The Big Issue : Edition 448
THE BIG ISSUE 26 DEC 2013 – 9 JAN 2014 35 Single mums working from home and school kids have also joined in (the latter during holidays). Women have learned how to use sewing machines. “I came from the jungle. I never saw a sewing machine before,” says Lulu, who was also displaced by the cyclone. Bluemay, another sewer who is now making three floral dresses a day, says: “I get a lot from this work. I’ve learned a lot, I have good friends who also come from villages. I’ve found a new family. And it’s a good salary.” With Helping Hands growing quickly, and now supporting more than 50 people, keeping everyone in work and the furniture dry remains a constant challenge. Before the last monsoon season, an open-sided shed was extended. “There’s a lot of rain in Burma,” says general manager Zaw Naing (pictured at right, seated). “Five months every year. I have a lot of trouble in the rainy season.” “We made a lot of mistakes initially,” Bell admits. “We bought far too cheaply. By the time we put [furniture] on the truck and travelled down the road [over] potholes, about 75% had fallen apart. We needed to invest too much work to bring it back to life.” The craftware made by Helping Hands is sold in town, with profits going towards healthcare, housing and education. “For the street kid, we do training – how to sand, how to polish, carpentry,” Zaw Naing says. One worker completed a maths degree, another is entering business training, and a couple of youngsters recently secured apprenticeships in the automotive industry. Although the co-op has grown too big to continue throwing open-house parties to solicit donations, an informal network of supporters can still be relied on to pitch in if needed. “We’ve asked for a lot of help and we’ve got it. We’ve been blessed,” Bell says. Aside from natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis, Helping Hands workers are repairing lives blighted by homelessness, disease, imprisonment and loss of the household rice-winner. “We make sure the midday meal is substantial, with soup and vegies. There’s coffee and afternoon teas...today there’s cake and biscuits,” Bell enthuses. “Fridays we sit around and have a beer and talk about things. Last week it was about how to get rid of the rat... “For me, this is about the legacy of living somewhere overseas. If we leave after a few years and everyone’s better off, and they’ve got the confidence to carry on, then that’s a contribution. It’s also about accepting that you don’t have to be a Desmond Tutu or Aung San Suu Kyi to make a difference.” by Tim Webster » Tim Webster is a writer, photographer and teacher based in Burma. His recent projects include photographing Yangon’s heritage buildings and lobbying for Cathy Freeman to become Queen of Australia.