PETALING JAYA: The Penan, an indigenous tribe from Sarawak, are famed for their weaving abilities. Their ancestors are known to be hunters and gatherers, and it is said a small number of the tribe are still nomadic today.
Helping Hands Penan (HHP), a non-profit social enterprise, helps market the exquisite woven handiworks of Penan women, from clutches to tote bags – all of them beautifully crafted and mesmerising to behold.
Through their weaving initiative, HHP aims to empower Penan women so they can support themselves and their families.
“We help the women sell their bags as they do not have access to the market,” said Violette Tan, who identifies as the “longest-serving volunteer at HHP”.
“The profits are then channelled back to them.”
Tan, 64, is a Malaysian living in Brunei for the past four decades. She told FMT that the idea for HHP dates back to 2007 during an outreach visit to Limbang, Sarawak, organised by her children’s school.
“The Penan would come to Limbang mainly for medical treatment, run errands, and shop for essentials such as food,” she pointed out.
As some of the women also sold their rattan crafts in town, Tan and her friends purchased some and brought them back to Brunei to resell them.
“The expat community loved them because these items were handmade by the people of Borneo,” Tan recalled.
From then, she and her friends would regularly meet the Penan weavers to buy their crafts, sell them, and distribute food items and preloved clothing back to the community.
Importance of education
In 2016, HHP was registered as a non-governmental organisation in Malaysia. It was granted social-enterprise status in 2018, and remains a non-profit with no paid staff, only volunteers.
Over the years, HHP has been instrumental in providing aid and support to the Penan. These include providing them with solar lights, and improving water provision to settlements.
During one of her visits, Tan observed something that left a profound effect on her. “I found it unacceptable that the children there weren’t in school, as I was a teacher before and education is something very close to my heart,” she said.
As such, in the early 2010s, HHP started an education sponsorship initiative for the weavers’ children and provided students with transportation, monthly allowances, stationery vouchers, and other school supplies.
But they didn’t stop there. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, HHP supplied students in colleges and universities with laptops to continue their studies online.
“There were not many craft sales then, but we channelled whatever we could raise to our education initiative,” Tan shared.
‘It just happens’
It’s hard to ignore Tan’s passion for the Penan, and her desire to keep their weaving heritage alive by showing them there is a market for their crafts.
“When we sew, we have a template that we follow. But the weavers don’t. When I asked them [about their process], one of them gestured to her head and said: ‘Ada dalam sini, bila saya anyam, corak sendiri jalan sahaja’ (‘it’s in here, when I start to weave, it just happens’).
“I still can’t explain this.”
According to Tan, things have become more challenging these days, with more weavers and commercial traders selling similar bags. It’s enough to leave her fretting about the future of their education initiative.
Nevertheless, they press on: “We constantly come up with new designs, take on requests for special items, scout for bulk purchase orders from corporations, and collaborate with other social enterprises.”
Tan is also grateful for the support of Persatuan Pembangunan Artisans (PPA), an NGO that helps artisans promote their products online and in physical stores, and via pop-up events in the Klang Valley.
“PPA is a godsend and has been such a great platform to showcase and sell our craft. They are constantly highlighting our products and, indirectly, the plight of the Penan and our cause,” she said.
HHP has further collaborated with GoCHeeKS, another artisan under PPA, to sell tote bags and clutches decorated with rhinestones and appliques.
“It’s rewarding to see the Penan women become self-sustaining, with some of them being breadwinners,” Tan said. But to her, the most gratifying thing is seeing the children get an education.
“To date, we have helped six university graduates, and one of them completed his PhD at a local university last year.” They have also sponsored at least 20 students in numerous vocational courses.
“We strongly believe education is the only way to bring the Penan community out of poverty, and their future lies in these children,” Tan added. “Once they are educated, they can bring up their families and, eventually, the whole tribe.
“That’s a game changer and it’s what keeps us going.”
Click here for a list of sellers, or shop via Persatuan Pembangunan Artisan’s website.
Read more PPA stories and get to know its artisans here.