The lives of master weavers in rural Bhutan are forever changed through ANA by Karma.
“Gyelmo,” she says softly, pointing to herself.
I look blankly at her. “Err… Gyelmo?” I repeat like a parrot. And then, my brain whirling, it suddenly comes to me: “Gyelmo! Oh my… Gyelmo!” I embrace her joyously, tears welling in my eyes.
You see, the Gyelmo that I remembered was a painfully shy village housewife. In the summer of 2015, I was sitting in her little room, on the floor, teaching her how to use a measuring tape. She hardly made eye contact. A year later, Gyelmo was still bashful. It was almost impossible to take a photo of her, as she would cover her face whenever I held up my camera.
Yet standing in front of me in November 2018 is a confident, elegant lady. She is looking at me steadily, with a smile. I can hardly believe it is the same Gyelmo. Her transformation from a village housewife into a businesswoman is so startling that I feel overawed.
In 2014, I was holidaying in Bhutan when I met a poor village housewife who displayed keen talent in making intricate weavings. What I thought was a one-off offer to help her to set up a home business, quickly snowballed into the ANA by Karma we know today. Within four months of the accidental start to my social entrepreneurship, we sold more than 1,000 handmade scarves and enrolled the entire village into this budding venture. By 2015, we were providing training for even more weavers and encouraging them to become designers. So many of them would giggle and hide their faces as I talked to them, probably feeling a little intrigued that a foreigner was sitting in their midst babbling in a strange language! Yet I continued to speak and work with them at their weaving looms — which usually drew lots of laughter as I was hopeless at weaving. Soon, they got a little more comfortable with me, and my crazy ideas about making them “businesswomen”.
A year later in 2016, my weaver sisters were making scarves to a high standard of quality — in fact their handiwork was so good that even fellow Bhutanese found it hard to believe the scarves were handmade in Bhutan. This gave the weavers much confidence, knowing that they were on the right track. By July 2016, a dedicated ANA Trust Fund was established for the weavers’ benefit, with the guidance of the National Bank of Bhutan. This very act gave the women much to think about: they knew that all the profits of the social enterprise would go into their Trust Fund and into their community. With the proceeds, ANA runs training programmes such as business skills and basic computer skills for women and children. The weavers got very serious about running the business well.
To help them further establish themselves, financial literacy training was introduced, including budgeting, foreign currency and stock management. As an accountant, I believe the best way to empower a woman is to give her financial skills. As our lessons got harder, I kept saying to the weavers with great enthusiasm, “Yes, you can do it!” No matter how many times I had to repeat the lessons, I would do it with great patience because I deeply admired them for their determination to learn; and they saw this as their only chance to climb out of poverty, literally using their own bare hands.
Within four months of the accidental start to my social entrepreneurship, we sold more than 1,000 handmade scarves and enrolled the entire village into this budding venture.
In 2017, hardly three years from when we started, Pema Choden — a young mother of four who began with ANA as a weaver in 2015 — rose from supervisor to become the CEO in Bhutan for the venture. She took charge of the 100 women whom ANA trained and ensured that they would get continuous training to upgrade the quality of their work. Her touching story of “From Zero to CEO” inspired many youths and women in Bhutan to pursue their dreams, no matter how lowly the starting point was.
Every time I go to Bhutan to train my weaver sisters, I would look at their faces in amazement. Zangmo, our new supervisor, is looking confident. Dema’s eyes are sparkling. Pema’s face is radiant. Oh my. Gone are the bashful village housewives. In front of me are women in business. How confident they look. How beautiful they have become. The look of empowered women shines through their faces.
Like Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things, but each one of us can do small things with great love.” Never once did I think, that my small act in 2014 of helping one Bhutanese housewife would have this far-reaching impact of transforming so many lives. That is why, when I look at the beautiful, smiling Gyelmo before me, tears well up. With amazement. With awe. With pride.
I end this article by sharing once again: please just go and do that small thing with great love. You never know whose life you will touch and change for the better.
The writer Quin SQ Thong (left) with Gylemo.
QUIN SQ THONG
Quin SQ Thong is a Chartered Accountant, working as Managing Director Asia for Wilmington Plc listed in UK. She is also the Founder, Financier and Hope Officer (Volunteer) of ANA by Karma, volunteering her spare time to ANA by Karma, and describing it as her efforts to “do small things with great love.” ANA by Karma is a social enterprise with a mission to spread happiness from Bhutan to the world, one scarf at a time. It empowers underprivileged illiterate village housewives to become financially independent utilising their weaving skills. For more information, visit www.anabykarma.com.