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As Long as We Remember...

March 11, 2009

The Weavers and the Money

Tom McLaughlin

Lombok, Indonesia – We had finished our visit with the stump tailed Macaques and the use of my teaching techniques on the troop. Our next stop, a small enterprise, located only through a side road, winding through a housing estate filled with homes (we would call them shacks) constructed of wood.


It was strange to hear an Indonesian speak perfect American English. Usually, they learn their second language through Australian or British teachers and will greet a westerner with “Hello, Mate,” or other indicators of a commonwealth education.


The gentleman was our tour guide through a United Nations sponsored program where women weaved cloth and sold it to tourists. He stated he mastered his English and pronunciations by listening to “The Voice of America” every day.


The tour guide led to the homes of the weavers. We negotiated mud walking on palm leaves, through trash cluttered areas. The ladies, sitting on the front porch, worked hand looms and performed a repetitive back and forth motion making the cloth longer and longer.


I tried to converse with them in the Indonesian language but was continually interrupted by the guide and told they only spoke the local dialect, completely different from the national unifying tongue. This was very frustrating because I enjoy talking to the people, trading stories about my life and theirs.


Christine attempted the loom at the invitation from one lady and with the encouragement of the guide. The manipulation of the loom was not easy, she informed, as I snapped photos.


The store, a warehouse-like structure, included shelves laden with cloth lining three walls. The 3.5 meters high and 18 meters long structure held ready made shirts, but mostly contained 2.5 meter pieces to be purchased and later tailored into a shirt, sarong or skirt.


Hanging around the front of the store were several men, young and old, who I believe watched every rupee. A guy had a pack of cigarettes that he rolled into the sarong around his waist. In Indonesian, I joked he did it because no one would see the pack and “borrow” a stick. He laughed and said I was right. Others smiled along with us. The guide watched me warily. My suspicions were confirmed that he was afraid the ladies would complain bitterly about how much they were paid.


A group came over and dressed us in the Indonesian national costume worn at marriages and other formal occasions. With photos taken, the salesmen tried to sell us the items. Not having a clue where we would wear such outfits, we both politely declined.


The American-accented guide told us the money had been earned by the weavers. They wanted us to pick out a few pieces to support their efforts.


Christine and I chose two fabrics. I realized the local weavers (we only saw two) could not possibly have produced so much cloth even if they were forced to work 24 hours a day under the lash. I suspected much of it was imported from other parts of the archipelago.


The guide informed us we would have another cultural experience: bargaining for the cloth. I was good at that. Using the numbers on the calculator that was passed back and forth, the lady started with 1.2 million Rupees (10,000 Rupees=1 U.S. Dollar). I countered with Rp325,000. After about 10 minutes, we agreed to Rp425,000 as I knew we could not get this particular cloth any cheaper, any where. I also realized that many tourists would end up paying a much, much higher price after the tear jerking tour.


Everybody gets a cut. The taxi driver who brought us there, the lady who “negotiated” the price, the guys standing around the store who helped us try on the clothes, and the husbands of the hard working weavers all received part of the pie. The biggest amount probably went to the American=accented individual who “explained” things to us. Unfortunately, the ladies probably didn’t get any of the money, or very, very little.


In America, we have charities where most of the money goes to the administrators and not to the people to whom we think we are donating the money. This has been exposed many times and we seem to accept it.


Therefore, we cannot quickly judge this system or call it a rip off. Tourists get a tour of a kampong, learn to use a loom, are dressed in costume and walk away with a piece of overpriced cloth. Their conscience assuaged, most are convinced they performed their Christian duty in helping the poor.


Money is staying in local hands and the village remains intact. Dollars, Euros or Yen, which would otherwise go to a beer in a hotel, remains in the local economy. The sales technique may be questioned but the goal of keeping the people, many people, some useless, employed has been achieved.


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