Saturday, June 10, 2017

What I should have said

It was an unexpected opportunity. Seemed perfect. We met the thirteen young girls from the Tiga Runggu area who wanted to learn to weave. They are pupils of an enthusiastic teacher, Betrik Derfita, who has been encouraging them. The girls have agreed to learn from their mothers and grandmothers at home, which is good because they will learn in the traditional manner. Donors to our Weaving Centre in Simalungun supported the search for weaving equipment for them to work on. It was fitting, therefore, to invite the young aspirants to the Weaving Centre (some 5 km. or so away from their school) to let them know that it is theirs too.

The novices -in a post by MJA Nashir
My team grew excited at the prospect of welcoming them. Mas MJA Nashir designed and printed three banners to herald their arrival. Lasma purchased corn and cassava for them to nibble on. I made sure there were enough mugs to serve up the drinks (we try to avoid plastic bottles). And when the day dawned (May 21), we all assembled at the Weaving Centre to greet the young women. It made sense to invite elderly former weavers from the village, too, as we truly want them to feel at home at the Centre and share their knowledge.

Poster by MJA Nashir - the elderly weaver is one of the teachers
Ma Dirita received a special invitation and she came. She was the first person I had met in the village some 31 years ago, a weaver of the 'bulang' textile. Indirectly, it was due to her that I located the Weaving Centre in Nagori Tongah; it was through her that I met Lasma. It was appropriate to honour her and when I said my words of welcome, I credited her with being the beginning of all that has ensued.

When it came time to open the floor for all present, Ma Dirita (now Ompu Vanesia) took advantage of the opportunity. She spoke in a loud voice telling about her weaving experiences. Attending this ceremony awakened memories of years of utter and dire misery for her. She went on and on, repeating and repeating herself, like she was reliving a trauma.

Ma Dirita explained her miserable associations
with weaving. Photo by Manguji Nababan


"I was never paid enough for my work; the going was always tough and it only got tougher. I had my head down for years, day in day out, counting yarns and working as fast as I could. It was hard on every part of me. The market was dismal but I was dependent on it, condemned to make my living this way. I never taught weaving to my daughters. Only when we started to grow coffee and make bread for sale did our lives become better. Weaving was misery."

At least, that was what I picked up. She spoke in Simalungun and I wasn't absolutely sure I was understanding all of her words correctly. Ma Dirita means "Mother of Suffering" and I remember thinking that I was learning why she had selected that name for her child. It could not have been easy for her to be in the midst of a celebration to welcome new young weavers.



The room received her words in silence. Eventually someone tried to lighten the mood and then we moved on. Other women also had something to say -- but nobody contradicted Ma Dirita.

I don't know the impact of Ma Dirita / Ompung Vanesia's words on the aspiring weavers. I do regret not thinking faster on my feet, not trusting that I understood what she had said. The next day I was still thinking about the moment and wishing I had responded. This is what I would have liked to have said.

Photo by Erlina Pardede
"Thank you, Ompung Vanesia, for sharing your experiences. They illustrate why weaving has died out. In the decades when you were a weaver, craft was not valued. If it was ever honoured as the loving and skilful labour of the goddess, those times were no longer even a faded memory when you wove. Your work was drudgery and you were completely dependent on the meagre income that it provided for your ailing husband and your hungry young children. What a curse, to be dependent on a heavy job that paid so badly. Luckily you had that source of income, or you would have ended up on the street. But really the word 'luck' is hardly the right one. You were trapped: very damned if you wove and only slightly, but terrifyingly more damned if you did not.

"Weaving was once a Batak women's art. Yes, art, not just laborious task. The ancient textiles reveal that weavers delighted in their art. They experimented. They incorporated novelties. They took pride in their textiles and vied with each other to make the best. They made textiles of high quality and the variety of embellishments made the work excitingly dynamic. Why/how did it become drudgery? Why did the artistry disappear? You remember working as hard as possible to meet the deadline of the next market -- no time to experiment. Express your creativity? You could more easily have flown to the moon. Weaving was just a repetitive punishment for the body, erosion of the spirit for returns that would make a person cry if they weren't in terror of not getting even that pittance to take them through the next meal. And the price paid for a finished textile was going down; fellow villagers couldn't afford to buy ritual textiles. The semi-mechanized weaving mills in Siantar had started up and people were choosing to buy from them because the goods were cheaper. It was a vicious race to the bottom.

"Now nobody in your area can 'afford' to weave anymore. All of the weavers in your generation have been pushed out of the market. You were weaving at a time when the opportunity to eke out even the most meagre living was slipping away like sand between your fingers. Your appreciation for the art slipped away with it.

"You must have come to our meeting with mixed feelings, pleased on the one hand to be invited to greet the aspiring young weavers but, on the other hand, feeling obliged to warn them of the less than rosy truth. You did your duty and shared that truth -- and also your grief. "

Photo courtesy Manguji Nababan
I wonder how the novice weavers accommodated your words. It was important for them to know about Ma Dirita's suffering -- and Heaven knows, it was not the first time they had heard such a tale. All are from poor families. What they experience on the day to day is not for the faint of heart.

I should have continued by addressing the novices directly:

"I hope that our activities at the Weaving Centre will have the power to help Ma Dirita live more comfortably with her past. Our vision is transformative. We do not want to subject any of you to the misery that Ompu Vanesia had to endure. At this Weaving Centre we want to re-create the opportunity for weavers to express their creativity in a comfortable, safe physical environment. The only way that can occur is if the market is able to support them. Aside from helping you leap the hurdles to achieve a top quality product (find the equipment and the right yarn, the right instruction), our challenge is to make and find the appropriate markets. We want to put the humanity back into the work and reveal that it once had a sacred character. This can be re-instilled. Weaving can once again become a source of pride and joy. "

That was the intent of our little reception for the young women. We sang their praises and celebrated their courage. Each of those young women will have to come to terms with the reality that Ma Derita/Ompu Venezia presented. If they choose to continue as weavers, they will have to do their bit to transform it. Ma Dirita's experience does not represent the 'revival' we seek.






Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Early Morning in the Weaving Centre

I am still staying in the "Ruang Kumpulan", the front room where we plan to hold our meetings with weavers, while the builders work on the quarters destined for my use at the other end of the building. I like this meeting room. It is large (for the kampung) and airy with four windows and an expansive white floor, double doors leading to the road in the front and a single door leading to the wide 'weaver patio' and bedrooms in the back. If we have a lot of guests in the future and the bedrooms are full, they will be able to spend the night in this front room as well. We'll just spread out mattresses for them... I am sure they will enjoy the space.

Waking up in the morning is a pleasure. I smell the wood smoke and I know the neighbours are up and mothers are preparing food and boiling water for their families. It is cloudy again today, but the room is bright and my Wakawaka solar charger/lamp is also flashing to announce that it is storing solar energy in the battery. I hear roosters crowing in their self-satisfied way, and also pigs squealing in delight because they are getting fed.

The dog has visited
When I open the front door, I see fresh paw prints and I know that the neighbour dogs have already done their rounds; reading the 'dog newspaper', I call it. They have come by to sniff out what is new (and what is edible). Also the back patio bears traces of their nosy visit. They are never around when we are active, just when they think that the world is theirs to explore without any human disturbance.

Someday we will see a sea of flowers when we throw open the front doors. Lasma and her husband, Ober, and I have already prepared the soil. I love the bright red lilies and the hisbiscus hedges that we see when we drive around. We will be able to use those plants and prepare something akin to an English garden so that people will not park there or drive up to our building with their motorcycles. Our intention is to make a park-like landscape and a house that is enjoyable to see and to live in.

But today, the view from the side window is special. Yesterday, on the way home from Sidikalang to Simalungun, we stopped in for a moment at the SMA Negeri school in Silalahi, which not too long ago won the prize for the Greenest School in Indonesia.  I was impressed to see that it was more beautiful than ever, full of trees and flowers, no garbage anywhere, with a lovely fountain and beautiful use of the rocks that are strewn everywhere in the valley. I had stopped in to pick up saplings for our terrain. Each class plants trees and cares for them throughout the year. The school then gives them away for free in the village and to all who wish to have them. They know that the deforestation is a drastic problem and this is their way to raise awareness amongst the pupils while helping the villagers. This is also the school that has the innovative weaving program.

Our saplings in their polybags
I found a cache of young trees in their 'polybags' ready for planting and was joined, quite quickly, by one of the teachers, a Mr. Naibaho, whom I had met on earlier visits. He was one of the geniuses behind the greening of the school. "I would like fruit trees," I said, "And other trees that are needed for weaving." He sent pupils to search for saplings for me that were still beside their respective classrooms and not yet in the cache that I had found. And then his willing assistants helped us load up our vehicle. Eventually we had a pleasing forest in the back, consisting of a tree of life (jabijabi/ hariara - the great tree from India with aerial roots; we will have to plant it very strategically), two or three sugar palm trees (for every possible purpose, including weaving implements), two avocado (can hardly wait for them to bear fruit), a soursak and a pinang tree. I think there were a few papaya trees in the group and some kemiri (gambiri, a kind of macadamia nut tree).

A few days ago, Lasma, Ober, Agus and I played with some landscaping ideas. Lasma subsequently saved our coconut husks to serve as pots. Yesterday, while I was away, she tried to use some of the left over wood from our building construction to create a few pots. We also have broken tiles that we hope to fashion into pots. Lasma's goal today, however, is to plant our newly acquired trees permanently on the terrain. She had a big smile on her face yesterday evening when we unloaded the healthy specimens. "We need to plant them immediately," she said.

I see Las and Ober now, discussing where to plant them.




Did Pesada hand me a key?

Pesada, a women's group dedicated to alleviating poverty and
marginalization of women
My good friend and Batak sister-in-law, Erlina Pardede, kindly agreed to introduce me to Pesada, a women's group that she helped to establish in the 1990s to deal with the poverty and marginalization suffered by women in many villages. We rented a car  and yesterday visited the Head Office. I was struck dumb by the size of the operation.

The building that we visited had numerous offices, seminar and meeting rooms, a restaurant and even lodgings for visitors, all cheerfully decorated and well maintained.
The building is large, cheerful and well maintained

One of the meeting rooms at the Pesada head office
I was given the opportunity to meet with the current director and program heads who told me about the history of Pesada and its various programs all dealing with women's health, well being and empowerment. They gave me three books relating to their 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries in which I am able to read about their advocacy and politics as well as testimonies by their members.

One thing that particularly stuck in my mind was their insight into poverty. They had learned that whatever the program -- however well designed and well intentioned -- where there was desperate poverty, it would get in the way of smooth workings and create failures -- no matter the good intentions and excellence of all parties. This single, weighty discovery was the origin of the CU, their Credit Union. Erlina took me to the balcony adjoining the office where we were sitting, and showed me another building, its name evident above the trees. It was the CU arm of Pesada: set up by Pesada and therefore linked philosophically, but separately run and in that sense independent.
The roof of the CU head office seen from the Pesada balcony


The Pesada Credit Union was established for those experiencing the greatest need. It functions in such a way that even the poorest can participate and eventually enjoy increased well being for themselves and their families. When we were finished in the Pesada building, Erlina and I crossed over to the CU building and were given time with the board of directors, all women who had once been leaders of village credit groups and who therefore had a deep understanding of how things work on the ground. The CU now has 20 staff and even an insurance program to assist those who fall on bad times and cannot repay their loans.

Pesada separates its garbage

Everywhere there are inspirational signs

My thoughts went immediately to Ma Kamra. Her renovation needs, so urgent, had interfered with our weaving plans, even while I know her to be an enthusiastic and diligent weaver (see my earlier blog).

Erlina and her colleagues encouraged me to set up a credit union under the auspices of the Weaving Centre. As in the case of Pesada, it would be linked but independently run -- although of course much smaller. They all claimed that once the principles were understood, the implementation would be straightforward.  The success of the initiative would reside in the rigorousness of the application of the rules; sloppiness, arbitrariness and exceptions would lead to weakness and even the downfall of the organization.

Finding the establishment of a credit union an organizational challenge, I asked if it would not be better to simply (if permissible) join their established CU. All of the Board Members sitting across the table from me immediately, spontaneously and unanimously agreed that it would be better to establish a new CU within the sphere of the Weaving Centre. "Why?" I asked.
1. A Weaving Centre CU would link people more tightly to the Weaving Centre because their money would be tied up in it. Membership would not be arbitrary, but become more essential to their lives.
2. The monthly meetings for the CU would be opportunities to discuss not just matters relating to the CU but also needs and experiences specific to the Weaving Centre. This would also connect the members more strongly to the Weaving Centre.
I found these two arguments of fundamental significance. Moreover, the more I reflect on the matter, the more important I find them.

The reason for this relates to another discussion that I had with Pesada before crossing over to the CU offices. Pesada also has programs specifically related to the needs of weavers.  The primary need experienced by weavers is, quite simply, money. Just as with many (almost all?) other weaver assistance programs, the Pesada programs focus on weaver earnings. The second focus is weaver health, hence the encouragement of natural dyes to replace chemical dyes. I pointed out that their programs did not take culture into account, only economy. Weaver earnings in the Pesada programs are not related to their own cultural traditions (they make market-viable textiles for other cultures) and the colours they learn are not the 'Batak colours'. Weavers become technicians only, labourers for available markets. This is not our intent at the Weaving Centre. We hope to combine the need for income with the opportunity for the women to work within their own culture in a meaningful way.  

I continually search for avenues to increase weaver well being by way of developing and reviving their culture -- making culture the stepping stone rather than something that must be dispensed with to find the road to Modernity. Perhaps I stumbled across the solution at Pesada. The CU (besides the sale of textiles) would be an additional way to link the Weaving Centre programs, focused on encouraging cultural pride and reviving indigenous knowledge. with increased financial well being.  

When I got back, I shared my thoughts with Lasma and Ober. Both listened intently and discussed the matter thoughtfully. Lasma is right. A good seed has been planted. It is inspiring -- but we have to understand the mechanics of the CU system thoroughly first, and compare it to other systems. 

Time to cogitate and learn some more.







Medan's Solar House

Because I was going to North Sumatra to 'develop systems' for the Weaving Centre, and because our building will be finished this month, it was time to consider the matter of electricity again, but more seriously this time. Decisions have to be made and very soon. We want to use renewable forms only. Are they available? Where? In the capital city of the province? More locally? Or should I be looking to import?

I turned to Google and, to my surprise, found the site 'Solar House' in Medan. I wrote to the proprietor via Facebook and, to my even greater surprise, received a response in Dutch! Mr. George Frans was an Indonesian who had lived a good part of his life in The Netherlands. So, too, his wife, Ibu Vonny. They demonstrated the inimitable hospitality for which Indonesians are famous, and invited to pick me up and bring me to lunch and show me their solar systems. What a fabulous opportunity!

The day after landing in Medan, I found myself sitting on their little porch. The experience was rather like looking at a traditional Balinese painting: the longer you look, the more you see. Mr. Ossy (as he is known because the 'George' is hard for Indonesians to pronounce) was experimenting with and testing a mind-boggling variety of tiny, inexpensive systems. They took up no room and were so well integrated with the home, that only when he began to talk and show them, did they really come into view.

I write from a little Homestay at the top of Samosir Island that utilizes a couple of large solar panels and one large battery. The lights in the house are bright and, because they are left on at night, without warning, when the energy is used up, everything is doused in darkness. One does not know when this will happen. (One hopes one does not have to go to the bathroom.) The system does not promote energy awareness. The solar panels are simply installed as substitutes for the state energy that is wired in.

The Solar House is different. It is not small-scale. It is tiny-scale and every part of its complicated network (complicated now because it is still being tried out; it will be simplified in time) promotes energy awareness.

Each room of the house has a tiny solar panel, no larger than a tablet computer, affixed to the roof.
The energy is wired to an energy controller that has USB openings so that the energy can be distributed to a battery and little power banks. The power banks are filled and utilized as required. This is what promotes the energy awareness.

Pretty well everything runs off USB connections: the lighting, the fan, the water pumps, the projector that serves the TV and the computer, and even the mini-refrigerator. The size of the latter promotes consciousness of the use and storage of food. The system is more complex than simply throwing a switch but it is also only a tenth of the price if not less. And the system is also infinitely expandable depending on needs that arise. It also allows for individuality. Mr. Ossy has a multitude of types of lamps: this little one for reading (that runs off its own power bank), that large one (with its charger built in) when overhead lighting is needed, a small one whose power bank allows it to function until morning, and so on. Energy can be tailored for individuals needs and tastes. This person likes to work on the computer, another would like to watch TV, and still another needs to use power tools. I imagine a household in which everybody meets at the central power controller in the morning to charge their power banks.

Because the panels are small, they do not support large energy drains. Mr. Ossy is building his house so that it maximizes the coolness that nature provides and he does not have to use an electricity-driven cooling system. His wife is careful with food so that there are not too many things that need refrigeration. Lights are not left burning, and so on.

Even before he moved back to Indonesia from The Netherlands, his 'obsession' was written up in an blog. He is an idealist and he knows that his ideas are useful. He gives workshops in which the participants make USB plugs (very easy, he says) and he can also show them how to exchange a regular wall plug for a USB plug. He surfs the internet and orders the interesting new gadgets as they become available; then he tests them for usefulness and accuracy. He knows the market. He is an ideal 'village consultant'. His knowledge is ideal for the 'poor man', perfect for villagers who have no electricity but who also have no money to buy a 'regular' (read: large) solar installation. His findings are ideal for students who can scarcely afford electricity and who live minimally, and for whom power banks are already a part of daily life. (His results are also for the 'rich man' who has little energy awareness...).

Pak Ossy wants to help the world kick its dependence on non-renewable energy. He knows that it is doable to live comfortably with a low energy footprint. To my utter delight, he was excited by the idea of coming to our Weaving Centre to help us develop an appropriate energy system. Showing the villagers his wares is exactly where he wants to invest his talents and knowledge. Luckily it will be possible to schedule this workshop during my stay in Indonesia this time. I can hardly wait... and I wonder if he may have transformed my life back in Holland as well.  Knowledge and inspiration are the two roots of all change. Chance meetings as well.


Thank you, Pak Ossy and Ibu Vonny for the knowledge and inspiration that you have shared so openly, graciously and enthusiastically with me!

Update.....

On Monday 24 April Pdt W.M. Tarigan drove George Frans and his wife Vonny to visit us at the Simalungun Weaving Centre and explain how we can use solar equipment for our specific needs. Lasma made a delicious meal and afterwards George took over and we had our first Weaving Centre Workshop. He very generously donated two of his small systems to support what we do. He seemed very pleased that Ober, Lasma's husband, caught on so quickly and was able to operate the systems.

We collected on the 'weaving porch' for the solar
workshop. Pendeta Tarigan and Lasma's rather are 
in the far left corner, ibu Vonny is exploring my book,
Lasma's sister, Agustina, is hugging her Mom while
watching Pak Ossy connect the systems. Pak Ossy 
is inspecting our pump
We now have a small system working in the bathroom. The light there goes on only occasionally, only at night (during the day enough light comes into the bathroom through the glass blocks in the wall), and is turned off again usually within a matter of minutes. A small solar panel is more than sufficient to supply this need. It is connected to an energy-efficient light with an internal rechargeable battery. The next day Ober affixed the solar panel to the roof, extended the connecting wire, attached the on-off switch and we now have light in the bathroom that behaves in exactly the same way as light from PLN (the state-run electrical network) sources. The whole system costs less than 50 euro.

The bedroom now also has an on-off switch that operates a lightbulb with its own inbuilt rechargeable battery. This is attached to a larger panel, approximately 20 x 20 cm., that Ober also installed on the roof. This larger panel supplies a power controller with USB openings that allows us to charge other equipment as well.


George had ideas for our well pump that we want to explore as soon as possible so that we get our own water as soon as possible. Right now we get it from Lasma's parents and lugging it here is no fun.

Ober (because he was born in October) is clever with his hands.
Here he prepares fresh coconut for us to drink.
Pak Ossy is exploring the idea of whether the Weaving Centre can be used as a demonstration model for solar electricity adapted to village needs. We will see whether this idea and opportunity are compelling Ober.