Roll out the red carpet for Our Orang Ulu Weavers

The right time, place and people. That was how we created the longest mat in the world. Weaving all the different
groups together to produce a masterpiece for our future generations.

The objective, as our theme says, was TO INSPIRE. TO BIND. TO SOAR. That was our greatest achievement in this project – not only to inspire our Orang ulu weavers, but also those who live in rural areas to dream beyond their familiar terrain.

It was a project which involved hundreds of people – over 400 women weavers, men who collected, processed and split the rattan, our main sponsor Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), others such as Dayak Cultural Foundation, the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development and countless more.

It would surely bind us forever, with the mat a testament to those who believed in us and helped us to soar beyond Sarawak’s shores, or even Malaysia’s, and put us on an international footing.

That was why we did it – a project conceived in October last year with Datin Sri Debong Anyie, the chairperson of the Peng Doh Belaga, an NGO quietly helping Belaga rural women for the past 35 years improve their socio economic conditions through training, and setting up of micro businesses.

The project, called Mat Weavers Tale, came at the right time, to show how far our women had come and yet were still able to continue our traditional skills, such as weaving.

Next came the finance part, because no project of this size could be achieved without assistance. The sponsors saw the value of such an unorthodox method to document the lives of our people at this point in time.

Above:  From collecting, processing to splitting the rattan, 400 women weavers from different
                groups put together a 1128.38 metre mat, winning (weaving) hands down against Sweden’s
                797.51 metres long rug,for the Guinness World Record.

               Right: Feverish efforts were applied as each group sought to represent meaningful patterns to
               their allocated share of 500 metres each, displaying their weavers skill to the task.

But of course, we had to pick a standard of measurement. So we decided to go for it in a really big way. We decided to create a new Guinness World Record (GWR), as Sweden had held the record since 2010 of having the longest rug at 797.51m. We saw that it could surely be done if everyone set their minds to it.

              Final countdown to world record…

The only condition from GWR was that the woven mat had to be 28 inches in width, regardless of it being handmade or machine- made, or the material used. SEB suggested we double the length of the current record, so we allocated 500 metres each for the Baram, Bakun and Murum weavers community to produce.

Easier said than done, as we later found out.

Sarawak Energy, the local utilities supplier, was with us all the way.

A video documentary was also commissioned; to show how much better our lives have been after relocation and how energy can uplift the economy of the State. I have witnessed my people’s lives before and after the resettlement and can honestly say that being at the right place, that is our new resettlement homes, made the project possible because we were all accessible by phones and roads.

How did we get so many weavers from Baram, Bakun Resettlement Scheme and Murum Resettlement Scheme (both in Belaga) involved? It was easy … we said we wanted to leave a legacy behind for our future generation and the weavers would be the star of the show. We didn’t have to convince anyone, everyone just volunteered their time despite it being the harvest season. It had to be ready by the end of April – that was the main challenge.

Rolled out on the road for final measurement , the rattan mat weighed over a ton.

The satisfaction after months and months of hardwork was palpable as elation broke out in cheers to the announcement that the Guinness World Record was officially broken and won.

Temenggong Elizabeth Deng, the Baram paramount chieftain and I visited the Penan longhouses of Baram at the end of January. I then went around with the Peng Doh Chairperson to the longhouses in Belaga to inform them.

You can’t let the ripened padi wait, so many had to combine harvesting and then weaving during their free time. Many said they worked till 2 or 3 am daily to finish their quota. Quite a few complained of backaches and sleepless nights.

So in the interiors of Borneo, there was a host of women weaving their way to their objective. Not a hint was given to the outside world, maybe for fear we couldn’t make it. The challenges were many, from collecting the rattan, wrong measurements and the lack of time. But everyone persevered.

Finally, 16th May was decided on for the Grand Finale to be held at the Bakun Resettlement Scheme. But even by the end of April, we were nowhere near the target of 1,500 metres. Murum had produced the most beautiful intricate designs, weaving every motif passed on by their forefathers, and it had been time-consuming. For all that, Murum had only 100 metres out of the allocated 500 metres. Another 100 metres turned out to be only 22 inches in width and would be disqualified for not being the required 28 inches. Not only that, the sides were not woven yet.

Even those from the Bakun Resettlement Scheme had fallen short as the 10 longhouses involved were doing it in bits and pieces and didn’t know how many metres in total were done.

By the 11th of May, we knew some serious weaving was called for. The weavers from Baram agreed to add some more, and in the end, they weaved a total of 650 metres. Those from Belaga volunteered to come earlier to help make up the shortfall, although they were only supposed to be at the Bakun Resettlement Scheme to join all the mats together on the 14th of May.

Many didn’t sleep, just weaving quietly to try and make it as long as possible. In their minds, they couldn’t fail. So many months of work would go down the drain if the joined mat didn’t go beyond Sweden’s mat.

So it was with the biggest sigh of relief, tears and hugs when Rishi Nath, the adjudicator for GWR announced that, yes indeed, we had woven a total of 1128.38 metres. He summed it up nicely, when he said he was truly moved with the passion and commitment our people had put in to create such a record.

That’s how The Mat Weavers Tale played out. In addition, we are looking forward to the documentary and hope it will be seen around the world, to move others just as the longest hand-woven rotan mat has inspired us.

Livan Tajang holds a Master in Journalism Studies from University of Wales, Cardiff. As Project Director of Mat Weavers Tale she helped to coordinate and collaborate all aspects of the three month Guinness World Record project.

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