Weaving Self-Worth and An Income

Source: Article by Vimala Seneviratne from the NST Online, 7 February 2010

Women from a group of eco-basket weavers and rollers are able to earn an income with dignity, thanks to community network Salaam Wanita, writes VIMALA SENEVIRATNE

SINGLE-PARENT May Lee Ah Kiew is doing the triple twist and a single spiral. No, it's not some fancy footwork in the latest So You Think You Can Dance reality show.

Instead, it's her nimble fingers that are doing the twisting and turning... of the tightly-rolled paper. She repeats the moves deftly and in just 15 minutes, we see the final product -- a pretty, sturdy little basket made of colourful paper cut out from old magazines.

She holds the basket at eye level, examining it with a critical eye. Her face slowly lights up with a smile. "A labour of appreciation. You can now store all your knick-knacks and odds and ends in it. It's 100 per cent eco-friendly and 100 per cent hand-made," she says proudly as she hands me the basket. She adds that the basket can be painted and varnished to give it added strength. The colourful flower and fruit baskets, shopping bags, trinket boxes and wine bottle holders on a nearby table look like they're made of mengkuang or bamboo.

"That's the beauty of it. Only when you look at it closely will you realise that it's actually made of recycled paper," she explains. "That's why they are called eco-baskets."

The bubbly widow and mother of a teenage daughter and a son, 22, Lee has been weaving baskets for more than two years, since joining the Salaam Wanita project, an initiative of eHomemakers community network, set up to empower less fortunate women to help themselves. She was among 120 women trained in the art of weaving and now she does it regularly.

There are also rollers, women who specialise in rolling the sheets of glossy magazine paper. Rachel Loo Cheak Yin, a coordinator with Salaam Wanita, says training is tailored to suit each woman's learning rate and aptitude.

Why basket weaving?

"It's a simple handicraft that does not require a large investment, such as a sewing machine. All it needs is an enterprising spirit," says Loo.

Limited only by their creativity and imagination, the members, mostly housewives, come up with a variety of woven items such as gift baskets. Lee, 52, weaves on a full-time basis in her own home in Kepong and the income she earns goes towards paying bills and her daughter's school expenses.

"It's hard work but not stressful because I'm doing it at my own pace. I earn about RM1,000 a month and that goes a long way towards easing my financial burden. I can at least educate my daughter until Form Five or Six, something I could not do for my son."

Her son, who stopped going to school at the age of 15, is now working and helps out by paying the household bills.

For Sungkai-born Lee, the ninth of 14 siblings, hard work is nothing new. Her parents were poor and she did not have the opportunity to complete her education. By 14, she had already been working as a rubber tapper, a dim-sum seller and as a waitress.

"When my husband passed away suddenly about 10 years ago, I went into depression. We had no savings. I wasn't working and I had two little children to feed. I was desperate."

She takes a deep breath and continues: "I took on three jobs. I sold noodles in the morning, worked in a hair-dressing salon in the afternoon and washed dishes in a restaurant in the evening."

All that changed, for the better, when a friend introduced her to Salaam Wanita. Today, her only regret is
that she was unable to give her son a formal education.

"He understands the circumstances we were in then. Although I was hardly at home to supervise or watch over my kids, they have turned out okay. No bad habits. For that I am thankful," says Lee who is making up for lost time by doing activities with her children on weekends. She also finds weaving to be therapeutic.

"All the stress and petty issues fade away when I am weaving. What's best is that my daughter and sometimes, my son, will help me make the baskets. It's a special moment and it has drawn us closer." For Toh Oy Sim who undergoes dialysis treatment three times a week at a clinic, the small income she earns as a roller helps supplement her lorry driver husband's income, put food on the table and to a certain extent, pay for her medical bills.

"It's a painful treatment and I get tired very easily. But at least I don't have to totally depend on my husband to pay the medical bills."

Part of her medical bills is paid by Socso. Penang-born Toh, 43, who does not have children, was afflicted with a kidney problem 12 years ago. She tried various jobs but they were not stable and could not offer her the flexibility she needed to go for dialysis treatments.

"Most of time I was in hospital and that did not go well with my employers. It was demoralising and I felt worthless," she recalls. But she refused to wallow in self-pity and was determined to get a part-time job.

Then a friend told her about Salaam Wanita. She joined the organisation 18 months ago and already sees the change in her life.

"I tried both weaving and rolling and I found that I was better at rolling. It's not tedious or time consuming."
Toh paces her work to fit in her weekly dialysis treatment schedules. There are days when she is unable to roll even a single sheet of paper because she feels ill after her treatment.

"On a good day I can roll about 500 to 1,000, 30cm-long sheets. I know I won't become rich doing this but it has given me a sense of self-worth and some financial independence."

To further supplement her income, she works as a cook at a church canteen on Sundays. "For as long as I am able, I will continue to work," she says, flashing a wide smile as she resumes her rolling. The Salaam Wanita project was launched in 2002 as a component of the eHomemakers community network to help less fortunate women (single mothers, widows, the abused, disabled and chronically ill) in Ipoh and the Klang valley, become self-reliant.

The women are trained by volunteers in technical, micro-business and soft skills with the goal of helping themselves. Eco-basket weaving is one of the schemes.

Loo says: "What we are doing is to make them self-reliant and to give them a sense of self-worth." The baskets are made of paper - magazines and pamphlets that companies collect and donate. In turn, Salaam Wanita gives the papers to the weavers and rollers. The only expenses that weavers and rollers incur are the cost of glue, wires, spray paint and varnish.

A wide variety of innovative products with different designs are for sale. They make excellent gifts because they are unique.

"Each basket is hand-made and is one-of-a-kind. Often, patterns can't be repeated because we are not able to find the same paper!" The price depends on the size and the workmanship.

They are in great demand during festive seasons but Salaam Wanita hopes that more corporations will buy them during non-festive period. To buy, go to www.justmarketing.info