TELLING a story without words may be a daunting task, but there are some aspects of human ability that — even without words — do stand out and speak clearly for themselves.
The skills of Siti Haminah Talib, also known as Mok Su, a 64-year-old weaver from the Setiu district of Terengganu, are one of these.
Mok Su was born deaf and mute. She communicates using sign language of her own devising. It is understood only by those who are close to her. However, her very being is an expression of herself.
When one observes her at work and the products she makes, it is easy to recognise that this mute woman is speaking to us in so many ways.
Mok Su is an expert in the craft of plant weaving, specialising in the wild grass species of Lepironia articulata, locally known as kerechut. With her crafting magic, she is able to transform this unassuming wetland grass into the finest quality bags and tikar mats, traditionally used in Malaysian households.
Learning the skill early on from her mother, Mok Su is able to weave her craft in a way that peers and students find difficult to follow.
“If you give her mats to a blind person, they can tell Mok Su’s work from others’ right away,” said her sister-in-law, Norlida Ismail.
For Mok Su, raised in the flora-rich district here, it comes as no surprise that her life and work are intertwined with nature.
I observed, from start to finish, what it took to transform blades of fresh kerechut into perfectly functional products, firstly, in the open wetlands of Beris Tok Ku, where I accompanied Mok Su and friends on a typical day of harvesting.
Wading through the marshes in the midday heat, green blades dancing taller than Mok Su’s petite five-foot frame, she tugs at the blades until they are free from the soil. She then places a bunch on a dry bank before tying them together.
The ends are cut and the trimmed blades are massaged in clay to be strengthened. They are scattered out in the sun to dry, before they are flattened by pounding, in preparation for weaving.
From the palms of her hands to the soles of her bare feet, she connects with Mother Nature at every stage, in a literal demonstration of what it means to be one with nature.
Then once more, in a final phase of solidarity, she takes each blade between her fingers and begins weaving her magic.
This whole process is more than just daily labour as it is also time for the women to meet and socialise.
“It’s during this time we can meet, we can talk,” says Rohani Shafi’i, who runs the kerechut workshop.
“When we search for the kerechut plant, it’s in an open space where there are no distractions. It’s a space to relax our minds.”
However, with just over 10 kerechut weavers in the area that make an income from the plant, the importance of the kerechut wetland areas is sometimes dismissed.
They are often regarded as wastelands, and habitat destruction and fragmentation could threaten the livelihoods of women like Mok Su.
Also, waning demand for traditionally hand-made, naturally-sourced products has caused a decline in consumer interest or even curiosity about plant weaving.
Tikar mats and baskets are now being pushed aside in the competitive market by products made from synthetic fibres.
University Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) human ecologist Dr Jarina Mohd Jani, who has conducted research in the area since 2006, said: “People do not realise that these wetlands have many functions. They help to buffer flooding and filter the water from upriver.
“The fact that there are women still using resources from the swamps shows that it has a strong meaning to them. They are connected to these areas, but the challenge is making others aware of that.”
In 2018, with UMT, Jarina helped secure the preservation of over 20 acres of a kerechut-specific site in Beris Tok Ku here, ensuring its protection for the community.
She also began the Mek Flora Project, a social entrepreneurship initiative that aims to highlight the special relationship between people and nature through eco-tourism.
Through the project, Mok Su and her fellow plant weavers can receive tourists at their homes to observe the process of plant-weaving, from harvesting right through to the final stages.
This opens an avenue for them to share knowledge and gain additional income through special, tailor-made, experiential packages, while also highlighting the importance of their surroundings.
In total, the project involves twenty-four plant users across five villages here: Beting Lintang, Gong Batu, Pengkalan Gelap, Fikri and Beris Tok Ku. They also utilise wild plants, such as Pandanus tectorius (pandan laut), used for making mats, and Nypa fruticans (nipah), used to make cigarette wrappers and baskets.
As part of the Mek Flora Project, Jarina also plans to document Mok Su’s particularly unique weaving method, to capture them in step-by-step video tutorial modules.
As Mok Su herself is unable to communicate her skills verbally, the video instructions will ensure that her skills are passed on to the next generation of would-be crafters.
“She is a hidden gem because she puts herself in her work. It was Mok Su’s attention to detail that made her stand out from the others,” Jarina said.
“She’s very particular about how the material is processed. The way she weaves and folds, it’s a work of art.”
The sentiment is shared by consumers who often insist that the products they buy are made specifically by Mok Su.
“She has become somewhat of an ambassador for the Mek Flora Project and the standard for others to follow. I call her The Silent Master Weaver of Setiu Wetlands.”
With only a handful of plant users in the area, Jarina said the project was not simply about the products they made, but inspiring a connection with nature and highlighting our responsibility as human beings to use sustainable resources.
“It’s important to remember that what keeps us resilient is our connection to nature.
“These are women that are hands-on, touching lives and making a living from living things. They are keeping the connection between humans and plants alive.
“It’s important that we acknowledge women like Mok Su, and their role in upholding our heritage and keeping nature close to us, because this is what keeps us rooted.”