SAO Sarith’s work is shit, quite literally shit. In her small backyard, a series of sticks lie drying in the sun. Each one is coated with a familiar, brown substance. The middle of the yard is dominated by a pile of animal excrement. In the heat, the smell is oppressive.
“I use the sticks for cooking and boiling rice,” she says. “It is better than wood. The flame is very good.”
The 53-year-old rice farmer has a small field in the village of Andong Tasey, a few kilometres outside the town of Svay Rieng.
“We take the buffalo to the fields and tie them there,” she says. “When we bring the buffalos back home, we also take their excrement.”
Sao Sarith then smears some sticks with the excrement before drying them in the sun. It might take three days for the sticks to dry depending on the amount of sunlight and the consistency of the excrement.
“Cow shit is better than buffalo,” she says. “It is more sticky.” Unfortunately for Sao Sarith, she has three buffalos and no cows.
She assures us that by the time the sticks have dried all the smell has gone.
“If it smelt bad during the cooking I would not use it, but it is the same as burning wood,” she says. “We use about ten sticks each time we boil some rice.”
Hygiene is an important part of the process. Sao Sarith uses plastic bags when handling the excrement, afterwards washing her hands with soap. Occasionally she’ll apply a twist of lemon to keep her hands fresh.
She only started using the excrement sticks four or five years ago when she saw other people in her village doing likewise.
“Now they have stopped,” she says of the other villagers. “When they became rich, they gave it up.”
Alas the mother of five will not be passing on her noble profession to her offspring.
“None of my children help me because they are disgusted,” she says. But Sao Sarith will carry on. “Even if I become rich, I will not stop,” she says. “If I have free time I will do it.” TRANSLATION BY RANN REUY