The following article was submitted by Cheryl Arvidson, 69BA, a Des Moines native and former editor at the Daily Iowan who is now a freelance writer in the Washington area.
OUDOMXAY PROVINCE, Laos — Four University of Iowa graduates traveled in March to a remote village in the Laotian mountains to observe how Khmu women create bags using an invasive jungle vine to help combat poverty in the area.
The UI group was led by Bill Newbrough, 67BA, MA69, a Des Moines philanthropist who splits his time between Iowa and Laos and is the driving force behind the JungleVine anti-poverty project. He was joined by Cherie Shreck, 71BS, and Bob Shreck, 71BS, 74MD, of Des Moines, and Cheryl Arvidson, 69BA, of Falls Church, Virginia.
Newbrough became enamored with jungle vine about a dozen years ago, impressed by its numerous uses, including the versatile carry-all bags that are hand-woven by Khmu artisans. The craft that has been passed down from mother to daughter for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The Khmu are the second largest indigenous ethnic group in Laos, and most live in the northern mountainous area of the country near the Chinese border. Their income is barely at subsistence level—even today earning $12 a day for hard agricultural labor is considered extremely good money.
Newbrough was convinced the environmentally friendly bags made from jungle vine could be sold internationally and provide a means to combat poverty in the area and improve the living conditions of the villagers. In addition, he was concerned that unless the bag-making could generate income, the art of crafting the bags would be lost. In 2006, Newbrough founded a non-profit entity, the Nature Bag Khmu/Lao Poverty Reduction Project, which subsequently was renamed the JungleVine Foundation. Two years ago, he began transferring Laos operations to a commercial business— Lao JungleVine Development, run by five Lao partners—but he remains a key consultant to the operations.
In the past decade, sales of JungleVine bags have grown significantly, especially in foreign markets such as Paris, Italy, and Spain. They are available in boutique shops throughout the United States and at www.naturebag.org.
“Without us, this art would not exist today,” Newbrough says.
Three of the Lao business partners—Anousith Phonehasith, Siyasack Philaphong, Thavone Chitarnong—accompanied the group of Hawkeyes on the trek from Luang Prabang to the remote village that is home to the majority of artisans crafting the bags. They provided much-needed logistical assistance, information, and translation since three different languages—English, Lao, and Khmu—were involved.
The trip to the mountainous area where the bag-making venture comes together was challenging. There is only one highway from Luang Prabang north heading to Vietnam, Thailand, and China, and getting to the mountains near the Chinese border involves more than six hours of driving. The highway is generally in good condition, although there are major ruts and gullies and large areas of missing pavement that make for a dusty and bumpy ride. In addition, weaving up and down mountains that range in height from 980 to 5,910 feet above sea level is a heart-stopping experience for anyone with a fear of heights or a queasy stomach. The seven travelers used two sturdy pickup trucks for the journey and could not have made it, especially on the heavily rutted and narrow dirt roads off the main highway to the villages, in any other type of vehicle.
After a day of hard travel, the group arrived in the Nam Beng District Center of Oudomxay Province where they were treated to a Baci welcome ceremony hosted by Khamdaeng Phanthala and her husband Ounkham Souksavath. The traditional ceremony is a formal gathering conducted by village elders where prayers are offered and white threads are tied on the wrists of the honorees to wish them long life and prosperity, ward off ill luck, and bring them safe travels. After the ceremony, Khamdaeng, Ounkham, and daughter Mon hosted a dinner featuring water buffalo laap (a meat salad considered the unofficial national dish of Laos), grilled tilapia caught in a nearby river, grilled chicken, a salad with local herbs and vegetables, sticky rice, and bok choy.
Khamdaeng plays a key role in the marketing of the JungleVine bags. She serves as an intermediary, conveying the orders for certain types of bags to the village artisans, instructing them on specific design requests, and collecting the finished product. The demand for the bags has grown so much that Khamdaeng also send orders out to women in even more remote areas, many only reachable on foot. In exchange for their work, the artisans receive either cash or goods such as blankets, shoes, clothing, MSG, oil, and other materials needed in their daily lives.
The next morning, after a traditional Asian breakfast of rice noodle soup, the Iowans and the Lao business partners traveled to the remote village where the majority of JungleVine bags are made. The trip involved a grueling 45-minute drive on a narrow dirt road that consists of one deep gully after another, resulting in constant jarring bumps even when traveling at less than about 9 mph. At one point, the road completely disappears into a river that must be driven through to reach a road on the other side and continue the journey. Although the river was passable in early March, it will be so high and swift soon when the rainy season arrives that trucks, motorbikes, and walkers must use a make-shift bamboo bridge.
The group’s destination was a community of thatched roof huts near one of the many rivers in the mountainous jungle area. Although the houses are austere, the village has had electricity for the past few years, and virtually every hut has a television. Paying for electricity is one reason the women’s compensation for bag-making has moved from the initial “goods only” payment to the current ratio of around half cash and half goods.
The vine used in making the bags comes from the nearby jungle. The women strip off the leaves and use a cleaver to cut the vine down the middle, lay it open, and dry the inner fibers. Then they pull individual strips of fiber from the flattened vine and roll and rub the vine on their legs to form a thread that will eventually be joined with other threads, again by rolling and rubbing the pieces together. The women loop the long threads over their big toes to hold the fiber tight as they wrap it into coils similar to balls of yarn. They use the coils of fiber to weave the various elements of the bag—the bottom, the body, and the strap.
Using a tool that looks much like a chop stick or knitting needle, the artisans make the bottom and body of the bags. For the bottom, the women again loop the fiber over their big toes as they tightly weave the strands of jungle vine to provide the bag’s support and strength. The fiber used for the body of the bag is woven looser, in quarter-inch squares that resemble lace or openwork stiches in knitting. The strap is the most difficult part of the bag construction. The artisans use a primitive loom, propped on one end against their stomachs and on the other against a bamboo fence or their feet, to create a solid strap about two inches wide. This step alone takes between five or six hours to complete. If colored fibers are needed, the women dip the coils into a large pot of dye boiling over an open fire, then dry and wash it to ensure the color is set.
For the group’s visit, various women demonstrated the individual steps, but usually, each woman produces one complete bag herself. The entire process takes about five to seven days, and the craft is so intuitive that one woman, who is 93 and has been blind for 10 years, is still weaving bags based on touch and feel.
The success of the JungleVine bags has resulted in a number of other entities contacting the villagers about buying their fiber to make carry-all bags and other products. Far from being concerned about the competition, Newbrough says bring it on.
“The more the merrier,” he said. “This is a miracle fiber, and the world is a big place. We can only reach a tiny fraction of the world’s population. We want to turn this invasive pest into an economically desirable product that people can put to use.”