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.