ONE of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay awardees should find her equivalent in the Philippines, preferably in Mindanao.
Madame Kommaly Chanthavong, originally a descendant of traditional weavers of Laos, (her grandmother and her mother), has amid the Vietnam war and its horrific effects in Laos risen to claim her heritage, to honor it and to revive it among the women of her country.
Weaving is an important part of life all over the world. It is an expression of cultural identity, a paean to the belief system of a people, a commemoration of history, legend, myth, that belong to a particular race or nation. It is also a definition of environment – what are Nature’s resources in a particular place that can be used and are utilized to weave.
In Laos, weaving was making silk cloth in intricate and colorful patterns beginning with the growth of mulberry trees to feed the silkworms that were raised to provide the silk thread that would be used to weave.
All Laos women are weavers, the best weavers are the most sought after for brides in an agricultural society that relies on itself to clothe its members, to express their beliefs, to adjust to their environment.
Yet in now modern times with the world wrenched into modernization whether it resists it or not as in the advent of industrialization, war, lifestyle changes, environmental degradation or disturbance, weaving has declined. When people flee war, they have no time to weave. When environmental destruction occurs, materials for weaving are decimated. When lifestyles change to the mechanical and factory-made goods, weaving takes a backseat.
Madame Kommaly experienced all of the above. She fled war bringing only some silk materials woven by her forebears, the treasure she identified and defended for the future. In the uprooting of rural populations that she met in the urban areas where they fled to seek respite for the wanton bombing that Laos experienced in those times, she found a rudderless and impoverished class of women who had lost everything, could not cope with the expenses of urban life and were in a very tragic sense, marginalized.
She herself was one of them and in the need for self-preservation, she took up Nursing as a career, raised a family and coped with her needs and those of her family. But weaving was also a compulsion, almost a sense of preservation too and she went back to weaving. In that change of direction, she helped not only herself but others.
The Magsaysay Award has been given to Madame Rommaly for her enterprise in going back to weaving, in bringing women back to it and in making weaving not only an occupation that brings a livelihood but bringing it to the next level by attracting women in rural areas to participate in growing mulberry trees, raising silk worms (she imported a better class of silkworms from Thailand), spinning their silk thread and weaving it into cloth not only for its producers but for the world at large that has come to appreciate the art and beauty that is a woven cloth of natural fibers. In Laos, they are silk cloths. Madame Kommaly encouraged weaving cooperatives and taught weavers to demand fair pricing just as she encouraged the clients to pay fair prices. Her grassroots work for weaving improved the rural economy, uplifted women as artists and crafts people as well as gave them economic power that redounded to their families welfare.
Noting this, the Laotian Government did its part by giving to her cooperatives a two hectare piece of land (albeit with landmines, a Laotian fact of life, which she had to clear of them first) where she demonstrated the planting and caring for mulberry trees whose leaves feed the silkworms. Beyond weaving, Madame Kommaly, now in the full success of her weaving endeavors, has diversified into craftworks which are made in rural areas and translated to raising the people’s economic activities with the consequent increase in incomes.
International agencies interested in natural fibers and crafts have become clients and distributors of these Laotian exquisitely made products so as to have a thriving economic activity that benefits so many that need it.
I have a dream that a Madame Kommaly will come out of Mindanao soon as peace settles the land and brings back its weaving traditions, so beautiful, so meaningful, so truly Filipino, to themselves, to us in other islands and to the world.
Indeed, Madame Kommaly is an inspiration to us and to her people, a worthy recipient of Asia’s highest honor, the Magsaysay Award.