Who would have thought that a few women, sewing dolls on antique pedal powered Singer machines, in a small room on a remote island could change the lives of so many?
They may have had a humble beginning, but 12 years later, those women and dolls are the heart and soul of a successful women’s co-operative empowering impoverished women to grow and work with dignity.
Boneca de Ataúro is a heartening story, about ChangeMakers at work on a small island in Timor-Leste.
It all began when Ester Piera Zuercher, a Swiss artist, came to Atauro and trained local women in sewing and helped them to organise themselves as a co-operative. Today it is managed by its members, proving to be a sustainable business that gives fairly to all.
Their place is classroom like. Basic, serviceable. Doors and windows are open to let in the sea breeze, providing relief from the intense tropical heat. The sewing machine tables take up most of the space, loosely lined up, a large wooden table serves as a cutting table.
The women are very productive, the workflow is well organised, I’m yet to see anyone idle. Not an ounce of frenzy in the air, no overt busyness and no one appears to have the role of being ‘in charge’. At first I thought it was an ‘island pace’, then I realised it was about dignity and grace.
When I take time to understand their story, the reasons behind the dignity and grace emerge. They say it best…
It is a place for women of any age. Elderly women bring prudence, experience, patience; younger ones bring joy, and desire for the future.
It is a place where illiterate women find a space to learn; and where literate ones share their knowledge with the most.
It is a place where women find their space, their dignity and their economic independence.
The ‘Boneca’ is a beacon for other Ataúro women, who wish to grow and work with dignity.
Whilst the dolls gave them the break they needed, winning a public bid from UNICEF in 2008 to produce 3200 dolls for pre-school children in Timor-Leste, they now have a wide range of products including laptop bags, educational toys, homewares and a wide range of very cool tote bags. I have several pieces that I love and use everyday.
Their embroidery work has become a signature. Detailed, beautiful, and worked somewhat freehand, it is an art. They’re making quality artisan products, with pride. This is not a place where corners are cut to obtain fast production. One laptop bag is two and half days of work.
Last time I dropped by I detected a buzz in the air. The clatter of the pedal power seemed a little more intense.
The sewing machines had spilled out on to the open verandah out the back.
Every machine was busy. I could see piles of fabric, cut out ready to go.
Turns out they had an order for 400 or so laptop bags for Emmanuel College in Warrnambool, Australia. That’s 6 months of work with guaranteed payment.
The school has established an on-going relationship, with a group of recently graduated year 12 students travelling to Atauro each year. The group arriving in November for a 9 day stay will bring the laptop bags home to be used by students next year.
65 women are now at work in the Boneca de Ataúro co-op. Women who can now afford to connect electricity to their house, have enough food for the family and send their kids to school.
Quietly chatting to some of the women I find out that many of them walk an hour to and from a ‘nearby’ village every day.
The track runs up steep hills and along the rugged coastline. At times you have to scramble over huge boulders, and depending on the tide you either choose to get wet feet or climb higher. Add in some heat and it’s no walk in the park.
I’ve done that walk. It was a complete reality check.
After a big day of hiking and exploring, starting at sunrise, we ended up in that village. Due to some misunderstanding on my part and a naïve understanding of the term ‘nearby’ we were exhausted by the time we got there.
The only way out was via a small fishing boat (ditched that idea when we checked out the wild seas), or to do the walk (you and I would call it trekking) in the late afternoon sun. Reality hit… to get to school, to a clinic or to work, this is the norm.
I make a promise to never ever complain about having to wait for a taxi. Really?
Many of the women have worked at Boneca de Ataúro for more than 5 years, doing that walk every day. My admiration for their tenacity went up another notch.
Every time I drop by I’m tempted to ask if I can sit down and help. I love sewing and have years of experience in the fashion lifestyle industry. But I’ve learnt to resist. Whilst I may see it as a contribution really all I’m doing is taking away someone’s job. The co-op hasn’t been built on hand outs.
The ‘Boneca’ is a cooperative where the pride of earning a living with your own hand is nurtured.
I am more help by sharing their story and piling our Sharing Timor-Leste guests into a tuk-tuk for the trip down the bumpy road to Boneca de Ataúro. Everyone goes home with unique gifts for themselves or others, happy they’re making a difference.
How can you help? The biggest challenge is sales. If you have a way of connecting them with schools or offices for orders of laptop bags, or educational toys etc. please contact via the Boneca website. Because of the lack of in-country formal creative and entrepreneurial education in Timor-Leste they have set up a very successful artist-in-residence program. They’re open to proposals. Full details here. Or simply support them by joining their FB page. Every mention, every share helps.