I Know Why the Women's Union Sings

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It had been hours of discussion, an open debrief with the Marine Protected Area staff about the first phase of the GEF sponsored recycling project implemented by the Women's Union. The women were critiquing the design of the bikes and wagons that were provided to them to run recycling businesses as part of an evolving waste management system to reduce the amount of garbage going to the landfill. Nearing the end, one woman raised her hand to comment but when she was handed the microphone she instead began to sing. I sat in astonishment, this had certainly never happened at any of the public meetings I attended in the states especially about such a seemingly uninspiring subject matter. The other women watched and smiled and laughed and some joined in.

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Figure 1: The women are singing together in the meeting

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Figure 2: Women received the GEF sponsored bikes for their running recycling businesses

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Figure 3 : A woman received the wagon for her running recycling business

After she finished, I asked a government official what she had been singing about and he told me it was a song written before the war about the cultural heritage and community pride in Hoi An. It was a song of community, a song that showed these women were an important part of Hoi An. This is when it became clear to me that cultural unity is an important part of overcoming many of the 21st century problems facing cities worldwide. Our cities can't only be built with new technology and advanced infrastructure, we must also continue cultivating community identity and connection.

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Figure 4 : Hoi An women studied on separating garbage at its source and participating in an anti-plastic bag campaign

Last summer, I had heard hours of singing. The Women's Union took a sponsored study tour of Hue's waste management system to understand adaptable models for recycling. On the bus, there was a built in karaoke system and all the women took turns crooning along to popular songs. This was also unusual to me; the seamless transition from personal to professional activities. Throughout the weekend, we shared coffee and meals, sat in meetings, toured waste facilities, prayed at a Buddhist temple and visited Hue's historic sites. I felt like I had grown closer to this group of women then colleagues of mine I've worked with for years. It was more than the activities that built camaraderie, it was the pride that the government had invested in their education and that they were being elevated to think critically about what they could learn from another city.

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Figure 5: Women visited the Hue recycling site

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Figure 6: Women visited the Thien Mu pagoda in Hue

Beyond the morale and the environmental benefit of the program, the business model has been working. The women pay a small amount for recycled materials from community members, sort them in locally owned recycling centers and sell them to plastic factories in Danang and Ho Chi Minh City. Workable models for sustainability are all around us, we don't always have to reinvent ourselves. In fact, it is amidst the garbage that if we listen closely to the community of Hoi An we can hear the sound of hope.

Julia Joan Babcock – Porland State University

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