Causes Week 2021: Connecting domestic helpers and Singaporeans via food cultures

Causes Week, which is into its 10th iteration, runs this year from Dec 21 to 25. It shines a light on various individuals and groups, and shows how they are making a difference through their chosen causes within the community, for children and youth, in sports and arts, among others.

Ground-up initiative SayurStory hopes to unite Singaporeans and domestic helpers through activities based around food and the natural environment. PHOTO: LEONG MAN WEI

SINGAPORE - The banana is a fruit familiar to Singaporeans, being found year-round in markets and supermarkets, and in popular snacks such as goreng pisang (banana fritters) and fried banana balls.

But if you asked people from different cultures in South-east Asia about the ways they eat and use bananas, you may find that they have other stories to tell – both different and familiar.

The study of how people relate to plants and use them in their families and cultures is known as ethnobotany.

It is in this field that SayurStory, a ground-up initiative, hopes to unite Singaporeans and domestic helpers through conversations and activities based around food and the natural environment.

Its founder Leong Man Wei, 22, said that she got this idea from working with her helper, with whom she has a close relationship.

“During that period, I gained an interest in gardening and started to talk about plants with my helper, which made me realise how much she knew because of her cultural heritage and experiences back home,” said Ms Leong, a School of Art, Design and Media student at Nanyang Technological University.

“As many Singaporeans were turning to gardening and reconnecting with nature, along with the encouragement from Nparks, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to empower MDWs (migrant domestic workers) to share their knowledge and connect our communities.”

With this in mind, the team behind SayurStory worked hard to create virtual and in-person platforms for helpers to exchange their stories about plants with Singaporeans and one another.

Notably, this sharing can take place face to face through ethnobotany tours in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, co-created with domestic helper guides.

Participants in this “Garden of Homes” tour will learn about common plants in South-east Asia through the helpers’ personal anecdotes.

Madam Hanisha Marni Astuti, 37, a helper from Kudus, Indonesia, who is one of the ethnobotany tour guides, said: “During the tour, I share personal stories connected to my culture or beliefs that will connect us, or the people around us, to our surroundings.

“I think plants are a form of communication.”

An ethnobotany tour in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. PHOTO: LEONG MAN WEI

SayurStory also started a community garden to connect communities with and through plants. It aims to provide helpers with physical space and a community to exchange harvests and gardening expertise.

The four current managers of the garden are from Myanmar, Indonesia and India and were strangers before sharing the garden.

They said: “Gardening here, you meet friends and other local gardeners and get to chit-chat.

“Here, we can explore other people’s plots and learn from each other how to grow plants.”

Although Covid-19 safe distancing measures have made organising physical initiatives challenging, SayurStory continues to hold small-scale events and farm visits to strengthen the helpers’ bonds with one another and with Singaporeans.

Among the events were cyanotype printing workshops, where participants tried their hand at the alternative, low-cost photographic printing technique that produces blue prints.

SayurStory's regular events programming has allowed it to reach out to about 100 helpers here and retain about 20 regular domestic helper participants in its events.

Miss Leong hopes that the community of SayurStory will continue to grow and invite even greater diversity.

She said: “SayurStory is very much driven by narratives of ‘us’, where the women who engage with our community are those who have mustered the courage to do so.

“I hope SayurStory sows seeds in our society for more inclusive and expanded notions of community.”

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