot-pedal driven. The plan was to make garments which could then be sold in Phnom Penh for a profit.  It seemed reasonable to expect that the business could net at least $250 per month, enough to keep the girls living at home.  Saly learned to sew and taught four others. Clothing has been made, however, they have thus far been unable to find customers for their garments. Alan told me this story in the car during our trip, and pointed out that the simple cotton shirt he is wearing was made by Saly.  We discuss a concern that they appear to be making a commodity product without the buying power and economy of scale of the garment factories. This doesn’t sound good.

The meeting expands in number as people quietly wander over and sit in a circle reaching out into the dirt road. There are now twelve onlookers. The business needs more money to buy fabric. Alan is reluctant to invest additional money until the women can show that they have customers and can make a profit. Are there ways to distinguish her clothing from the typical styles already offered in the market?  Alan suggests  a trip to Phnom Penh should be made to investigate styles  and wholesale and retail prices. Saly is reluctant to make this trip, even with the help of Yousos. She speaks Cham, not Khmer, and has no formal education; she was already 21 years old when the Harpswell primary school opened. The trip must feel daunting to her.

Uninvited guest to sewing business meeting

A chicken wanders into the meeting and pecks at the ground. After a minute, there is a shuffle of activity as it is shooed out of the shop. I look around at the circle of villagers. There are now nineteen men, women and children who have come to listen.

A line of cows meander past and another stream of cows come to join them from across the road. I try not to be noticed as I ease out of the meeting to photograph the leisurely procession.

Cows uninterested in sewing business meeting

The meeting appears to be winding down when I ask if I can see some samples of the clothing. Saly and the other three sewers bring out a number of the skirts, tops and dresses they have made. I immediately realize that I have completely misunderstood the situation! Saly explains, with Yousos translating, that she has looked at books (magazines?) for ideas, and then adjusted the designs and added ornamentation to make them special.  There is a lot of hand sewing involved.

Hab Saly holding unique evening gown

These clothes are gorgeous and creative; each one is unique! What this business needs is a more clear definition of the targeted market, and a creative channel to reach that market. We are talking high-end, clothes-with-a-story kind of business model. There are many possibilities!

We take pictures of the clothes and I buy several samples to take home with me, promising to do some market research. I have the clothes hanging from a light fixture in my hotel room as I write this. They are works of art, inspiring to look at (but about half the size of something that would fit me–sizing will be important!).

Cham dressmakers with foot-pedaled sewing machine

I know little about the fashion market but I do know that I love the look and feel of these clothes. And if these women can do this kind of work, certainly they are capable of other styles of custom clothing, perhaps not as dressy, or perhaps suitable as business attire.

There is another group of people waiting to meet us down the street at the village mosque. Alan stands up and indicates that it is time to move on. The sewing business meeting is over, and I wonder what I just committed to.  Saly gives me a big hug and begins walking with us down the dusty road toward the mosque.  More about the village meeting in the mosque to come!

Readers: take a look at these pictures, and tell me what you think (mneckstein@gmail.com).

Beaded and sequined bustier

Ensemble with hand sewn flowers of beads, sequins and lace

Shakespearian style blouse

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