A SIMPLE question asked seven years ago is today helping to empower rural indigenous communities all over Malaysia to carry on the hand-craft traditions of their forefathers.
Independent crafts researcher Reita Rahim was intrigued by why many of the eye-catching traditional crafts which she saw during visits to rural villages could not be found in shops.
She discovered that middlemen who bought the crafts to be eventually sold at various towns and cities held a strong influence over the final product. The indigenous craftspeople were only producing work which the middlemen wanted to buy. And these were confined to a relatively limited range.
Not only that, the craftspeople were not receiving fair compensation relative to the amount of time and effort it took to create their work. Unscrupulous middlemen had no qualms about paying pittance, then reselling the crafts for a hefty profit at several times the cost to customers made up mostly of urban residents and tourists.
Due to the lack of interest in lesser known crafts, deemed less marketable by the middlemen, and the low returns on crafts, the knowledge and practice of creating traditional craftwork among these indigenous peoples are slowly dying out.
What this painful reality highlights in the next seven years that followed is nothing short of inspirational.
What started out as an ad-hoc experimental project with no business plan, no staff, no shop and no funding has bloomed into Gerai Orang Asal (Gerai OA, literally translated as ‘indigenous people’s stall’) – a volunteer-run stall selling handicrafts, made by the indigenous minorities or Orang Asal (OA) of Malaysia, manned by a small but dedicated group of individuals.
One feature which makes it stand out from other groups is that 100 per cent of sales proceeds are returned to the indigenous craftspeople.
Gerai OA volunteers don’t receive compensation or commissions. The group itself doesn’t have permanent premises or receive funding. They only set up stalls when offered rent-free sites. Volunteers consist of individuals of various ages, occupations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but united in the belief and by the desire to help indigenous communities to help themselves.
Ultimately, it’s about empowering the indigenous peoples to earn a living with dignity.
By land or sea
Most of the craftspeople working with Gerai OA are women and elders from various ethnic bumiputera minorities, including the Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia (Mah Meri, Semai, Semelai, Jah Het, Jakun, Temiar and Temuan), the Orang Ulu of Sarawak (Bidayuh, Penan, Kenyah and Lun Bawang) and the Anak Negeri of Sabah (Rungus and Dusun).
In West Malaysia, Gerai OA visits each village every month or every three months to collect finished crafts on a rotation basis, depending on the distance. To reach some of these remote villages, volunteers may have to travel several hours by road or offroad through dense jungles, and/or on speedboats by sea.
If the destination can be reached by road, volunteers will make the drive themselves in their own vehicles as Gerai OA and Reita do not have vehicles of their own. As a sign of respect as well as for logistics and security reasons, Gerai OA will only work with communities which invite the group in.
On site, volunteers will label each craftwork with personal details of the craftspeople who made them so they can keep track of sales as well as return monies from previous sales to the craftspeople.
Basic information about the craftwork, the craftspeople, their age, ethnic background, the material used to create the craft and the craft’s use are tagged onto each work so buyers will know a little about who made their crafts.
For new crafts being picked up, half of the selling price is handed over to the artisans during the pickup with the remaining monies to be paid after sales during the following visit to the village. Every craftwork is carefully logged and every sen accounted for.
One at a time
Gerai OA also runs a ‘groceries for grannies’ programme which accepts and distributes donated foodstuff to older artisans and their families who need a helping hand to make ends meet.
They also have a small medical fund which allows artisans and non-artisans to purchase everyday over-the-counter medicines and medical items such as paracetamol, cough medicine, medicated oils, plasters, anti-diarrhea pills and such like at cost or big discount compared to the expenses they would incur by travelling to government clinics or private pharmacies to purchase these items.
The group relies on the Internet and social media to get the word out about its activities. Whenever there is a need, say for volunteers to man a stall for the weekend or to drive a vehicle for a collection trip, Gerai OA sends out a call for help to the 60 or so people on the group’s email list. Most of the time, someone will answer.
Gerai OA also has a Facebook group where they put up photos of the craftspeople they work with so that the people who buy crafts can see pictures of some of the people who make the crafts as well as of how and where some crafts are made.
“Pricing of crafts sold by Gerai OA is based on time spent on creating and how much effort to get the raw materials,” Reita explained.
“When you create a connection, you won’t bargain for the price. When you realise how much skill it takes to make the craft as well, you will appreciate it more.”
The stall set up by Gerai OA during the recent 2nd International Beads Conference in Kuching was a hit among visitors and participants. Many of the crafts Reita and volunteer Yap Mun Ching brought over from West Malaysia like the fine pandanus weavings and tasteful, colourful baskets sold like hotcakes.
Reita and Mun Ching returned to West Malaysia with their sales stock considerably less.
Gerai OA is also active in documenting, reviving and revitalising the inherent traditional knowledge and applications of indigenous craft.
They conduct research, lectures, craft workshops and training throughout Malaysia for and with the OA, sometimes in collaboration or as consultants with NGOs.
Reita, who is also the coordinator for Gerai OA, said now, the group did not carry out many projects in Sarawak as there were already several bodies in the state involved in preserving and promoting indigenous craftwork.
Presently, Gerai OA only has one project in Sarawak, which is with ceramic bead makers in Lawas.
Small changes, big impact
Gerai OA walks the talk in developing long-term relationships and partnerships with the indigenous communities they work with.
“It takes time to earn a community’s trust,” Reita said.
“For any project, we always ask – whether it’s an NGO, individual or otherwise – ‘do you have one year?’ because that’s how long it takes.
“It takes three months for trust building and assessing the products and the skills they already have. Three more months to start small production and then get rejected. Even the rejects we have to buy which is where some of the money gets stuck in a bottleneck.”
But over time, Gerai OA works with the craftspeople to help them improve their products in terms of quality, design, colour and marketability so that the crafts can fetch higher prices.
“We normally work directly with communities that need a little bit of help. We can’t do much because of our budget limitations but we try to help them with minor technical things such as the colour wheel and so on,” Reita explained.
Just a few weeks ago, Gerai OA was in Pulau Banggi, Kudat, for a two-day WWF-USAID workshop on pandanus, weaving together with three OA weavers from Pulau Carey and Paya Rumput to share their expertise with participants from Pulau Banggi-Maliangin, Semporna and Setiu (Terengganu) on practical matters such as how to dry the leaves properly over a flame so that they do not have to rely on the weather to help them prepare raw materials for weaving.
Small as Gerai OA may be, it’s definitely having a positive impact – changing lives and mindsets one person at a time, whether they belong to the indigenous communities, the volunteers or the urban customers who purchase most of the crafts sold.
For more information about the group, check out their Facebook page at Gerai OA which also has an online stall at www.elevyn.com/shop/geraioa.
Reita Faida Rahim (Coordinator) can be contacted at email: email@example.com or 019-7518686.