As I wrote earlier, many of the knitters can not read or write. Interestingly, all the male knitters can read, while only a few of the women can. This is a reflection of how wider Cambodian society values women and education. Many, including professionals and those at the Ministry of Education, are quick to say that poor people do not value education and that this is the reason why so few send their children to school or support them past primary level. Others, who’ve worked with poor communities and in the education sector, know that this is simply not true. Poor people value education very highly and are eager to send their children, all of them, to school. They both understand and value what it can mean for their future to have educated children. However, informal and unofficial costs are prohibitive for the poorest of the poor and they simply don’t have enough money to send them to school.

Unfortunately, girls are the ones that get less chances in poor families. If a family can send a child to school, and only one out of a handful, that chance will usually go to a boy. Not because boys are thought to be smarter, but because girls help more at home. They wake up earlier, do more chores and go to bed later. They do the housework, cooking, fetch the water, they feed the animals and take care of the younger children. Why send a girl to school when she has so much to do at home?

So this is why most of the female knitters can not read. One positive change in the community from past to present, is that all the children are going to school. In all the time I have spent there, all school age kids are gone until 11. Both boys and girls, all primary age, are studying and from the brief discussions I’ve had with community members, they want to keep it that way. I was worried that some families would want to pull children, especially girls, from school to work for us (which we would not allow), but not one family asked to do that.

Since early on, I worried about how illiterate knitters would work without being able to follow patterns. Initially, the trainers, and everyone at the community, said they could get help from others to read and follow the patterns. I was never happy with this. Both Yeng and I recognized that this is a short term solution to a bigger issue. I think the trainers think we’re overreacting to the situation, but without being able to complete the work on her own, a knitter just isn’t going to be independent. There will always be the risk that someone is not available to read the pattern or that tension in the household means she can’t get the support and help she needs. All disempowering.

So, welcome to chart reading 101. I thought we’d try to present the simpler puppet patterns in a chart. There are only 5 symbols, knit, purl, knit2tog, kfb, and the same symbol for cast on and bind off. We started with the hippo pattern and for many of the women, they caught on quickly. A few were still asking again and again what to do next. I encouraged the trainers to keep referring them to the charts (they are too quick to simply give the answer) so they get used to following them. Srey Mao, who I worked with, got it right away and told me when I was trying to help her (with a bit of shut up tone), “I got it.” What was nice was to see two knitters who can’t read, Thyda and Thy, bent over one of the charts later in the morning, helping each other out.

We’ll have to see how they go, but I think this might be the solution!


And for no reason other than it’s painfully cute, a picture of Stinky sleeping in a helmet…