With SayurStory, Migrant Domestic Workers Show Us How Home is Grown

Just Food: How Singaporeans Are Nourishing Visions of a Better World

Note: This article uses the term “migrant domestic worker” alongside efforts by the International Labour Office, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, and advocacy groups to phase out the use of “foreign domestic worker”. The article reflects discrepancies in the way that the different terminologies have been taken up and continue to be used in various contexts.

Last April, Singapore clamped down heavily on social gatherings for the first time in the pandemic. Saroja Rai found herself unmoored from her friends. A migrant domestic worker (MDW) from India who has lived in Singapore for 11 years, Saroja was used to meeting other women in her profession at weekly gatherings on Sunday. New advisories from the Singapore government, however, made this difficult to sustain, particularly at the height of the pandemic. The Ministry of Manpower recommended (and still recommends) that migrant domestic workers spend their rest days at home—that is, in their employers’ homes. 

“[My employers] allowed me to go out on Sunday,” Saroja explains, “But some people were only allowed to take off on weekdays—not on Sunday, but from Monday to Friday. They had to choose, but for them it was so difficult: on weekdays, none of their friends were out.” 

That’s when Saroja joined SayurStory, which she found through volunteering at the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST). An initiative conceived and helmed by Leong Man Wei, SayurStory began life as a Facebook group, bringing together migrant domestic workers and Singaporeans over a shared love of urban farming. Their first engagement was as simple and lovely as this: a challenge to grow tau geh (beansprouts) at home during the circuit breaker, with a toolkit of just green beans and recycled plastic containers. It was called “Home Taugether”. By encouraging migrant domestic workers with experience in  gardening and farming to share their own knowledge with other migrant domestic workers and Singaporeans, SayurStory hoped to provide a connection to nature and community which can otherwise be hard to carve out while living in this country. “I joined Kampung SayurStory not just to learn about planting,” says Leila Florendo, a migrant domestic worker from the Philippines who’s worked in Singapore for over twenty years, “but to share some knowledge and get to know other FDWs.” Its members have since come to it in various ways, by finding it through their social media networks, or through invitations from friends and colleagues at organisations like FAST. “I saw the SayurStory page on Facebook and it posted an Indonesian fellow doing gardening in Singapore,” Uswatun Hasanah, a newer member from Indonesia, tells me. “I never thought that we can do that here! I was really interested because I was also planting my chili plant for the first time in my employer’s house. After Man Wei approved my request to join the group, I found a few members posting about their plants, so I posted mine as well. The response was so good and I told myself: This is the group that I have been looking for!”

“The collective pleasure of working with plants and the land … can bring different communities together as well.”

The collective pleasure of working with plants and the land, the idea is, can bring different communities together as well. A small plot in the garden; a few pots in a hallway; food scraps regrowing in bottles and cups along kitchen windows—the sweet satisfaction of watching something sprout, and calling it your own. Since then, SayurStory has conducted Ethnobotany Walks, farm tours, fermentation and composting workshops, helping provide a space and safety in numbers—organised as a Kampung—for migrant domestic workers to explore farms and gardens that they might be unaware of, or lack access to. “My favourite part,” says Liza Sale from the Philippines, this year marking her 12th in Singapore, “is when I meet some of my SayurSisters during the farm tour and workshop. I make more friends.”

SayurStory now uses its platform to build community between migrant domestic workers and Singaporeans—or perhaps to just provide space for migrant domestic workers to build and strengthen the bonds that they already have. “What came to my attention was that for the longest time, many migrant domestic workers have had their own networks and connections in their own neighborhood, where they were exchanging plants and cuttings amongst themselves. So my helper herself, she knows neighbors that I don’t know from across the road, and they’ll just get durian or jackfruit, and exchange these things and cook their meals together. Not all of them have the privilege of forming connections outside or sharing use of their plants though,” Man Wei notes. “Before I started SayurStory, I was actually going around Singapore, getting cuttings and thinking, who can I give them to? I was quite fixated at the start on my goal to empower domestic workers to share their cooking or gardening knowledge. At one point I realised that it was not about helping the women create instructional content in a way that we’re familiar with, but getting Singaporeans themselves to interact with them directly through firsthand experience, to learn these things and exchange experiences.”

From this, SayurStory encourages migrant domestic workers and Singaporeans to ask and answer complex questions about what it means to be at home, not just in Singapore, but in the region. Man Wei tells me, “Within the Ethnobotany Gardens and exhibitions [at the Singapore Botanic Gardens], everything is literally from their homes. ‘This bamboo hut is made from bamboo in Indonesia.’ But where are the perspectives coming from? Can we invite the people from these lands themselves to share with us these stories and relationships of nature that they have, rather than it being a third-person documented thing?” To solve this, SayurStory has begun collaborating with the Gardens to launch ethnobotany tours—co-created and facilitated by migrant domestic workers in their community.

“Perhaps SayurStory is not creating a place for migrant domestic workers, but actually helping to insist that they already have a place here, among each other, and among us, too.”

And so perhaps SayurStory is not creating a place for migrant domestic workers, but actually helping to insist that they already have a place here, among each other, and among us, too. Through learning from other domestic workers’ food practices and through sharing her own culturally-specific knowledge about certain plants, Saroja says, “I get to know the story. I can know more plants and more herbs; what they eat in their villages in the Philippines and Indonesia. I can get to know so many plants which are like grass in our village—that they are herbs you can eat.”

Through growing and cooking together, and over conversations shared during these activities, perhaps the distance created by the employer-employee hierarchy instituted by Singapore’s social structure falls away ever so slightly between Singaporeans and migrant domestic workers, too. Tee Jia Xin, a founding member of SayurStory, explains: “I think the real befriending comes in when we actually talk to them offline,  after the workshop, and ask them things like how the microgreens are growing, do you do gardening back home? So the helpers themselves are more willing to share. It’s a more intimate relationship, and it forms the aspect of helpers connecting with Singaporeans.”

SayurStory’s meaningfulness is hard to capture if you just look at its social media, which is currently the most concrete archive which exists of its work. Even then, SayurStory reserves an internal Facebook group and other forms of communication where its members can speak freely, and share their gardening and cooking projects. Man Wei curates and directs conversation threads with the lightest of touches, encouraging SayurStory’s members to speak more about their relationships with certain plants back home, but to protect the privacy and ease of the women in the group, much will remain untold to the public. “Not all stories are meant to be shared, or are mine to share,” she elaborates, “Although it remains a dilemma for me: what to withhold, and what to curate for the public. But I always evaluate the intentions and also seek permission from the owners of these stories.” And that’s crucial, too: the point of SayurStory isn’t to be presentational or voyeuristic. Its ultimate goal isn’t to prove anything about migrant domestic workers to Singaporeans. It simply holds space for its members to tend not only to their gardens, but to their relationships with each other.

“We are learning to take things as we go, and experimenting with different notions and sizes of ‘community’,”

Most recently, SayurStory has been working on their community garden(s) nestled in the heartlands: they got their allotment plots in June, and are co-designing them with a small group of migrant domestic workers. Together, they have sowed seeds, transplanted cuttings from their homes, and talked to owners of neighbouring plots. Although the erratic weather and multiple safe-distancing regulations have made it challenging for ideal team-building and community-growing activities, they are still pushing forward. “We are learning to take things as we go, and experimenting with different notions and sizes of ‘community’,” Man Wei tells me. “We’re also finding support in our neighbours and nature itself—most of us are growing outdoors in Singapore for the first time—to care for our plot on days we are not on site. The whole project is very much experimental and we are just beginning to understand the site and its users, both existing and invited.” Next month, they have their first harvest of peanuts to look forward to, and, in about 3 months, some brinjals and chilis are coming, too.

SayurStory is necessarily prudent and watchful of its members’ needs. But it would be a mistake to take that as reticence: its ideas are unerringly bold, demonstrating limitless hope in its willingness to help make some things more visible; to elaborate and expand on how migrant domestic workers have navigated home and belonging, and to bolster these acts of survival. Migrant domestic workers have always had the ingenuity, imagination, resilience, to make a home in Singapore. They make our homes even as they create a home for themselves. But what SayurStory asks is: how can we make these homes—ours and theirs—one and the same: equally theirs, as it is ours?

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