By Irene Gavieiro Agud, UNDP Timor-Leste
It has been more than 40 years since the first time that Juliana Tebi's hands worked a loom. Her mother, aunts and grandmother were responsible for teaching her how interweave the threads placed parallel to a structure of wooden frames used to create the geometric and floral motifs which characterise the tais of Oé-Cusse. Now, four decades later, Juliana runs the Feto fitun Fronteira cooperative group together with other 21 women who make tais their way of life.
Tais weaving in Timor-Leste is an age-old tradition that has passed from generation to generation through women’s voices. For many women – especially those like Juliana, who are from rural areas - this practice represents a way to maintain an inherited cultural heritage and also to generate extra income for the sustenance of their families.
In the case of the women who form the Feto Fitun Fronteira group in the village of Oé-Silo - Bobometo, this activity constitutes their main source of income. The group started to work officially in 2002, but it was not until 2008 when they began to mobilise with the aim of starting to create a network of clients. Currently, Feto Fitun Fronteira group works actively throughout the entire Timorese territory, especially in Dili, where it has a large number clients and partners.
“When we created the group we did it with the objective of helping other women, especially those from rural areas to support the needs of their family, send their children to the school and not depend on their husband economically,” claims Joana Bobo, one of the group founders.
After over 15 years of hard work, Feto Fitun Fronteira group has become a benchmark for women's empowerment in the Oé-Cusse region. Nowadays, the group is composed of young girls in their twenties up to experienced women in their sixties, including Juliana Tebi who is the most veteran.
This variety of profiles has helped them to grow their business quickly. Nevertheless, they are also aware of their limitations.
“Our big challenge concerns marketing. There are more and more competitors in the market and we need training to be innovative, facilities to get our raw material and orientation to manage a bank account."
UNDP Timor-Leste through its work with the Regional Authority (RAEOA-ZEESM TL) is determined to provide support to these working groups of women to develop their businesses which, as for the members of Feto Fitun Fronteira, constitutes the main source of income for their families.
In the case of tais we are aware of the issue of market saturation so as the members of Feto Fitun Fronteira group expressed, we believe that the right path comes through innovation. It is necessary to reinvent the concept of tais, maintaining its cultural origin but giving it new uses aimed at a growing tourism sector in Timor-Leste and thus turning it into a motor for local and sustainable development.
In this way on a practical level UNDP is jointly working with the Regional Secretariat of Community Tourism in RAEOA - ZEESM TL to implement sewing trainings for these women with the objective of improving their weaving technique – thus increasing the quality of their products – and to teach them how to create new innovative models which allow them to transform the tais fabric into cases, backpacks or even baby-bibs. In addition, these groups receive business plan development training through the Oé-Cusse Business Incubator (OBI) Programme.
As a result, these women are increasing their income and as a final objective, this conceptual change aimed at the tourism sector will make it possible to revalue a century-old tradition that possesses a central place within the Atoni cultural heritage of Oé-Cusse.
Oé-Cusse tais: why so special?
The weaving of tais is an identity cultural factor of the Maubere people of Timor-Leste. It represents a centenarian tradition whose motifs change according to the district where they were manufactured. Nevertheless, although the tais are widely produced on the entire island of Timor (including Indonesian West Timor), those ones made in the region of Oé-Cusse have a special relevance.
It was in this small enclave where the tais designed for the Royal Family were manufactured. Known by the name of "Bet Bose", these tais are characterised by having certain floral and religious motifs and being made through an organic and traditional process that guarantees a quality difficult to obtain elsewhere.
As explained, the Feto Fitun Fronteira group – which has become a reference group on the Tais market nationally– the weaving process begins long before placing the first thread in the loom. Beforehand, there are several steps to follow from the selection of the raw material (local cotton mainly cultivated in the highlands of Oé-Cusse) to the dyeing of the previously formed threads.
In the case of Oé-Cusse, this whole process is organic: the fabrics are dyed using the natural colors of different plants, which explains why the traditional tais of this region are characterised by their orange, brown and black colours.