Ten Years in The Making – The Bag That Empowers Communities

Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is getting ready to host and celebrate the 10th annual Goroka Bilum Festival. The festival will run alongside the annual Goroka festival from 13–15 September and will be held at the Pacific Gardens Hotel.

Festival founder and founder of the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative, Florence Jaukae Kamel, has taken the Goroka Bilum Festival from humble beginnings to a three-day celebration involving Bilum Meris (Bilum Women) from across the Highlands of PNG. Florence said the festival provides an opportunity to celebrate and elevate the ancient skills and designs of bilum bags. It also provides an avenue to educate attendees about the importance of preserving and protecting both the traditional skills and designs.

“It’s important for people, especially international visitors to the festival, to understand that bilum is not just a product to be sold. Each bilum has a story. It involves planting, sewing and a cultural identity that involves a community of women and skills passed from one generation to another.

“When we engage with fibre, we are creating something, but we also participate in the historic traditions of tens of thousands of years. We are not only making art for our soul and for future generations, we are weaving the work of our ancestors.

“Bilum can now be seen on the streets of Sydney, New York, London, Suva and Apia – an indication of how far this unique product travels – and it’s important our traditional knowledge is respected and protected and people understand the difference between PNG bilum and a cheap knock-off made in a different county.”

A highlight of the festival will be the Bilum Walkabout Show on Saturday, 15 September. The show consists of a bilum pageant where, along with the announcement of the winners of the Bilum Bag Competition, weavers will showcase their creativity in the Bilum Fashion Competition.

Bilum has developed into a crucial source of income for PNG women, empowering them as micro-entrepreneurs, especially those living in the Highlands where there are few income-generating opportunities outside of subsistence farming. Bilum-weaving communities such as the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative, which supports over 50 female weavers, also provide much needed social support.

“Many of the women in our cooperative are HIV-positive, homeless and/or are single mothers who really need support – especially because in PNG there is no welfare or government support available,” said Ms Kamel.

Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) Australia has worked closely for nearly two decades with the Bilum Meris and communities in PNG. It saw the importance of the Goroka Bilum Festival in providing a domestic platform to showcase the skills of the Bilum Meris, and to expose international visitors to the world-renowned Goroka Bilum Festival and the story behind bilum.

PTI Australia’s Trade & Investment Commissioner, Caleb Jarvis, said the importance of building the profile of bilum and bilum communities into international markets is vital for creating a sustainable, export-ready industry.

“Many of the bilum-weaving communities we work with are remote and there is a perception that villages are dangerous for foreigners, creating a real barrier for international buyers. We are proud to have been part of the Goroka Bilum Festival since its inception and to see it grow each year. The Goroka Bilum Festival now brings weavers from across the Highlands together and helps to create connections between the informal weaving market and international buyers.”

Hagan Handicrafts and Giluwe Artisans Group Leader, Barbra Pagasa, said the ongoing support by PTI Australia in establishing sustainable connections and supporting the Goroka Bilum Festival has been vital for the livelihoods of the women weavers in her community.

“By working with PTI Australia and being involved in the Goroka Bilum Festival, the money that flows from international sales has enabled my women to pay for roofing iron, put food on the table and allows them to go to school,” Ms Pagasa said.

For further insight watch how bilum is empowering the lives of women in PNG.

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