Sunday, February 19, 2017

18 February 2018: 14 new pupils

"I have some news," Lasma told me during our last telephone call, and then she shared it with tremendous excitement: "We have 14 new pupils". It took my breath away. She has ordered new looms at a good price and is planning to purchase the yarn. She has teachers and pupils for the three major Simalungun textiles: bulang, surisuri (nanggar suasa) and hati rongga. They want to start within 3 weeks.

The pupils are, for the most part, motivated by money. The subsidy has enticed them; due to it they would rather weave than not weave. This is very telling and suggests that, indeed, the lack of a decent market is the core reason for the decline of weaving. The teacher at the school with whom Lasma works to rekindle interest in weaving, together with Lasma, drummed up the enthusiasm at that school, Lasma's alma mater. Our challenge now is to keep that enthusiasm high.

The need to chase down markets will continue to grow; that is obvious. I also think it will be important to build some kind of "initiation" into the weaving program informing the pupils about the support coming from outside their country and the importance of markets.

I think we also have to work on a text and a label so that purchasers know what they are supporting when they buy a textile from the Simalungun Weaving Centre and, hopefully, with time our label can be synonymous with quality. Perhaps we need to put a green sticker on the first ones to signal that the textiles were made by a novice.

Lasma said that the quality of weaving by the first pupil, Nita, is already as good as that of the grandmother, her teacher (whom she has watched all her life). Lasma is so deeply struck by Nita's capacity that she is encouraging Nita to learn everything that her grandmother can share. Her grandmother is 85. When she is no longer with us, Nita will be able to fill her shoes -- or rather her loom and her teaching role in the Simalungun Weaving Centre. Luckily that is also Nita's ambition.

Methinks this is all pretty good news.

Thank you again to all of you who have contributed to the "First Textile" pot.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Building at the Simalungun Weaving Centre has Started!

We all hope that at least the framework will be done when Lasma marries during the second week of March. (Photos by Lasma Sitanggang)

The building started with blessings in a little ceremony led by Lasma's Dad.

It looks like everyone is lending a hand, including Lasma's older sister.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Special Medicine against Trump-stings found in North Sumatran Kampung

Trump-stings are some of the worst in the world. There is much malice that is aggravating them at the moment.

I cannot help but feel terribly grateful for goodness and for the seeds of goodness that we can plant despite the ugly faces shown by politics. Specifically I am referring to gratifying new developments at the Simalungun Weaving Centre.

Not long ago the plan was conceived to offer seed money to young people in and around Lasma's village if they want to learn to weave. There are young women who have finished high school and have no future. There is no money to attend university, no jobs, and with the drought not even the possibility of working on the land. This is a recipe for human disaster: loss of hope, depression and desperation. These young women need a lifeline, an opportunity to build a future, a chance to make something of themselves.
One of the few remaining Simalungun houses. This is what cultural
drought looks like.
Lasma and I calculated how much money an aspiring weaver would need to purchase yarn and a loom and also to pay for a teacher willing to help her learn to weave. I polled everybody that I know who has expressed a benevolent interest in the Simalungun Weaving Centre and asked if any of them might be interested in purchasing the "first textile" (hiou parlobei) of aspiring young weavers for a price that would pay these initial start-up costs. Many responded immediately and I gave Lasma the green light.

Elderly teacher excited to be part of the
Simalungun Weaving Centre
Today I called her and was regaled of a long story about what this little spark of hope has done. I have never heard Lasma sound so excited and fulfilled. She has been crying tears of relief. One young woman named Nita has started to weave and she wants to involve some of her friends. Her new goal in life is to become a weaving teacher! An elderly weaver (in her 80s) is thrilled that she can begin to share her skills. Another elderly woman is going to ask a skilled friend to teach ikat techniques. Everybody wants to move to the Weaving Centre to live together and share stories! Chickens must not be counted before they hatch, but there seems to be enthusiasm to start a veritable weaving colony!

The elderly weaving teacher and Nita Damanik, her first pupil.
Ma Tika, Lasma's weaving teacher, has been weaving patterns from the antique textiles that I had photographed for them and she is selling her textiles with extra profit without the involvement of a middleman. She has a unique product and is working on developing her own clientele. She wants to move to the Weaving Centre, too! Such merriment.

I was finally able to transfer the donations for building Lasma's house which will serve as the Centre until we are able to erect the central building. Lasma will receive the money this week and wants to start building immediately.

Interestingly, what inspires the young women is being able to earn a living. They hope to be able to earn more by weaving than by working in the fields. They are gratified if they can achieve this while promoting their own culture.

I have started to think about building an education fund. It would be wonderful for the young women if, by becoming a member of the Simalungun Weaving Centre and learning to weave, they could also gain access to an education. That would truly stand them in good stead for the future.

Why is this Trump-sting medicine? Without going deeply into the nature of Trump-sting maladies, suffice it to say that they all have to do with the misery caused by thoughtless and uncaring greed and malice. Hope and opportunities in zones that have been made arid culturally, socially and economically are antidotes to poverty and bad seeds. It will keep people on their land and help them believe in and perpetuate the values taught by their culture. These are the people who will be able to nurture their children and create a warm and loving environment. This is the goal of the Pulang Kampung projects that are all aimed at replenishing the villages that have been milked and bilked to their deathbed.

The biggest thanks to those who have contributed to Lasma's house and the first textile weaving program. You have provided the medicine that is so desperately needed.

(All photos in this blog by Lasma Sitanggang.)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Culture not Business

Many people encourage me to build a Weaving Centre or a Weaving School in the Batak area, a place where I can share my knowledge and where weavers can learn to get ahead with their craft at the same time as they perpetuate their culture. Of course the idea appeals to me as I have reached the age when I want to "give back". Financial issues aside, the question is: how to go about it?

I am usually encouraged to take the 'rational' approach: clear goals, clear budget, clear plans, clear timeframe, the right people, a good location and begin! But I have a reluctance to be business-like in this way. The reason is the cultural goal of the Weaving Centre. My concern is that my initiative would then only last as long as I am there to determine and shape it, in short: employ weavers. I conceive of a different path. It will most certainly be slower -- but I hope it will be more long-lasting than the business that has to close down when the head drops dead.

The starting conundrum is how to build a cultural centre when I am not a true member of the culture and my position in the community may mean that people follow my wishes rather than expressing their own? To my mind a culture centre is about something that is located in the hearts and minds of the people, fully integrated, part of their daily lives, respected, loved, second nature. I want to facilitate something that they would want, whether I was there or not. I see my role as facilitating not leading. Keeping my ear to the ground and not dictating. Playing the devil's advocate not the employer. Holding hands.

Lasma and Ma Tika examine photographs of a variety of textiles of the
same design type. (Photo MJA Nashir)
Ma Tika in Lasma's village, for example, already weaves for a middleman to whom she sells her finished work. She has no idea how much the middleman gets for her textile from the consumer. She lives a hamster-in-a-wheel existence. Her delight in weaving is something she keeps to herself. She is self-taught. She explores the art privately. For the middleman she does what she is told. When I met her, I wanted to plug into her hidden, creative side. She had to learn to trust me and that didn't happen quickly or in a vacuum. She had to hear Lasma's explanations about my choices  and experience me firsthand. Initially she expected orders from me but I was interested in talking with her! I wanted to know her capacities and the things that thwart her greater success. She lives in a hard dog-eat-dog world and that is antithetical to the creative spirit. Slowly, gradually, I knew what I should do: she was excited by natural dyes and needed recipes. She was interested in higher quality textiles, but didn't know the technical adjustments that had to be made. I facilitated her obtaining the knowledge that she needed. We do not earn money from each other, but in the long run I hope that she will enjoy a more satisfying and lucrative relationship with her loom and that she will share her stores of knowledge with other young people.

 In the case of Lasma, my relationship with her involves high telephone and travel expenses. My strategy is the same. I listen to her stories. What is she trying to make? What are her stumbling blocks? How can I help: with my network? with materials? For me our relationship has taken unexpected turns as I have learned of her wishes. Now we have ended up purchasing land so that she can grow cotton and dyestuffs. We are planning to build a place where she can work more comfortably and efficiently. All of these decisions have taken years of trial and error, waiting for the urges to emerge and then listening carefully and "thinking with" to come up with the appropriate solution. I facilitate where I can; Lasma builds her own future. She learns to listen to her own intuition, express her own needs and execute the solutions. I am being a kind of "Mom". In the end it is spirit and drive that will carry the Simalungun Weaving Centre. It needs to be nurtured.

I could not have made a road guide in advance. Happening upon Lasma was a piece of luck; she is so bright and dedicated and with her heart in the right place. Another person would have entailed another approach. We inch along in what mas Nashir describes as "mengalir seperti air": flowing like water. My guide is the spirit of "Pulang Kampung": returning (any and everything) to the villages as needed. The villages in North Sumatra have been bled dry by generations of exploitation. They are like a desert longing for water, but a flood would be of no use. The bit of water that I try to sluice towards them is obtained with thoughtfulness and sometimes difficulty; it is precious and has to be utilized wisely and carefully, bit by bit, so that its benefits are maximized, making a little go the longest way. Strategies need to be carefully devised and revised.

When I am gone, Lasma will hopefully be left with a foundation from which she will be able to share with others. If she has been nurtured by generosity, she will be generous in turn. Things flourish through generosity.

I have no specific goals for the Simalungun Weaving Centre; I have a general goal. Above all, I want the Weaving Centre to be a place where young Batak weavers are free to 'grow their culture' and take it into the future. I want it to be a place where their creative spirit feels inspired and nurtured. They must do the hard work of integrating the past with the future and find the ways to make it work. As an outsider to their culture, that is not within my capacity. I must rely on them. 

My approach is not "rational". I will not earn money or "meet measurables within a certain timeframe", but that is not my goal. I want to make it a option for Batak women to grow their weaving culture. Their success will be my reward.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Water and Weaving

We keep hearing it. Climate change is the most important issue of our time.

We know how war and emmigration wreak havoc on weaving traditions, but it seems that fewer people have considered the destructive effects of climate change.  I was reminded of this once again this morning while I read the newsletter that Threads of Life sends around. Threads of Life is a fair trade business headquartered on Bali that specializes in indigenous textile revival, particularly in Eastern Indonesia.  They wrote, " some regions, climate change and landscape-level changes are affecting weavers' abilities to maintain the economic viability of their dye traditions..."

I know what they are talking about. A friend tells me that the weavers on Sumba Island have been suffering from a persistent drought. The women and children have to walk so far everyday to get a bucket of water that they have neither time nor energy left to weave, even though their well being depends on the income from weaving.

And on the nearby island of Savu another friend has described how the people are carving a waterway using the most primitive of implements, arduous, back-breaking and achingly slow under the burning rays of the sun. And if the last of the wells goes dry? What then? Such uncertainty confronts them.

I know that uncertainty, even though it is not my own life hanging in the balance. My Weaving Centre in North Sumatra is also in trouble. No significant rain has fallen for eight months. I must confront the issue of environmental revival in order to work on textile revival. The two go hand in hand. I have encouraged Lasma to plant trees, but if it doesn't rain, she can neither plant nor maintain them. What to do? We have drilled a good well, but underground water needs to be replenished too. Using up reserves is only a short-term answer. No answer at all, in fact.

Lasma tells me that the children are getting sick because the air has not been scrubbed by rain. Most of the wells in the village have gone dry and people have nothing to drink. Our well is deeper and we share our water...but when will our well go dry, too? Worrisome.

Yesterday a young man from the village contacted me because his mother had not been able to pay his university fees for four months. His family depends on the proceeds from farming. They are all desperate. Will he have to give up his education -- and his future? Will they have to move? To where? When will the rains fall again? Will it be enough?

For this reason I have kept my ear to the ground. I have been impressed by technologies that I have stumbled across in which the moisture in the air is collected and transformed into usable water, for example, using temperature differentials that normally take place between day and night (condensation). Most of these technologies are applied for plant growth.

One technology that I have found applies to the production of potable water. It is a SuntoWater invention. It uses a salt material to absorb moisture from the air, then extracts the water using the heat from the sun, in a low-energy, repetitive cycle. The exciting part is that it is capable of producing between 150 and 375 liters each day. Distilled and drinkable. Always clean. 

Besides the water that it produces, a major advantage of this system is that it cuts out the use of plastic bottles, a major pollutant (and eye-sore) in North Sumatra, and also the CO2 emissions entailed when water has to be trucked in. In the long run, it is also cheaper than purchasing water. Imagine self-sufficiency in water supply, every household producing its own.

The invention offers tremendous scope for the entire world, and especially those beset by crisis. Alas, the price is most palatable for people in California where the machine is produced. One of the major markets targeted is those with swimming pools and those confronted with very high water bills. For them, the machine pays for itself within a few years. But the price is too high for people in North Sumatra whose incomes are ridiculously low (unless they are corrupt). I hope that the company will consider a strategy such as that practised by Wakawaka, the company that produces solar-generators. Every sale in the first world includes a kind of tax that is donated in the form of solar-generators to people in crisis torn areas of the world. (My pulang kampung team are the only ones on their 'impact map' in North Sumatra because my friends, Wiebo Tierlink and Dirk van Uitert, donated waka-wakas to the team. Check out North Sumatra. )

Another promising invention that I have found is the Groasis, which was declared a National Icon for The Netherlands for 2016 because of its potential to do good for the world. This clever little Dutch invention is affordable and has anti-desertification as its goal. It has the capacity to harvest dew and store water. Each facilitates the growth of a sapling or three (any species) and even food plants in combination with it. That growth utilizes 90% less water compared to regular farming. The box, made of recycled material, biodegrades as the tree grows and presents no pollution problem. The need for boxes is phased out as the trees create moister microclimates. I think I'll bring a couple with me to North Sumatra next time I go.


I imagine my dear Lasma living off-grid in our Weaving Centre with electricity generated by the sun, water collected from the moisture in the air, and her dye-plants and organic food thriving despite drought. There is work to do here. And there is hope. Not just for the Centre, but for the whole village.

Monday, August 01, 2016

A day to gush

Today is a red-letter day. Better said, it is a day to gush. Today our well is being drilled. The first figurative spade is being thrust into the soil. Lasma and I are beginning on the next phase of our common dream to build a Weaving Centre. 

In a blog earlier this year I wrote:

'Saving Lasma Sitanggang' means saving the whole village. It means struggling to
Lasma 1 August 2016 With a water
bottle hanging from her neck.
answer the challenge of how to make a good life despite all the forces that slap down the little farmer in Indonesia. This past year alone, four people in her village committed suicide for reasons related to poverty. Lasma wants to honour her cultural heritage as well as find her way through this world that champions only the value of money. For me, traveling with Lasma Sitanggang means being willing to share the burden on her shoulders, to help construct strategies that fit with her local circumstances, to construct ways that will give everyone a chance to win and climb out of the hole together. What we undertake, the interventions we construct, must meet the criterion of serving the well being of the whole village

I alluded to it, but I did not write about our plan directly. I am loath to write about plans until they are a sure thing, until the path is cleared. I don't want to write about pipe dreams and invite all the consequences. Today, however, our well is being drilled. We are taking the first step in building and there are real pipes. It is time to dare to share our dream and our plan. And celebrate.

Lasma and I are trying to build a Weaving Centre. Why? How? Where? When? With whom? All of these questions have been besieging us for the past couple of years and answers have gradually begun to emerge.

Let me start with the 'why'. Lasma and I need to do something that in the process of supporting her would help her make positive change in her village. Our common interest lies in the area of weaving. Lasma's village is a weaving village -- well, an ex-weaving village. The women have stopped weaving because the selling price no longer supports their work. So why make a weaving centre when people have stopped weaving and the market is so weak? Answer: because Lasma and I hope that when and if this world ever wakes up to realize that it is squandering its most valued assets, including craft traditions that have been constructed century upon century by human ingenuity, there may at least be a centre in the Simalungun Batak area of North Sumatra where women are continuing their bounteous and beautiful weaving heritage. Surely, if we work cleverly and carefully, we can find and construct a market that will allow it to survive. There are no guarantees in life, but this goal seems, to both Lasma and me, worth devoting ourselves to. Not necessarily from an economic point of view (although we need the Centre to at least survive on that front) but from a moral, aesthetic, and cultural point of view. If we are successful, not just the whole village, but all of Simalungun, all of Batak will gain. Why are we building this centre? Because the time is right and it is a good thing to do.

On to the 'how'. How to build a centre from which the entire village can gain, when the weaving craft is already on the verge of extinction and the women have turned their backs to it? There are two answers to this question; one answer relates to craft and culture and the other to physical environment, but it all boils down to one issue: well-being.

The women in Lasma's village have never found an alternative to weaving. Granted, they earn more from their farming activities and thus they invest in that, but they still miss the supplement and diversity that weaving gave them. Moreover, they have lost that special niche that their culture reserved for weaving women, a place of women's excellence and pride. The women have become mere impoverished labourers. Lasma and I believe -- and on occasion the women in the village have corroborated this -- they will be enlivened by the pride they can once again achieve from an opportunity to be excellent in their craft. The weaving centre will allow them to come together and work together. They also miss a place where they can share ideas and experiment together. ... Oh dear, I seem to have lapsed back into the 'why'. Clearly, the centre must not be just Lasma's Weaving Centre, rather a Centre where all the weavers in the village feel at home and can benefit. We want women to feel pride, empowerment, comfort, able to participate. And we would like young women, including orphans, to be able to come and stay, work in the garden and at their looms, find pleasure in the day-to-day. That is how and what and where we want the centre to be and with whom we want to build it.

Building a centre that aids the village from the point of view of physical environment is an issue that plays a greater role in my mind than in Lasma's, although she is really excited by organic farming and herself farms organically. Nevertheless, I don't think she has ever seen a park and experienced land that is maintained purely for pleasure and not directly for profit. I would like to rectify this gap in her experience. I live in The Netherlands where parks are plentiful, and brilliantly conceived and looked after, and I would like someday to show some to her. Together with her I would like to build a green, lush oasis where the fruit and nuts hang for the picking from the trees, where the people can relax in a beautiful environment and eat an organically farmed meal. Green does wonders for the spirit and the health. Even if our weaving centre fails, let us at least have constructed a village park where the children can eat their fill of organic fruit. And where the people can be introduced to a healthy vision for the future. We want to show how textile production belongs to a better future and not just the past.

This is why, in the end, I purchased land in Lasma's village for our weaving centre. It is not on a major tourist route. Really, there is not a whole lot going for this village and some have argued that I have therefore not selected a good location for the centre. I, however, have made a point of locating it in a village that has nothing going for it. Such villages are always left out. I am using the same rationale for investing in this village as I used for giving my luxurious edition of Legacy in Cloth to poor rural weavers: they are the ones who will benefit from it the most. And that is what it is all about. The Centre will be where the weavers are.

There, this is enough for one blog. There is too much to tell all at once. Suffice it to say that our well is being drilled, down, down through soil and rock to underground streams. It is giving me the opportunity to gush. And I will gush more on this topic in a future blog. On and on.