Thursday, July 9, 2009

Driven to succeed

Determination and ambition pays off for an Orang Asli weaver.

At 17, Maznah Unyan spotted a newspaper article on a mengkuang (Pandanus odoratissimus) weaving course in Terengganu and signed up for it. She had not imagined that her application would be rejected. The official who processed her application had said that it was not possible to accept an applicant who was only educated up to Standard 6.

“All I could do was to keep quiet. I thought that the official had his point, so I simply went home and continued with my life,” recalled Maznah, 41, who now runs an enterprise for woven products and heads a team of weavers at her village, Kampung Sungai Bumbun.

Maznah Unyan and her sister, Pinta, surrounded by their wares.

For this determined Mah Meri native, there was no time to ponder on the “what ifs” of life. Her schooling had been prematurely terminated because it called for an hour’s ride along the Bumbun and Langat rivers daily, a hazard that Maznah’s late father, Unyan Awas, had preferred that she not undertake since the river currents were known to be merciless.

So, to earn a living, Maznah started off with the usual odd jobs of looking for crabs and shellfish at the seaside, collecting nipah leaves from the jungles and planting chillies, a collective effort she embarked on with a few of her close friends. At 18, she married Chua Swan Kwee, now 39, a fisherman from Kampung Sungai Judah.

In between tending a vegetable patch and raising chickens and ducks, Maznah had continued weaving, an activity integral to Mah Meri life.

“As girls, it was compulsory for us to know how to make kerawang, a type of container used for storing cakes, sugar and all foodstuff. They came in really handy when we went on dates. There were no caf├ęs in the kampung then,” said Maznah with a smile.

Even then, Maznah and the other Mah Meri womenfolk had steady orders for mats, baskets and pouches from Rashid Isa, the owner of a souvenir shop at the National Museum. She also added that Rashid introduced the Mah Meri weaving circle to Reita Rahim, the founder of Gerai OA in 2003.

“I remember Reita being shown a lot of wood carvings and cane products, which were largely made by the men. Perhaps it must have crossed her mind that the Mah Meri women could be also as artistic because she began asking for more ‘feminine’ products,” recalled Maznah.

Cutting the Pandanus leaf into thin strips with a mutiple-bladed instrument requires much precision.

At that point, it occurred to Maznah that this was the opportunity for her to start her own enterprise.

“I started my own campaign to persuade the other women folk to join in my weaving circle. The first two women who answered my call were my mother, Samah Seman, 80 and my sister, Pinta, 38,” recalled Maznah.

Once she got the ball rolling, other women began to take interest.

“I told them that it was a way to preserve the Mah Meri heritage and earn some extra pocket money at the same time,” revealed Maznah.

Today, Maznah and her weaving circle produces no less than 20 types of products which are snapped up by agencies like Gerai OA, Kraftangan Malaysia and other NGO bodies.

“I have learned how to network so that I will have other avenues to sell my work. Lately, we have also gone online and people can buy our products on the internet via,” she said.

“I have long realized that we will never be able to go back to the old ways of hunting and foraging like our ancestors did.

“Still, that does not mean that we should lose our identity. In preserving Mah Meri art, we preserve this identity for the future gene­rations,” concluded the stalwart crafts woman.

For details on Maznah’s crafts, call 019-609 6164.

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