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Blowpipes for handbags: Malaysia tribe driven from forest weave handicrafts to pay for food and children’s education

Indigenous Penan communities in Malaysian Borneo are building a life for their youth by using the traditional weaving techniques they are known for to sell a variety of goods through local charity Helping Hands Penan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 8:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 8:35pm

The Penan tribe of Malaysian Borneo face an uncertain future. Economic development has destroyed their forest homelands and their traditional way of life.

But although the Penan people of Sarawak state now have fewer opportunities to hunt with the blowpipes for which they are known, there is one tradition that offers them hope: they are skilled weavers.

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This talent was recognised by expats based in neighbouring Brunei a decade ago, leading to the formation of charities that help the Penan weavers sell their wares. One of the charities – Helping Hands Penan – has pioneered a model that helps the impoverished Penan educate their children.

“It started with a few parents who had children in international school in Brunei. They were all friends and one of them had gone hiking into the jungle,” says Violette Tan, a director of the charity.

The parents had hired a Penan porter, who told them the story of his tribe, and the handicrafts they took back impressed other parents. That sparked a large handicraft-buying mission that was the foundation of Helping Hands Penan.

Malaysia’s 18 indigenous groups – which account for 13 per cent of the country’s population of 31 million – are often overlooked. Most Orang Asal, or “original people”, as they are called, rank in the bottom 40 per cent of the country’s earners. The once nomadic Penan are estimated to number about 10,000, and though most have now settled, they still rely on their hunter-gatherer skills to survive.

The Penan – like other indigenous groups – were driven off their forest lands to make way for logging, palm oil plantations and hydroelectric dams, and were resettled in places beyond the forest fringes.

Dr Rusaslina Idrus, a lecturer in University of Malaya’s gender studies department and an authority on Orang Asal issues, outlined the struggles they face at a recent conference in Kuala Lumpur. These range from land rights disputes, and poor basic infrastructure, to an entrenched paternalistic system that classes indigenous people as wards of the state.

She recalls talks with officials who told indigenous groups that they had to change their mindsets if they were to prosper.


“But actually, it’s the politicians’, the government’s, [and] our mindset that need to change,” she says.

The popularity of the woven goods made by the Penan – everything from bags and holders of varying size and shape, to trays and mats – meant they could sell their wares and use the proceeds to buy food.

However, as a result of supply issues, output plateaued. Weaving had become a dying art mastered only by a handful of women. Sourcing rattan – scrubby palms traditionally used to make these products – was also an issue because the number of trees from which it comes has dwindled, forcing foragers deeper into the jungle.

To counter this problem, the charity took inspiration from PVC baskets sold by other tribes, and began supplying the Penan with PVC materials to replace rattan.

“At first it was quite hard for them to accept because the texture is harder and it’s very colourful, but we challenged them to try and adjust. When we left them on their own, the colours were quite horrendous,” she jokes. “Over time, we guided them and helped them improve [what they made].”

The bags they make are now hugely popular across Peninsular Malaysia, and a network of suppliers has been built by Helping Hands and several other charities, including the Penan Women Project and the Miri Women Weaving Association.

The scale of the initiative is impressive. Stalls peddling totes, satchels, laundry baskets, shallow bowls and purses can be found at most markets in Kuala Lumpur and the prosperous Klang Valley.

Penan weaving has now gone global, with products being sold in Canada, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

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“The response has been tremendous. It’s amazing how people are willing to buy just to support a charitable organisation,” says Joanna Low, a seller with Helping Hands Penan who also coordinates its social media. “The most crucial selling point for the bags being so popular is their design and colours; they have become a fashion statement.”

Notably, the bags have become a fashion staple for Hannah Yeoh, a Malaysian politician and member of Parliament, after whom one of the designs has been named. Another popular style of bag, with a wide, square bottom, was named after activist and lawyer Siti Kasim, a prominent ally of the indigenous community.

The profits collected by Helping Hands are returned to the community, after taking into account the cost of postage and materials. Tan explains that the challenge is figuring out where best to allocate the money.

The response has been tremendous. It’s amazing how people are willing to buy just to support a charitable organisation
Joanna Low, a seller with Helping Hands Penan

“Initially there were so many needs. Everyone is poor, not everybody has money,” she says. “Even those living in town and making money from weaving these baskets are poor, as they send money back to their families.”

Helping Hands Penan helps these communities by purchasing necessities such as food and toiletries, and funding travel costs when needed. It also has two ongoing projects providing communities with solar power and clean water.

However, the organisation’s real commitment is to help Penan students in their pursuit of an education and a brighter future. The charity provides donated clothes and uniforms for the students, and sponsorships for any that need to travel.

“We try not to give them cash. We want to facilitate them so they can attend school like any other normal kids,” Tan says. “Education is the only key to success.”

One beneficiary of the charity is a primary school in Long Seridan, in the north of Sarawak. “We can’t save all the schools, but at least we can save one,” Tan says.

Unfortunately, dropout rates among young Orang Asal are as high as 20 per cent, according to official statistics, and only half of primary school students move on to secondary school. Despite education being free, there is a lack of infrastructure to shuttle students to the schools, which can be more than a day’s trek away.

But the charity is still making a difference.

“The changes that we have experienced since [Helping Hands Penan] started helping us sell bags are very clear,” says Freda, one of the weavers. “It’s made it easier to send our kids to school by allowing us to rent homes in town. We don’t have to leave home to work, so it’s much easier to take care of our children and still pay our living expenses.”

The charity also has programmes to help students access tertiary education or vocational training. The charity’s success stories include two nurses and a hospitality diploma holder.

In June 2016, the charity claimed its greatest success when one student graduated from MARA Technology University in Shah Alam in Peninsular Malaysia with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and administration.

“More and more Penan children are given opportunities to pursue their education at higher levels, and we’re very grateful to [Helping Hands Penan], which has consistently helped our people,” says Freda.

The charity’s future is uncertain, however, because it relies on volunteers. The expatriate mothers at the core of Helping Hands when it launched inevitably returned to their home countries. Tan jokes that she is its “longest surviving member”.

“We have a few locals, but they are not really active. They would rather give money than time,” she says. “Energy-wise, I still can [do it] because it’s a passion, but it’s really eating into my family time.”

Low says it’s difficult finding someone passionate enough about Helping Hands’ work to carry on the task.

“Violette and I are no young spring chickens any more,” Low says. “As the market becomes more saturated, with retailers jumping onto the bandwagon to sell the bags for a profit, and with the presence of two other organisations selling the bags in the Klang Valley, Helping Hands Penan needs to turn from an NGO into a social enterprise to stay competitive.”


Tan says demand for the bags has levelled off in Brunei, but Helping Hands has first-mover advantage. The charity has a devoted fan base, with repeat customers snapping up as many as 20 bags at a time.

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“I don’t think we’ll be edged out … people are still buying because of its charitable cause,” she says.