Tue, 16 Dec 2003

Yovita preserving Timorese heritage

Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Kupang, Nusa Tenggara Timur

Yovita Meta is a hard worker and does not easily back down from challenges, especially in her efforts to empower the people in North Central Timor regency in East Nusa Tenggara.

The low profile, 48-year-old woman is pioneering an effort to raise the living standard of Timorese weavers by establishing an organization that promotes and markets the famous Timor fabric.

When The Jakarta Post met her in her residence in Jl. Seroja, Kefamenanu, in the capital of North Central Timor, some 200 kilometers from the provincial capital city of Kupang, her face was as radiant as her brilliant ideas.

She is now enjoying the fruits of her endeavors, particularly in helping the lives of Timorese women.

She believes that everyone has a talent to contribute to the good of the community. She has proven the veracity of this belief with her hard work, which she began in July 1989, to preserve the culture of her birthplace, particularly weaving and tie-dyeing craftsmanship, with the help of some innovation and modern technology.

She felt called upon to dedicate herself to the rural people after noticing the low level of her people's working ethos.

"I often visited the villages and found how my people lived in great poverty. Later I devised a plan to mobilize these people so that they could improve their living standards. It struck me, then, that the Timorese woven cloth, which was usually used in garments, could actually be developed into a valuable commodity," she said.

Timorese woven cloth, she said, has a high cultural value among the Timorese. However, before it was developed into a valuable commodity, it was usually used only for traditional costumes worn on special occasions like weddings, funerals, house-warming ceremonies and for the traditional likurai, bonet and gong dances.

For the Timorese, this tie-dyed woven material, scarcely had any economic value.

As she believed something could be done to improve the usefulness of this woven material, she set up a group of Timorese weavers. At first her group was made up of only eight people from Matabesi village, South Biboki district.

Tned out that this effort received an enthusiastic response. In a matter of only a few years, as many as 406 weavers were grouped into 25 units. They came from 1,779 farming families in 12 villages including Sapaen Boronubaen, Kuluan, Makun and Manumean (North Biboki district), Matabesi, Luniup, Tun besi, Tunbaen, Sainiup and Pantae (South Biboki district) and Taensala (Insana district).

Then in August 1990, at the initiative of the late Anderias J. Meta, Lambertus Diaz, the late Fernandes, the late Yoseph Tulasi, Pius Usfal, Silivester Soma and Yovita herself, these groups were merged into an institute called Sanggar Biboki (Biboki Workshop) under the auspices of Tafean Pah, a foundation led by Yovita. In the Dawan language in the western part of Timor, tafean pah means to develop one's land.

Yovita's mobilization of local weavers has boosted the economic growth of her people. The products are sold on a consignment and fair trade basis.

The price of a piece of a woven cotton fabric has increased from an initial Rp 40,000 (US$5) to Rp 85,000 and later Rp 330,000. A piece of woven fabric made of traditional cotton cost only Rp 250,000 in 1989 but now this product, which is sold both domestically and abroad, costs between Rp 1 million and Rp 3 million a piece.

Each group of weavers can earn a profit of between Rp 17 million and Rp 20 million. Members of the group also have their "bamboo savings" and enjoy a loan to buy cows. The profit is distributed to all group members every year.

"Before the establishment of these weavers' groups, the people in these 12 villages could hardly afford to send their children to school. Now, most of their children go to junior and senior high schools and even to university.

"They earn enough from the sales of the woven products to pay for their children's formal education. This means that these people have raised their living standards," Yovita said.

Another improvement in the lives of these people is that they have now developed their home industry and have the courage to voice their opinions in public. Their houses, formerly in bad repair with bamboo walls and dirt floors, have now been renovated and provide a healthy living environment.

Yovita's activities have captured the attention of the Indonesian government and international cultural observers.

In 1992, for example, the Indonesian government awarded her with the UPAKARTA citation in recognition of her hard work in developing home industry in her birthplace.

Her weavers' group has also received A$1,000 from Australia's Northern Territory administration. This money was spent on the production of woven cotton fabrics for an exhibition at the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences in Bulocky Point, Fannie Bay, Darwin, Australia, which was inaugurated on Nov. 22, 1990.

Last Wednesday, Yovita received an international citation, this time from the director of Prince Claus Award, Els van de Plass of Amsterdam, the Netherlands and a cash prize of 25,000 euros.