Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Meet Agila

Weaving for about a year now, Agila is one of the newest women to learn how to make basic baskets. She was one of 13 women selected in April 2010 for basket-weaving training supported by a grant from the global financial company, UBS. The grant covers 4 weeklong trainings over the course of a year and pays the women for the baskets they produce during that time.

As a low-income resident of the Rumah Panjang area on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Agila was one of the women referred for the training. "Rumah Panjang" means "long house" and is a term for modest housing utilized by indigenous or nomadic people living mostly in jungle and rural areas. Each long house development is different, but the government subsidizes these particular houses for people who are suffering from severe economic hardships.

Rumah Panjang or Long Houses

Each unit within the long house complex has a single room that serves as both a living room and bedroom for its inhabitants, a kitchen, and a restroom. Agila grew up in the house, which belongs to her parents and now houses 11 family members including her 5 siblings and their wives/husbands and children. The government charges a nominal monthly fee to live in the long houses and the residents are responsible for paying their own electric and water bills.

Agila's niece and nephew

Agila received an education until she was 15 years old. Her favorite class was math and she dreamed of becoming a teacher. As the eldest child in her family, she dropped out of school to help take care of her siblings. She married in her early 20’s to a man she was dating for a number of years, but marital issues dissolved her union five years later.

5 years after the divorce, she awoke with a high fever and went to a public hospital for care. She was released from the hospital with an inconclusive diagnosis and six years ago she lost feeling in both of her legs and one of her hands. Nerve damage now prevents her from walking normally and standing up straight. She can only walk with assistance or by holding onto stationary objects and furniture. She tried physical therapy and acupuncture, but the treatments were too costly and required transport that she does not have. Now she relies on natural supplements to improve her condition. Since taking AyuVita pills, Agila feels that her strength has increased and she feels more mobile. She spends the majority of her income on the pills, which cost RM400.00 (about $130 USD) per month.

Other than the low-cost housing, Agila does not receive any official support. To sustain herself, she weaves baskets, prepares and sells a local dish called Nasi Lemak on the roadside, and creates strings of flowers for special occasions and places of worship. Because the basket orders vary per month and Agila is still perfecting her weaving technique, she must work additional jobs to ensure earnings. Her siblings do not have steady incomes and when they do it is put towards their own families’ needs. Agila’s parents make money to cover the rent, bills, and food by working as gardeners and cleaners at a local golf course.

Agila and her sister making strings of flowers

Flowers Agila collected

Even though Agila lacks full mobility in one of her hands, she is still able to make 13 different styles of baskets. The improvement in her confidence and feeling of self-reliance encouraged her to develop other skills, like making the strings of flowers. While her family members are unable to provide her with financial assistance, they help her gather magazines to make baskets and are supportive of her participation in the Salaam Wanita project. Agila remains hopeful that one day she’ll be able to walk normally again and that her jobs will continue to sustain her.

Agila showing us one of her baskets

Thank you, Agila, for welcoming us in your home and sharing your story.

Author: Maria Skouras

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