I don't regret any tiny bit joining Sweet Potato Mama Project run by Genesis Social Welfare Foundation and Topology Travel, a travel company whose core value and visions are to capture the essence of Taiwan for all visitors from abroad. This project affected me in a way to believe we are all living in a world where we are very much connected to the community we are traveling to. It also aims to support single-mothers to live financially independently by teaching them how to roast sweet potatoes.
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On the day we did the project, there were a few other volunteers joining the project under Topology Travel's guidance and pre-training. Most of them were travelers, exchange students from abroad or people who have lived in Taiwan for years. There was also a group of local people too, and I was one of them.
It is not exactly correct to say that traveling can change a person, because it not only changes an individual but everyone who is engaged in the community. That includes the volunteers, the potato mamas, the residence who works and lives nearby, or even the passersby. All of us had a mutual sense of satisfaction when we gave each other feedback at the end of the day --- we all felt that there was something adding up to our lives, something invaluable. We come from different places with different backgrounds but we come to achieve something altogether. Native or not, we grasped a bit of sweet potato mamas’ life by doing what they do every day.
What we did for the sweet potato mamas basically doesn't require professional skills. Besides repetition work such as cutting off the yams, fitting them into all sizes of twisted steel wires (to roast the yams more efficiently through the heated wires) and touting the yams for passerby, the mamas, who usually wake up very early, have already cleaned the yams and managed the charcoal at the bottom of the portable traditional oven that shaped like a big drum (weighted at least 50kg). So we didn't need to deal with the fire and temperature.
I especially love the selling part. It was fun to see how passerby reacted when they saw a cluster of people working on cooking sweet potatoes. It was, well, a bad analogy, like doing a flash-mob event (of course we didn't dress in the same color or disappear in the end all of a sudden!). What a flash-mob event usually functions is to draw people's attention in an unaggressive way in at public place. Yet if the stories behind the event worth opening up a discussion for larger audience, a demand for specific social awareness will highly possibly appeals to people. I do believe what we did in Live as a Local Program then meets its purpose to arouse people’s care and attention to the minority groups.
I believe that the act of selling the yams has another layer of meaning. The places where the mamas sell the yams are quite close to business districts and schools. Normally the customers are office workers and students (sometimes there will be bigger order directly from companies or big fans of sweet potatoes). Almost every day, while people walk pass the sweet potato mama's vendors and see the mamas, of course sometimes with friendly volunteers from all over the globe, such picture would make them feel that “the yams” are becoming part of their lives. Because yams in fact symbolize as a part of Taiwanese food tradition, every Taiwanese must have tasted it some time before. Every time when the mamas let the words out loud "Sweet potatos! Just got roasted!", people would be possibly get touched by heart to hear such familiar voice. If such delicious snack is there every day, there's no reason for people not to stop by and get a bag or two of yams from the mamas! People love eating sweet potatoes anyways!
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The most important thing is that Live as a Local Program also changes the mamas' lives too. When it wasn't during lunch time, we actually talked a lot. We would exchange stories and share traveling ideas with the mamas. And I could see that they are used to having volunteers who keep them company. To our surprise, sweet potato mamas are in fact very sociable and willing to share their stories with us. They would tell us how they come to sell yams and how they got supported from Genesis Social Welfare Foundation, and the most cheerful thing is --- how they would support their own children and to fulfill their dreams altogether as a family.