The Story Cloth of Myanmar

I read the stories of the Rohingya: the more than 600,000 Rohingya in western Myanmar attacked violently by their government, driven from their ravaged homes, running for their lives after watching their parents diced with machetes and thrown into ditches, their daughters raped, their villages - 354 of them - burned to cinders. Their life in Myanmar, always uncertain and unrecognized, is now in ashes. The remaining huddle in refugee camps in Bangladesh, while the violence they survived seeps relentlessly into their memory like sewage water into their tents.

I try to reach Rocky and Julie in the midst of this terror. Living in Rangoon, these two young entrepreneurs work with artisans in the same areas of western Myanmar as the Rohingya. They don’t answer for days, then weeks. I worry. At last I learn that Rocky and Julie have gone far into the mountains to see that the women artisans are safe - women of the Chin minority, also marginalized in their isolated mountain villages, also persecuted. The women are okay, I learn. Traumatized by all that visited their region, perhaps, but still picking up their needle and thread each day to tell the story of their lives.

But what story, I wonder? I’ve loved the embroidered throws we receive from their hands, embellished with charming depictions of their daily life. Goats grazing. Corn growing. Men harvesting. Women stewing up the harvest. Masked creatures celebrating. Pigs on a spit. They call it a Story Cloth, because the women freely depict their lives in visual freehand and in intimate detail.

But what of the news that slips into their villages of nearby genocide? What of the ethnic cleansing that bloodies their land? In the mola textiles of Panama, bombs and bullets and machetes show up occasionally instead of fishes and flowers. In the kangas of East Africa, the batiks of Indonesia - helicopters hover - women know how to explode their textile work with a the monstrous truth of their days.

So, what does it mean that the Chin women, in the midst of unthinkable terror, pick up their needle and thread, and continue to depict the tender mercies of their rural life? That they return to the grace of food, the bright colors of children and the sloping shoulders of their goats, the fragile sprigs of their hope?

What’s the story, then?  That life can be good, and peaceful, and nourishing, I imagine.  I find it brave, this telling, this insistence on celebrating life as they have received it, as they hope to hold it, and they mean to pass it on to their children. There is a certain defiance in it - refusing to give up on the center of goodness just because fear darkens the corners of their awareness.

There is always a need for truth-telling Oprah reminded women this week. And now is the time, she preached with passion at the Golden Globe awards, while women around the world jumped to their feet, tears in their eyes, and cheered.   On the mountainside of Myanmar, there is also a small pocket of women telling their story in the language of cloth.  It’s a story about life as they hold it dear.  

That, too, is a truth worth telling.  May you find your story, too, and strength in the telling of it.  


All the best,
Susan Hull Walker