On a small island out on a lake in West Papua, a group of women are crafting themselves out of poverty by keeping a disappearing local art tradition alive.
The banks of their lake home skirt the far limits of Papua’s most modern city, Jayapura, but people here still travel between the islands using wooden canoes.
Traditional bark paintings (malo) have been produced by women from this area for hundreds of years. They spend weeks together making the canvases out of the beaten bark of fig trees, and then paint designs that express their culture, highlighting the theme of ‘harmony between all living things.’
Ask them how they learned the designs, and they all say, “our ancestors taught us.”
But despite everyone in their cooperative being talented artists and hard workers, they struggle to make a living, and their wider community lives in grinding poverty. The isolation of their island and their lack of business experience means that many of them work two jobs while raising children. Most of their husbands are fishermen, but fears of local overfishing has pushed their work out to sea and into the city where they make meagre earnings.
We wanted to invest in the women’s skills and see their business grow. So, after consulting with them about what they need, our local partners have been running business training and are helping them buy industrial sewing machines to help them expand their business to include bags and clothing with their traditional designs.
Together we’re helping them do what they love, get a fair price for their labour and lift themselves out of poverty.
My colleague Meilany, a local project manager, told me that empowering these women has huge flow-on affects for the community.
“You can’t make positive change for women here without also affecting all of society,” Meilanny says.
“These women work hard so that they can afford to send their children to school; many of them never had the chance themselves.”
“And if you teach a woman practical or artistic skills, or to read and write – she will teach her family, her children. That knowledge is passed on.”
West Papua has a staggeringly high number of people living below the poverty line. Upwards of 27% live on less than $2 a day. Our local partners are working to change this at a community level, through strategies that invest in critical aspects of life: food security, health, women’s incomes and the future of children.
They need our support to continue to make projects like these a reality. Invest in these skillful women and projects that are helping people grow a new future in West Papua.
Visit www.unitingworld.org.au/papua to make a donation.
In hope and peace,