The Future is in Their Hands
Martina Cannetta (center) founded The Knot to help give sought after skills to young people from poor families; the “fabric jewelry” course is primarily targeted at girls.
By Emanuela Citterio
South of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a vocational school teaches dozens of girls and boys the goldsmith’s trade. It is a project that aims at excellence, combining Italian style and local tradition.
It was born of a fruitful intertwining between East and West, between Italian design and the millennial Cambodian tradition of working with silver. South of Phnom Penh, the Bottega dell’arte (Workshop of Art) is a vocational school that annually trains 25 girls and boys in the goldsmith’s art and the production of jewelry. They are unique pieces made by young people from poor families, who learn a trade and, at the end of a two-year course, find work immediately.
The project was conceived in 2008 by an Italian woman named Martina Cannetta, together with her parents Alberto Cannetta, architect, and Luciana Damiani, designer. Her family resides in Milan, but Martina has been living now in Phnom Penh for 15 years along with her husband and a 10-year-old daughter. “I arrived in Cambodia by chance,” she says. “I wanted a work experience abroad and I started with an organization that deals with international adoptions. Then I fell in love with this country. It may sound corny, but it is so. People’s smile[s] and their simplicity won me over.”
South of Phnom Penh there is a large lake, Tompun Lake; where an aquatic vegetable that is part of the Cambodian diet, the morning glory, grows naturally. Today it is a rather unhealthy environment, due to the city’s waste being dumped into the water. In the center there is a village on stilts. Its inhabitants work at night, collecting vegetables for the owners of the lake. They live at the limits of subsistence, without sanitation and basic services.
Martina works tirelessly to break the cycle of poverty through education in the Capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
“In 2008, Father Mario Ghezzi, PIME, who was a parish priest in this area, told me that he was trying to do something for the young people of the village” Martina explains, “ because they have no chance of finding decent jobs. At that time my parents came to see me. With the eyes of an architect and of a designer, they made this remark: ‘The Cambodians have extraordinary dexterity, but they lack creativity.’ People here have great manual ability, which today is exploited by large Chinese manufacturing companies that come here to make cheap objects: they employ girls as workers, removing them from traditional looms where, with their skills, they could make beautiful works. My parents and I came up with an idea: why not help these girls by introducing them to Italian design, of which we Italians are experts?”
In 2009, Martina founded the “Il nodo” (The Knot) a non-profit organization, eventually she managed to involve Italian designers. One of them, Renzo Bighetti – sculptor, artist and sailor from Levanto, who creates silver jewelry inspired by the sea – agreed to go to Cambodia to try to train a group of girls, who were rescued from prostitution, in the goldsmith’s art. The results were surprising. But the group dispersed once the course was over. “Those girls had huge problems in their past and did not continue,” explains Martina. “At that point, it was Renzo who gave us the idea of creating a school, with two-year courses for the processing of silver, starting from traditional craftsmanship but teaching to create new, original and more interesting objects for the tourism market.”
Cambodia has a 1,000-year-old tradition in the processing of silver, which continues to be mined in the area, but the techniques risk disappearing along with the few elderly who are still the holders of this tradition. “The Knot” has chosen to recover this ancient tradition, gathering the masters of silver still living and establishing the Bottega dell’arte, which today is recognized by the Cambodian Ministry of Labor. The school produces beautiful jewelry that is sold to support the project.
“At the end of the course, we make sure everyone finds a job with a regular contract,” says Martina. “Our graduates are in high demand, even from large companies, because they know how to produce a jewel from beginning to end. For reasons of pride, however, we experienced a regret during these years.”
“The school is free, and we also give a small daily allowance, precisely because we want to give an opportunity especially to young people from poor families. But they are mainly male students, because families tend to invest less on girls’ education, to get them to do manual work as soon as possible. So, after several attempts, we decided to create another shorter course, eight months, for the creation of ‘soft jewels’, aimed at girls. An Italian outdoor furniture company, Paola Lenti, sends us fabrics and material left over from production: beautiful fabrics with which girls aged 15-16 make a new line of fabric jewels.”
Classes are accessible to both boys and girls, but families often invest less in girls’ education so that they can begin manual labor sooner.
The non-profit staff, on the other hand, is all female. In addition to the founder, there is a person in charge of administration and four project managers. The association also works in Cambodian prisons, with women who have been incarcerated along with their children. “Until a few years ago, mothers in detention could keep their children up to 6 years of age,” explains Martina. “When, nine years ago, I entered for the first time in a prison, I was shocked by the overcrowding and the conditions of total inactivity to which these children were forced. We started working to ensure birthing in a hospital for inmates and vaccinations for children, [and] then we managed to create play areas for the little ones in two prisons and an outside structure for mothers and children in the Phnom Penh prison.”
“The Knot” is supported exclusively by private financing: “It is not always easy, we go on by trial and error” says Martina, “but these kids give us enormous satisfaction. They are eager to learn.”