Apr 2015 - Natural Beads of Indigenous Malaysia - Reita Rahim
Talk by Reita Rahim, founder of Gerai OA
If you hold a high regard of indigenous handicrafts, and you are aware of the issues that are important to the Orang Asal (indigenous minorities) of Malaysia “like the land rights, mega-dams, deforestation and the right to self-determination” (Rahim, 2015), then you have already heard about Reita Rahim. For me, it was a delightful encounter with this enthusiastic and full-of-spirit lady.  
Reita holds a degree in graphic design and is a freelance craft researcher. She founded Gerai OA in 2004, a volunteer group that is not a NGO and certainly not a business (!) – even though they sell their indigenous crafts at bazaars and   special events (private and public), or wherever they are invited to display their mobile stalls.
“We focus on the orang asal communities because they have fewer avenues for help. It’s not realistic for the villagers to come out and trade all the time. We’re giving them an alternative place to market their handicraft and do away with the middleman syndrome.” (Rahim, 2012)
The volunteer group started with the aim of empowering the indigenous communities by bringing back to life their craft traditions and making them accessible to people who live in urban areas.  Through Reita´s research, which documents the indigenous heritage, she is able to implement training to improve the design, colour and quality of the crafts. This contributes to continuous control management and helps the indigenous women make the crafts even more attractive to the eyes of their customers, thus improving the women’s income.
One of the most impressive things about this noteworthy volunteer group is that 100% of the proceeds from their sales are returned to the artisans. There are two main reasons for this: first, because there is no interference of dishonest middlemen who often resell the crafts for a hefty profit and give unfair compensation to the skilled artist who has invested time and effort to create their work.  Second, the volunteers offer their personal vehicles to transport the handicrafts between the different locations where the mobile stalls are placed. According to Reita, a message is posted on the Facebook page of the Gerai OA asking for the availability of volunteers to take on diverse tasks. One of the most challenging tasks includes the collection of crafts from the remote villages. In some cases “volunteers may have to travel several hours by road or off-road through dense jungles, or on speedboats by sea” (Yap, 2012).
“I’ve met many of the artisans who thought nobody would buy their handicraft. Now they take pride in knowing that their work is appreciated by Malaysians and foreigners, says Puah Sze Ning, one of Gerai’s earliest volunteers” (Hui, 2012).





Source: Elevyn.com,  (2015) [Online] Available at: http://www.elevyn.com/codenavia/portals/ [Accessed 6 May 2015]

Given the logistics as well as safety concerns, Gerai OA only works with Orang Asal communities that invite the group in. Other volunteer tasks involve labelling every piece of craftwork on site. A few personal details of the artisan along with information about the materials and a description of the location where the craft was sourced, is written on this small label.  An account comparing the traditional vs. contemporary use is written to complete the information, all of which is needed in order to cherish the craft and truly acknowledge the craftsman behind each creation. 
During Reita’s talk at the Meritz House on Wednesday 22 of April, a mobile stall was set up for MCG members, giving us the opportunity to buy the indigenous handicrafts directly from her!
Further, Reita presented her paper on “Cultivating, Collecting and Hunting for Beads: An Introduction to organic materials used as beads by the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and the Rungus of Sabah.” She provided us with many interesting facts and we were able to learn more about the indigenous minorities of Malaysia, not only related to crafts but in general. For example, the Orang Asli is comprised of 18 ethnic groups and they are not homogeneous due to different languages and cultures. The Orang Asli are settled agrarians and only exist in Peninsular Malaysia. They make up “less than 1% of the Malaysian population” (Rahim, 2012). 
Gerai OA works and sells the crafts of the Temiar, a native group within the Orang Asli. As Reita said, this indigenous group still practices “swiddenig,” which means rotational farming, and therefore makes basketry using rattan, palm or other fibres. They also produce ceremonial crafts. A nice example is the bangles and rings for blowpipes and axes, called chenos.

With respect to the indigenous people of Sabah, we learned that they are called the Anak Negeri. One of the poorest indigenous groups in this area is the Rungus; they are located in the driest part of Sabah, around Kudat and Pitas. They have an agrarian lifestyle and live in longhouses, lacking in privacy but where everyone can keep ‘an eye out’ for each other, according to Reita's report.  Gerai OA markets the crafts of the Rungus, which “specialize” in beads because they are apparently “crazy about beads” and do beadwork for a living. 

Certainly the most challenging assignment for Gerai OA and for Reita particularly, is to achieve sustainability. The “age of plastic” poses a new threat because the beads are being replicated with plastic, a cheaper and faster way of manufacturing, but with negative 

The above are Temuan craft, from the Orang Asli ethnic group, distributed by Gerai OA.

A beautiful example is a tanjung, the term for a natural seed necklace. The seeds are “both wild harvested or cultivated” (Rahim, n.d.). Often seashells are also put to use.


consequences in terms of the preserving the traditional craft techniques and the indigenous heritage. That being said, the palm oil monoculture is benefitting the Temuan as they use the oil palm kernel for pendant beads. 

After the talk, Reita was very grateful to receive our financial contribution. Members also donated to the “Granny´s Groceries" program, which provides basic food for the elders in Orang Asli communities. 
Hopefully, the charismatic founder of Gerai OA, Reita Rahim, will return soon for a master class on the motifs and patterns of the indigenous crafts.
Submitted by Natalia Gutierrez



Hui, L. (2012). Archives | The Star Online. [Online] Thestar.com.my. Available at: http://www.thestar.com.my/story/?file=%2f2012%2f4%2f16%2flifeliving%2f11074257&sec=lifeliving [Accessed 6 May 2015].
Rahim, R. (n.d.). Malaysia Design Archive. Crafts of the Rungus. [Online] Malaysiadesignarchive.org. Available at: http://www.malaysiadesignarchive.org/crafts-of-the-rungus/ [Accessed 6 May 2015].
Yap, J. (2012). Earning a living with dignity. [Online] Borneo Post Online. Available at: http://www.theborneopost.com/2012/01/08/earning-a-living-with-dignity/ [Accessed 6 May 2015].