Sometimes villagers would ask Mah Meri weaver Maznah Unyan why her head is always bowed.

She’d reply, “How else would I weave?”

But recently the Pulau Carey villager was overhead retorting, “So I can count my money.”

After all, the 50-year-old Maznah founded Tompoq Topoh or the Mah Meri Woman’s First Weave Initiative, and turned the womenfolks’ unpaid skill of weaving into an income-generating enterprise.

In their tribe, the art of weaving is passed down from generation to generation but it is mostly to craft items for household or ceremonial use. The Mah Meri men’s carving has always garnered more attention and value.

Even as a teenager, Maznah had harboured ambitions of starting her own business but she had no access to the market outside and was at the mercy of middlemen.

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Maznah turned a non-paying home skill into an income-generating enterprise, thus raising the status of women in the Mah Meri community in Pulau Carey, Selangor.

So when researcher Reita Rahim met Maznah and asked if she could supply Mah Meri women’s handicraft for sale, she grabbed the opportunity and started Tompoq Topoh in 2004.

Reita had just started Gerai Orang Asal (Gerai OA) then to sell handicrafts from indigenous communities, and together the women would forge a strong partnership.

“She said surely it’s not only the Mah Meri men who have their craft, the sculptures. She wanted to know what our women’s craft are. I told her we have weaving, and I got my mother, sister and niece to make the handicraft for Gerai OA.

“At first, only a few of us were doing the weaving. But we’d talk to other women about selling our weaving wherever we met them – at weddings, gatherings, funerals – and slowly more and more joined us,” recounts Maznah, who never looked back because their crafts sold well from the start.

Fourteen years on, there are now 50 women weavers from all five Mah Meri villages in Pulau Carey producing handicraft for Gerai OA and earning an income. They are now not merely housewives, farmers or fishermen, but artisan weavers. Weaving is also certainly more lucrative than making lidi brooms for 70 sen each.

“We are not used to sitting and doing nothing. When our chores are done, we don’t just sit down. We sit down and weave,” says Suhaini who makes pandanus bookmarks. The Mah Meri women also makes pandanus baskets and pouches.

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Ramlah is a talented weaver whose pouches are categorised as blue ribbon items which will sell out as soon as they are put out.

Some weavers are more skilled than others.

At a recent Gerai OA craft pick-up gathering in Pulau Carey, the women took turns admiring Ramlah’s finely woven pouches which Reita immediately classified as blue ribbon items.

Her pouches will be sold at a higher price, and customers will queue to grab them as they sell out immediately even though Gerai OA rations the sale of such premium items.

What’s most remarkable is that the women will pocket 100% of the sale proceeds.

They are paid half the amount when they submit their work, and the other half after their items have been sold.

Powered by volunteers

Gerai OA is not a business or a social enterprise.

It does not have a shop or staff, and only sets up stall when they have free space.

It takes no profit from its craft producers, and nor does it receive funding.

It’s run entirely by volunteers who bear the operational costs, but Gerai OA has sustained its business model for 14 years, improved the lives of the community it works with and made indigenous crafts relevant to modern society.

“When we started, I just wanted to help keep the orang asal’s craft going for one more generation. You can say preserve the heritage all you want but it’s not going to work.

“We have to sell crafts because that’s the only way to keep the production going. We can document all we want but if nobody’s making the craft, it’s going to die off anyway,” says Reita, who first went into orang asal communities for the purpose of doing research.

Gerai OA now works with indigenous artisans from 25 villages; it takes time to build rapport and trust with the communities.

“There is no master plan. It literally evolves as we go along. The village coordinators will look for the craftspeople among them and we work with them. Sometimes we go into one village, and a nearby village would invite us. That’s how it happened in Kelantan. We went to one village, and now we are in three,” shares Reita, who diligently photographs Gerai OA’s experiences with the orang asal.

In recent years, she has uploaded the images and updates on Gerai OA’s Facebook page, and opened up to the public the various communities’ struggles and challenges, and also their joys and triumphs.

There are others who also buy and sell indigenous crafts.

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Over the years, Gerai OA has built rapport and trust with the community, such as with the Mah Meri women from Pulau Carey.

But Reita’s wealth of research, knowledge and experience distinguished Gerai OA from the others as she is able to advise the craftsmen on how to make and sell their crafts.

The average age of the 14 women in the Sinompuru craft group in Kudat, Sabah, is 65, and everyone is above 40, but the beaded jewellery they make appeals to contemporary taste.

“They have learnt what appeals to different markets, even international ones. If we tell them the jewellery is for Koreans, they know what beads to use and what colours to choose,” says the group coordinator Malina Soning, who was one of Gerai OA’s pioneers.

It is village coordinators like Maznah and Malina who are the backbone of Gerai OA’s operations.

They have come a long way, says 45-year-old Malina. Beading is an indigenous craft they learnt from their community, but Gerai OA has taught them about colour selection, design trends and meticulous quality control.

“There is always demand for our beadwork, so there is always work. My grandmother is 92 and she was stringing beads up till last year. Young people are learning the craft because there is demand,” says Malina, who would take orders from Gerai OA and organise the production.

Older women in their community usually rely on their children, but Malina’s group of ladies are capable of earning their own income.

Empowering each other

Malina’s Sinompuru group is more than just a crafts group.

“We also have funds to support our members – to help with medical bills, loans or capital for raw materials. We have autonomy. All 14 of us vote on what to do with the funds, and we meet often to brainstorm about craft ideas or decide about hosting visits and other matters,” adds Malina.

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Villagers look forward to Gerai OA’s craft collection day as they get to sell their work, collect payment and gather with other women.

Caring for the community is very much a cornerstone of Gerai OA’s approach.

They have a Medical Fund, a Hospitalisation Fund and Grannies Groceries Fund to help those in need, all from public donation.

Villagers who have to travel from afar to send their crafts are also given a transport allowance.

For Reita, the biggest gratification is seeing the women empowered by the recognition of their work and abilities.

“They are slowly learning to take pride in their abilities. Before, this weaver would always tell me her work is bad. But after she sees that people are buying her woven products, she has become more confident,” says Reita, who knows the story of every woman in the Mah Meri group we met at Pulau Carey recently.

She cheers when a young girl hands in her woven bookmarks because she represents the second-liners of weavers in the community.

“The quality of the weaving may not be so fine yet, but we still buy the work. They will get better and better with time,” says Reita who posted about her young weaver on Facebook.

The women in the community help one another, guiding the new weavers and sharing expertise such as dyeing the pandanus leaves.

They may sell their handicraft in faraway markets and on social media, but they still hold strong to old Mah Meri traditions such as harvesting the pandanus leaves according to the lunar calendar.

During the craft pick-up gathering, Maznah quietly checks her villagers’ work, offering technical advice on their weave and colour selection.

By now, she is recognised as an expert weaver. She has attended handicraft courses, and has also taught other indigenous communities how to weave.

In 2015, the Tourism and Culture Ministry proclaimed her a national heritage and living legend for reviving a dying craft.

Still, the Mah Meri women’s weavers have a bare workshop that they all share while the men carvers have their own individual workspace with a fan.

“Women’s craft is still considered a minority art,” says Reita.