Among Equals: Empowerment for Women Weavers in Papua New Guinea

In Goroka, the capital of the lush Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) lives Florence Jaukae Kamel. ‘Flo’ is a weaver and businesswoman whose local knowledge of plant fibres and weaving is giving her family and community a better quality of life.

Florence Jaukae Kamel

Like all aspects of traditional PNG culture, weaving knowledge is handed down verbally. “When I was five years old, I go running around with my grandmother, so I learned how to speak the language [of plants],” Flo says, in heavily accented English. She developed this knowledge through her adulthood and in 2012 Flo was invited to take part in a Pacific Natural Fibre Symposium at Massey University in New Zealand — a project that magnified her own passion. “After that experience, I came back to the village and wanted to gain more for my own knowledge. That was where I started doing this fibre thing, wanting to study all these different fibres,” she says.

As well as experimenting and weaving her own pieces — mainly Bilum (‘womb’) bags and some dresses — Flo also started gathering a collective of other women weavers and fostering surprisingly complex supply chains. “It can involve a community,” Flo explains. “Let’s say it will take about 10 different people to process a bag. It will sometimes involve men to go and source the fibre. The other set of women, they go in different places and different directions in their own particular space, like the land, their own forest, and their own mountains.”

It’s not just a matter of specialised regional knowledge, but also a legal one. One cannot simply go into someone else’s land and source fibres; it’s traditionally wrong. Instead, Flo must go to the owner of the land and request them to source the fibre in exchange for money (or in the old days, a couple of sweet potatoes or food).”

Fibres come from trees, plants and shrubs and Flo only knows them by their local names. There is Miso and Lepa from Goroka; Tulip from Madang, Morobe and Sepik; Oni and Wasare from Nunwaya; Mangas, which comes from swamps and mangroves; as well as fibres from Morobe, Ganyangi, the Eastern Islands and the Oro province.

There are three main grades — A, B and C, with sliding scales within these categories. Some are thicker and more robust; others are delicate and soft. All require hand processing — a combination of peeling the fibres from the raw stalks, drying to harden or moistening to soften, sometimes beating the fibre to expand it. A makeshift needle made out of an umbrella end is used to separate the strands — traditionally it was done with bone or bamboo. The fibre is then cleaned and twisted, and sometimes coloured with natural dyes, before it’s ready for weaving. Every part of the process is often done by a different person — so each strand of fibre comes to life through many hands.

Of course nowadays, Bilum bags are also made from bought acrylic fibres. As bright and pretty as these bags are, they do not possess the value woven so intimately into the natural fibre Bilum. These represent a much more complex story.

“A natural fibre tells a story of its own,” says Flo. “It becomes very special. If you ask about the story of an acrylic bag, the weaver might say, ‘I went down to Chinatown and I bought it from the designer store’… and that’s the story. If you ask about the natural fibre, they will tell you how many rivers they crossed, how many mountains they climbed, how long it took them. They climbed a tree to peel off the fibre and they fell down, or their skirt got hooked up in the trees and they had to jump down with the skirt hanging up there,” she laughs.

Beyond the stories, the natural fibres contain the energy and touch of all the people who were part of the process — not least of which the weaver.”

When making a traditional design, each weaver will actually impart a piece of themselves by mentally chanting to the fibre in a kind of meditation as they are processing it. “I roll it up; at the same time, with this little action, I am telling this fibre, ‘You extend, extend.’ It’s more like a chant,” explains Flo.

The Bilum bags were recently launched in Australia, thanks to a serendipitous meeting between Flo and Caroline Sherman, a former textiles and fashion designer, back in 2014. Caroline happened to pop into a fibre fair in Sydney where Flo was exhibiting. They struck up a conversation; a few months later Caroline visited PNG and over the next three years they built up relationships, sources, and a network of weavers who are now supported by the brand Caroline has established, Among Equals.

Each individual bag comes with a photo of its maker, a note on the design and what the maker will do with the profits from their creation — of which they receive 100%. Many of the weavers are illiterate, poor, or come from broken or abusive homes, so the dreams are heartbreakingly simple — sending their children to school, buying medicine or food — bare necessities that to them are rewards.

In a very real way, this plant knowledge is bringing a better life to these women and their families. For many, it has become more than a financial improvement, but also an emotional support.”

“With income from Bilum, Among Equals has funded a safe house where the women come together, share stories, cook, weave and pass their tradition to future generations,” says Caroline.

Among Equals is clearly a passionate cause for both Caroline and Flo — the latter has even had her arm tattooed in a traditional weaving design to mark her commitment to empower her community of women weavers. And for her, there is inherent appeal in the natural fibre Bilum. “The difference with natural fibre is it’s got its own story,” she says, simply. “It’s amazing”.

Visit Flo’s Facebook to get in contact or find out more about the community of women weavers she is helping to empower.

Among Equals is a social enterprise founded by Caroline Sherman to empower women and their families across three communities in Papua New Guinea.

Images by Maximilian Homaei.