Thursday, April 20, 2017

Diagnosis is a huge step but it doesn't seem to bring cure much closer

Yesterday Lasma, her husband Ober and I visited Ma Kamra, Lasma's weaving teacher. She was flushed with excitement. She had just returned from Medan. The office of the Bupati (District head) had asked her to do a demonstration of her weaving skills and she pulled out a photograph to show us. There she sat, like a queen on a raised podium with her freshly painted equipment. During her month of intensive work at the Fair she finished a dozen headcloths and fetched many an admiring gaze. She felt proud of having been asked to do the demonstration and pleased with the amount that she had accomplished. A little recognition can go a long way.

Ma Kamra doing her demonstration

I was hoping to discover that she had continued her exploration of natural dye, but I was disappointed. She had prepared some yarn for the dye (in itself a long process) and was frustrated because the yarn was of such poor quality that it made no sense to continue. She emphasized that the process had taken up so much of her time. She didn't want to proceed with the lengthy task of making a really high quality textile unless someone ordered the textile from her in advance and she was thus assured of a sale. Between the lines it became evident that she very much wanted to be able to make a replica of an old textile that I had given her photographs of.

This evening I contacted her by text message. I wanted to know what she needed/hoped for in order to be able to achieve her goal. Again and again she indicated that she needed a buyer. It seemed to make little difference that the quality of her textile was as yet unseen and that it wasn't clear what materials she would use. I asked her if it wasn't the case that she needed more knowledge of natural dyes and access to better materials and in addition to a better market? After a long and frustrating exchange, she let me know that her roof was leaking and her floor in a dreadful state and what she really needed was money to improve her housing conditions. "I work very hard. I cannot afford to waste any time. I need a buyer for my work." Her words hit home. Once again the issue of poverty was rearing its ugly head, crowding out a woman's creative spirit and eroding the culture. She really needed money in a worrisome and overwhelming way.  I thanked her for opening up to me and said I would ponder the situation.

I thought of Lasma's need for a place to work and how it had led to the building of the Weaving Centre. I recalled Ma Kamra's enthusiasm at the thought of moving there. Would that be a solution for her? No, just a band-aid solution. What she really needs is a structural improvement -- not only of her humble home, but of her weaving conditions and especially her market. She does the impossible by continuing to weave when other people have given up because of the poor market conditions. What kind of change can I initiate that will help her on the long term? I put the question to her but she remained focused on finding a buyer for her textile.

Her need pushed me to the realization that if and when we can and do sell textiles at the Weaving Centre, the full regular selling price must go to the weaver (any tribute to help keep the Centre alive must be added on to the price and not subtracted from the weavers' proceeds). Ma Kamra receives her yarn from a Middle Man, and weaves the cloth for about US$6. The textile is then sent to a twiner to do the finishing fringe and patterned edge, and then the cloth is sold with the Middle Man making as much profit on the cloth as Ma Kamra is paid to make it. (The twining and the yarn cost in the neighbourhood of US$6 as well.)

It also makes me realize that I have to make a thorough investigation of yarn. Where does it come from, what kinds are available, and why is the price so high? What can we do to lower the costs and get dependable quality?


But why don't I just spill the beans? 

Recognizing Ma Kamra's need, I suggested she use the Morinda-dyed yarn that I had purchased in Savu and that I commission a high-quality textile from her. The yarn was expensive, and I hate to use it on an experimental textile, but we have no other access to Morinda-dyed yarn. And we have to start somewhere, so why not here? Ma Kamra was convinced she could make a good product.

She consistently and repeatedly refused to tell me what she expected as a 'wage' for doing the cloth and insisted that I determine the price that I would pay. In the end I asked her how much time she would spend on the cloth and I said that I would pay her the going rate for working in the fields. I thought this was much higher than her current wage and about five times what she receives for weaving her regular textiles, but she was incensed and insulted. I asked her to come back with the price that she would like but she refused. She was too hurt. She has heard stories about the prices that high quality textiles can fetch, and I think she had constructed a castle in the air and a dream about what I could provide. I have always treated her very well, giving her the opportunity to travel around the Batak area with me and bringing her to Java to learn about indigo dyeing. I think she had very high expectations especially on the heels of her demonstration work. I asked her to please understand that I know too little about price structure, but she said that she would no longer work with me, that I should find someone else who can do her quality of work. And she would give up on her dream of making a high quality textile, and just go on with her day-to-day regular weaving.

Ma Kamra is an extremely modest person and very shy. That she cannot just come out and share her dreamed-of price is symptomatic of her life of poverty and disempowerment. I know that empowerment of the weavers will be part of the process of building this weaving centre and this passive-aggressive response is one step along the way. Weaver empowerment is a micro-process.

Nevertheless I am upset at having hurt Ma Kamra and it has destroyed my sleep. I write in the wee hours. Somehow she and I must come to a realistic price. Ma Kamra and I both have to learn how to do that.

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