Connect : Connect Magazine July 2012 Edition
21 Country Thailand | Assignment Marketing and Creative Officer | Host Organisation The Mirror Foundation | www.themirrorfoundation.org However, unlike my culture, there are many tribes who do not have that luxury. The fight to keep your family fed and cared for overpowers the desire to keep your art and culture alive - a tragic story that is repeated all over the world. It is a loss of a culture and identity that the future generations will be unable to connect with. This is the basis of my Australian Volunteers assignment in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. I work with the eBannok Handicrafts Project at The Mirror Foundation. The foundation is a grassroots Non-Government Organisation (NGO) that works with the local Hilltribe communities. The Hilltribes are ethnic groups who, over recent centuries, have migrated from Yunnan province (China) down to South-East Asia. There are six main Hilltribe groups in northern Thailand: Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Mien. Each Hilltribe has its own culture, language and craft styles. The Akha people embroider bright coloured thread into black or dark blue fabric, the Mien use bright red pom-pom trimming on their jackets, while the Lahu employ bright coloured thread to make intricate weaves. While the Hilltribes have rich cultural traditions, they are not granted Thai citizenship, which creates inequalities in human rights, justice, healthcare, and education. As an example, people without identification cards cannot leave their home province, preventing many from securing jobs further afield, while there are precious few opportunities at home, thus continuing the poverty cycle for many. eBannok Handicrafts Project was established 10 years ago when the founders of The Mirror Foundation noticed Hilltribe arts were being slowly lost, and so decided to start an income- generating handicraft project. There are a few reasons why these arts are being lost. Youth do not want to work in the rice fields, but would rather emulate their peers on TV, living in the cities and being able to buy material goods. This inevitably leaves a generation gap - elders cannot pass their knowledge to the younger ones. Another reason is that these ethnic minorities have been looked down upon for so long that they have lost pride in their own culture and heritage. They do not want to wear traditional clothing - now largely seen only for big occasions - but rather a pair of jeans and t-shirt. eBannok Handicrafts Project aims to empower the Hilltribes by hiring hill tribe women and purchasing locally made products and materials. The handicrafts are made onsite in our studio, and in local villages. The project provides a secure income, and also a safe working environment. Women are less susceptible to financial exploitation, or to fall into bonded labour or trafficked for sex. Our workers receive a fair wage, benefit from learning new skills in business and production, as well as studying English. Currently we have 10 Hilltribe women working at the eBannok workshops. Our signature product is the clay bird whistles; hand moulded models using raw clay, then fired in a kiln. The fired piece is then painted, by hand, with non-toxic acrylic paint. eBannok currently produces over 120 designs, the majority of which are native Thai birds. The Hilltribe people originally used clay whistles for hunting, and they signify the antiquity of the Hilltribe lifestyle and traditions. eBannok’s other project is a sewing workshop, creating products influenced by the unique embroidery and weaving techniques of the Hilltribes. Our style is a fusion of western and Thai trends embellished with Hilltribe traditional weave, embroidery or other such aesthetics. The leader of the sewing team is Om, who helps me coordinate the women and make sure they are using the appropriate colour schemes and materials. I work very closely with her, as her English is the most advanced, but sometimes it can be hard - we often start miming or I hurriedly grab my dictionary. My Thai is getting better each day, but they laugh at many of the things I say, and love to correct me too. I still study with a teacher, so when I have tests, they all want to help me study until they are sure I will pass. The weaving women repeatedly tell me that we don’t speak ‘paa saa thai’ (Thai language) but ‘paa saa eBannok’ (eBannok language), followed by them all bursting out with laughter. My assignment focuses on developing branding, marketing and PR but, as in many volunteer positions, you must be a ‘jack of all trades’. I am an accountant, fashion designer, graphic designer, blogger, visual merchandiser and stock controller - just to mention a few of my responsibilities. I love my work and the women who I am helping! During my time here I have seen so many improvements, and I am proud of the eBannok women, as well as my close friend and project leader, Porntara Kankaeu. I am also very grateful that I still have another year in this position, and hope that all the work I am involved in will benefit the project, and launch eBannok on the road to being the foremost brand and retailer for Hilltribes handicrafts. This is the time that eBannok takes over the world, one fair-trade product at a time.
Connect Magazine November 2012
Connect March 2012