House of Spirits cuts across faiths to empower Flores women

Catholic ex-cop sets up production base in Indonesia to boost weaving craft and promote religious tolerance
House of Spirits cuts across faiths to empower Flores women

Catholic and Muslim women work side by side at the weaving production base known as Sa'o Pipi Tolo in Nagekeo district of East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia's Flores Island on Dec. 28, 2018. (Photo by Markus Makur/ucanews.com)

At the "House of Ancestral Spirits" in central Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara province, Christian and Muslim women sit side by side weaving colorful fabrics to keep a traditional craft alive and support their families.

Known as Sa'o Pipi Tolo in Indonesian, this thriving small business is the brainchild of Gregorius "Gories" Mere, a Catholic ex-cop who now serves as a presidential adviser on security.

He is helping to bridge the rift between women of different faiths while boosting the local economy and raising the stature of a "signature" product to represent the cultural identity of those who live on the island.

"Traditional woven cloths in Flores are known for their good quality, but the industry here is not well organized. The cloths are made sporadically at people's homes, which makes them hard to find," Mere told ucanews.com.

"They also sell for low prices, so only people with strong business connections can make a profit," he said.

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Challenged by his daughter to invest in the industry, he set up his business in the central part of the island, which is mostly Christian, last year for women with traditional weaving skills from Nagekeo, Ngada, and Ende districts.

Mere said there was a need for a base to facilitate production and help them market their products better.

His daughter Jessica came to him after visiting the village of Tonggo, where Mere was born. She has spoken with local villagers, listened to their stories, seen the symbols of Christianity some were producing, and been by the natural beauty of the place. She urged him to get involved and help out.

The center is so named because it was blessed with a ritual to invoke the spirits of ancestors for good fortune, in line with local tradition. (Photo by Markus Makur/ucanews.com)

 

East Nusa Tenggara has a population of 5.2 million. Some 89 percent are Christians, mostly Catholic, with Muslims making up the remainder.

Mere said his goal is to see women's weaving groups in the three districts earn more money from selling these traditional cloths.

Now dozens of women from different locations have a central location where they can produce a variety of styles. This makes it easier for buyers to source their goods rather than having to hunt and forage all over the island.

Each of the handmade cloths takes many hours to produce and sells for around US$20-25. Mere said this is below the market price and that he is confident they can earn more as they become more organized.

"It's not fair. They deserve more than that," he said, pledging to help market their products at national and international markets.

Archbishop Vinsentius Sensi Potokota, who cut the ribbon on the center in December 2018, praised Mere for taking the initiative.

The archbishop said he expects it will play a significant role in empowering both Christian and Muslim women in the archdiocese.

"What he has done inspires us pastors to do something concrete to help these women," the prelate said.

"This is also a place to showcase religious tolerance through the art of weaving, which is a part of Flores' cultural identity."

To ensure the products are of high quality, Mere hired Alfonsa Horeng, a leader in the industry, from the neighboring district of Sikka.

Her work has been recognized by the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy and she has exported her handmade fabrics to many countries.

She said woven fabrics from Flores are often used for cultural events, and also as a dowry.

"It's a form of local heritage that bonds people together, and it must be preserved," she said.

Siti Lutwina, who represents weavers from Nangaroro in Nagekeo district, described the center as a dream come true and said it is enabling women to experiment more creatively with their patterns and designs.

"Here, we focus on the kind of designs that are typical to our area, but these can be added to a variety of collections," she said.

"Our goal is to have our products reach a wider scope of buyers, both at a national and global level," she said.

Yohanes Don Bosco, the chief of Nagekeo district, said the facility has paved the way for this industry to "get to the next level."

Hironimus Tuga, the architect who built the center, said he designed it to reflect traditional homes in Nagekeo, which have roofs made of cogon grass.

Construction began with a special ritual to invoke the spirits of people's ancestors to protect those working in the house, he said, in explaining the name. 

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