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The spokes of Gerai OA Print E-mail
Monday, 27 July 2009 16:40

If Gerai OA founder Reita Faida Rahim is the hub, the indefatigable volunteers are the spokes that keep Gerai’s wheel spinning. From steering 4WDs through muddy potholes, to tagging handicraft, to running the stalls, the helpers are Reita’s lifeline.

“They are a godsend! They’ve come through with Milo in hand (her staple drink) when I really need them,” says Reita. “But I can’t over-rely on anyone since most are working people and it’s hard to get them on short notice.”

Some volunteers like Shafinaz Suhaimi of Wild Asia rope in her network of dive buddies to become fellow volunteers. Through her Facebook contacts, Shafinaz collected bundles of used clothing and household stuff that were distributed in some of the Temiar and Jakun villages, Reita says.

Founders of Elevyn, (from left) Devan Singaram, Mike Tee and Pauh Sze Ning.

“Through Shafi (Shafinaz), we also got some good deals for the medicines.”

Most of Gerai’s volunteers were customers who loved the stall’s concept and crafts, like Vicki Fennessy of Australia, who first met Reita at the National Craft Day held at Kraftangan Malaysia in 2006.

“I decided to help out mainly because 100% of the monies go back to the artisans, and Gerai helps those artisans who otherwise would have no avenue for exposure,” says Fennessy, who’s here on the Malaysia My Second Home programme.

“I’m retired so I’ve the time to get involved in activities that please me.”

Stretched too thinly

Because it is a voluntary organisation, Gerai sees helpers come and go.

However, some volunteers like Puah Sze Ning have stuck around since the start. Puah, 25, first got involved with Gerai when she was interning for the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC).

Gerai OA volunteer and freelance videographer, Emran Taib.

“Sometimes I need time to do my own things on weekends. But if there are no volunteers, Reita has to clock in 12-hour shifts with no food or toilet breaks, so it’s hard to say no, but it’s also hard to keep doing it,” Puah says.

To better coordinate the pool of volunteers, Puah has compiled a list of e-mail addresses, and notifies everyone en masse. She also writes articles and posts them on-line on sites belonging to COAC, outdoor gear company Corezone and conservation group Wild Asia. Puah also utilises web tools like Facebook.

Seeing the impact

“I’ve met many of the artisans who thought nobody would buy their crafts,” says Puah. “Now they take pride in knowing that their work is appreciated by Malaysians as well as foreigners.”

Tompoq Topoh, the Mah Meri group of women weavers from Carey Island, is a great example.

“Initially, only Gendoi Samah (an elderly lady) could weave but because of Reita’s encouragement, up to about 30 can now weave all the patterns,” Puah points out.

“The women are also empowered in providing for their families. They realise the need to revive the craft not only for additional income but also because it’s culturally significant.”

Raman Bah Tuin, the co-founder of Gerai, gained tons of exposure when he helped out at Gerai. A talented Semai pensol (nose flute) player and artisan, Raman has appeared on TV and done interviews with the media.

“Today, he earns so much more from his craft and performances, unlike five years ago,” says Reita.

Gerai’s indigenous trainers and craft demonstrators also have the opportunity to travel.

“The exposure is great as they feel that they too can contribute and not just be on the receiving end of handouts.”

Emran Taib, a volunteer from Kuala Lumpur, was initially roped in to help Gerai pick up crafts from Tasik Bera, Pahang.

“On that first visit, I got to film an elderly Semelai man playing a musical string instrument made out of freshwater pufferfish skin and another old man playing a gambang (wooden xylophone) and a flute made out of bamboo,” says Emran, 32, a freelance videographer. “As a sound engineer, I appreciated the raw authentic music I was hearing.”

Regrettably, the artisan who shaped these instruments will likely take his craft to the grave because the younger folks aren’t keen to learn, observes Emran. But at least Gerai is documenting this knowledge for posterity.

Long-term model

Despite its zealous helpers, is Gerai sustainable?

“I think Gerai’s concept is crucial for the revival of indigenous crafts as it keeps prices low. The items move fast and therefore the orang asli are encouraged to make more and improve on the quality,” says Puah.

“But perhaps it’s not sustainable.”

Puah and her friends, Mike Tee and Devan Singaram, founded web-based enterprise Elevyn (pronounced as “eleven”) to provide market access for indigenous and marginalised communities. Through Elevyn’s site ( shoppers can buy directly from the artisans or through an NGO working directly with them.

More than 75% of the sale monies goes back to the artisans, while another small percentage is put aside to fund specific local causes.

“One suggestion we have for Gerai is to provide these communities access to the market via,” says Puah.

Gerai OA is currently discussing a potential collaboration with Elevyn to form an e-Gerai OA version by the end of the year, Reita says.

“Once the artisans are independently able to promote and sell their products, Reita would have done her job even if Gerai closes down,” adds Fennessy.

But as Emran sums it up: “Everything about Gerai is Reita!”

“It is about the trust she has built and nurtured with the villagers for years. She knows and cares for the artisans and their families. And you don’t just walk into the village without Reita,” says Emran.

Now, those are hard shoes to fill indeed.


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