Tatamagouche’s Peter and Debra Martyn are shown with workers outside of ChuChu in Yangon, Myanmar, where Debra volunteered for six months in product design and marketing. Peter volunteered teaching English courses, and some of his students were workers at ChuChu. Submitted photo

Peter and Debra Martyn have a newfound appreciation for the Village of Tatamagouche.

The couple spent six months – from January to July – volunteering in Yangon, Myanmar, with Cuso International – an organization working to reduce poverty through sustainable livelihoods.

“One of the things I brought back with me is a new awareness and thinking more about what happens to garbage when we throw it away,” said Debra, who spent her time volunteering with product development and marketing with ChuChu, which sees people designing and making products out of recycled materials to sell on the market. “And the warmth of the people – they don’t have much, but they’re very personable, generous, and particular about their appearance and clothing.”

Teaching English conversation and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Peter said he gained a huge amount of respect for his students, most of whom were women.

“The respect I have for those students who are trying to get ahead and seeking every opportunity they can, it’s huge,” he said.

This was the second time the couple volunteered with Cuso International. They spent a year in Tanzania between 2011 and 2012. Peter said they both like the company and the philosophy it abides by in building livelihoods.

“They give a leg up to increase opportunities for people to make a living,” said Peter.

The organization sends skilled volunteers into countries instead of money, and they do on-the-ground work. For Debra, that included an hour to an hour-and-a-half commute to ChuChu daily, each way.

During her time at ChuChu, Debra learned to laminate recycled products, which were then sewn into things, such as tapestries and bags. Bicycle tires and inner tubes were transformed into items such as belts, wallets, and floor mats.

The commute, said Debra, was interesting. She would have to walk to catch the bus, which took her to the ferry, and then she grabbed a trimshaw, similar to a rickshaw.

“The ferry was a cacophony of sounds. There were all kinds of people selling things. It was just crazy, but very vibrant,” she said. “I liked the commute – I liked the atmosphere.”

The conditions of Yangon, however, were dirty, with garbage everywhere.

“They’re drowning in garbage,” said Peter. “When it rains, the sewers overflow they’re so full of garbage. In a monsoon, you’re up to your knees in water – and it’s sewage.”

Along with supporting about 40 families through their products, ChuChu is also trying to build environmental awareness.

“One afternoon, they picked up garbage and tried to recycle things,” he said. “I had never really thought too deeply about waste management before that, but when you go to a place where all that is just thrown on the ground, it’s shocking.”

Peter spent his days in Hla Day, teaching English. The national language is Myanmar, or Burmese, with tribal languages also spoken. At ChuChu, Chin is the mother tongue, however some did speak English.

Some of Peter’s students were women who operated an organic vegetable farm in the city.

“Some of the other girls I taught were from a craft store where they sell authentic Myanmar crafts to tourists – and they carry ChuChu products,” he said.

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar was then a capitalist city, and a thriving one.

“They’re strivers,” said Peter. “They want to get ahead.”

He gave one example of one of her students who lost her father when she was a baby. Her mother and grandfather raised her. Not only was she taking the TOEFL class, but she was enrolled in a business course as well.

“She could see the opportunity – they were all like that. They were wonderful to teach.”

“They’re looking for every opportunity to increase their skills,” Debra added.

While the couple was asked to stay on longer, they said six months was a long time and they were happy to return home.

“It was fascinating. It was an interesting six months. To return home, it’s stunningly beautiful, clean, and quiet,” said Peter.

Locally, Sisterhood Fibres, located at 567 Sand Point Rd., Brule, has placed an order for ChuChu products, which are available for purchase at the studio.