Kommaly Chanthavong: Preserving culture, weaving women’s future
MANILA, Philippines – As her village in the mountains of Eastern Laos fell into ruin during the bombings of the Vietnam War, a young Kommaly Chanthavong fled to Vientiane, over 600 kilometers away. The only things she took to remind her of home and family were heirloom pieces of woven silk.
More than a decade later, Kommaly’s love and passion for the Laotian art of silk weaving – and her experience throughout the turbulent political changes at the time – would inspire her to form a group of women silk weavers.
The goal: to create jobs and generate income for the families of these poor, displaced women, while helping preserve the revered art.
The softspoken 71-year-old is one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards, widely considered the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
In choosing her for the award, the board of trustees cited her “fearless, indomitable spirit to revive and develop the ancient Laotian art of silk weaving,” a contribution that not only preserved a precious cultural heritage, but also significantly helped war-displaced women regain a sense of dignity in their work.
Passing on the art form
Escaping to Vientiane and leaving familiar surroundings behind was especially difficult for a young Kommaly. “It was like beginning a new life,” she tells Rappler in an interview. Kommaly eventually learned to adapt to her new environment, pursuing her studies and graduating with a diploma in nursing.
But she was never fully able to keep herself away from the art she loved. She could also not ignore the hundreds of poor women who, like herself, had been forced to flee their hometowns because of war. Many were widows; some of the children in her new community were orphans.
“They don’t have land for rice farming when they arrive in Vientiane, compared to when they were in their own villages. A lot of those families who resettled really had nothing with them, except the loom and the tools for weaving,” Kommaly says.
The Laotian art of silk weaving goes back centuries, embedding itself in their history. Instead of writing down their chronicles of history, the Lao people wove their legends and stories into brightly colored fabrics.
In Kommaly’s family, the art form has been passed down from generation to generation, each daughter learning it from her mother’s knee.
“Weaving is part of our life. It’s been part of our family generation that has been passed on, from my grandmother to my mother to me. It's very important for our family to continue this heritage,” Kommaly says.
In 1976, Kommaly used her own savings to buy looms, and gathered 10 women to form the Phontong Weavers.
From 10 weavers, the group has since expanded to include thousands of women.
“The aim of the group was to create income to support their families. The second aim was to continue the weaving work that they have been doing for many generations, and to preserve this work,” she says.
What Kommaly did was to create means for Lao women to make money from skills that they already have. At the time, Kommaly says, 80% of women in society did not have the chance to go to school. What they knew was to create beautiful designs and weave them into fabric.
While her initial aim was to provide a livelihood for poor, displaced women, Kommaly’s initiatives began to create a more profound effect on society.
As more women joined her group, using their skills to create a living for themselves, these women began to change how they view their roles in society.
“Weaving elevated the status of women in their communities. It created a voice for women, which they didn’t have at the time,” Kommaly says.
“It placed them on the same level as the men in their family, in making decisions, and in determining their status within the community as well,” she adds.
Expanding the dream
In her group, Kommaly taught the women how to weave, how to create intricate designs and patterns. But her goals grew bigger. Instead of just weaving, why not begin at the start of the production process, and create more opportunities for new jobs?
In the early 1980s, Kommaly began the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, which started on hectares of land leased from the Lao government. The farm provided the raw materials that her women weavers would need. It was there where she taught the women how to raise silkworms and make natural dyes.
By setting up their own farm, it would also reduce the importation of cotton or silk into Laos, Kommaly explains.
More people also stood to benefit.
“You can also create another industry, another group of people [who can be helped], not just the weaver, but the producer of the silk,” she says.
By this time, Kommaly’s enterprise had covered the collaboration of silk producers and women weavers. The next step was creating a business model to market their labor of love.
In 1990, Kommaly started non-profit group Camacrafts to market traditional Lao and Hmong handicrafts. The group says an estimated 70% of their women workers are the sole breadwinners in the family; many use the money to send their children to school and buy food and medicine.
Kommaly says she’s proud of her women weavers, and how the enterprise encourages self-sufficiency.
Like any other social enterprise, funding is always a problem to keep operations going. But Kommaly says she’s optimistic, and hopes that receiving the Ramon Magsaysay award would help promote their work.
“I’m very honored to receive this award. But the members of Lao handicrafts associations, and the women in Laos, are also honored to receive this,” she says.
“We hope to encourage others to continue the hard work and to preserve our silk weaving heritage for future generations to come,” she adds. – Rappler.com