Over the last decade, Norlha has trained over 150 artisans with skills to become expert weavers, spinners, tailors, dyers and felters at the Norlha Atelier, with more than 72% of the artisans being female. As we reflect on the role, status and achievements of women all around the world today, we invite Wandi Kyi, one of Norlha’s employees, to tell us about herself.
Who are you?
My name is Wandi Kyi.
Where do you live?
I live in Ritoma Village.
What is your job?
I'm a weaver at Norlha. I began with spinning in 2007, then turned to weaving a few months later, and I have remained as one for more than a decade.
What were you doing before arriving at Norlha?
Before I came to Norlha , I was living with my family and grazed our animals on the pasture.
How does one become who you are? Tell us your story.
I will be 35 years old this year, and am a mother of three children. From the age of five or six, I grew up with my parents grazing on the pasture all year round. My older brother and I stayed home to help our parents and by age ten, I could cook and do all the house chores to help my mother. My younger brother went to school and he often urged me to go with him but I didn’t realize the benefits of going to school and knew my mother needed me, so I stayed home. I regret it now, as I never learned to read and write.
A nomad’s life is hard. We wake up at 4 or 5 am every day, and collect the dung of more than 100 yaks with a shovel and thrown into the basket we carry on our back, then carry it to the nearby dung pile, shape it into thin paddies that we lay to dry in the sun. The wet dung is heavy and it is hard work. This takes several hours and after that, we milk the dris or female yaks, then separate the milk and make cheese and butter. It is a hard life, but I look back to it fondly, at the nature around us and the open spaces.
I got married in the second year of working at Norlha, my husband also works there. Although we are from the same village, I didn't know him, but working at Norlha, we got to know each other. Our marriage was an arranged one, in agreement between our two families, in the traditional way.
How did you meet Dechen, the Co-Founder of Norlha?
When Norlha was founded in 2007, It had only 10 employees and I was one of them. Before the workshop was built, we set up tents across the river, and under Dechen’s guidance, we set up all our equipment and began working in the tents.
Why did you decide to work at Norlha?
I have an elder brother and younger brother, and my elder brother is a nomad and works with my parents. It is our custom that if there is a boy in the family, he will inherit the herd and the girls are married out to other families or sent to school to have a job later. Traditionally, the social status of a married woman was very low, especially if she marries into another family. Therefore, my parents didn't let me marry young and when Norlha was established, they were eager for me to work there.
You are a weaver, how do you work?
Norlha considers weaving as very important, and hired foreign experts to train us. It was difficult when I first started learning to weave on the hand looms, as I could not read, or take notes. But I tried hard, and I gradually learned and became proficient. For the past two years, I have been learning the weaving method of jacquard looms. I enjoy the challenge and work with enthusiasm. Once a weaver has mastered the weaving patterns of the fabrics and scarves, he or she doesn’t need to count the steps during the weaving process, so we are free to recite prayers and mantras nonstop. On a good day, we can recite 200 Tara prayers. This is exciting for a Buddhist.Whatever the season or the weather, we need not worry. The workshop is warm, and one works to the rhythm of the creaking of the loom and the chanting of the workers, and this makes work a happy time.
What material do you use?
What does this material bring you?
Yak Khullu has brought a new way of life to my village. In the past, Ritoma had no source of stable income except for herding. Since Norlha began producing high-end products made from yak khullu, our lives changed. In the past, we Tibetans mainly raised horses, yak and sheep. Their meat, milk, wool and leather were used for our food and daily necessities. We spun and wove the wool, made our black tents with the rough yak hair and butter and cheese from the milk. We did not know how to transform it and commercialize it. Transforming yak khullu has brought my family a plentiful and harmonious way of life.
What do you feel about this material?
I am very interested in yak khullu because I grew up with the yak. I remember when I was a child, my mother had a felt cloak. When it rained when we milked the dris, we wore it to protect us from the cold mountain climate as it was waterproof. When the yak khullu molts naturally at the beginning of summer every year, we picked it off and used some for daily necessities and sold the remainder. Now, when I work with yak khullu, I feel the connection with the pasture, and it gives me a feeling of warmth and comfort.
You are Tibetan, what does it mean?
I think that a Tibetan should not only believe in the Buddha, but also practice Buddhism in one’s daily life; make offerings of pure water to the Buddha at one’s home altar, burn incense, pray for all beings, and prostrate. On the first and eighth day of each month, or on Buddhist festivals, one must go to the temple to pray, prostrate and recite mantras. The most popular prayer is the six syllable mantra of Om Mani Padme Hung that our elders recite every day, regardless of their activity, muttered while grazing animals, milking, or doing chores. The sound of the mantra is soothing and will permeate all your activity. Tibetans have a saying that no one teaches you this mantra, but it will come down to you from your elders and it will fill your life, without having learned it. Usually we like to wear prayer beads, used to count the mantras, around our necks or wrapped around our wrist. Though prayer beads are not materially valuable, the connection with the mantras make them precious.
What influence does this culture have on your life, your work?
It has so much! Though I have never been to school, Norlha sometimes invites lamas and scholars to hold teachings for the employees, briefly introducing them to the meaning of prayers, and on how to apply the basic principles of Buddhism in our everyday life. I was fortunate to have participated in these lectures and have learned a lot.
I also try my best to integrate my practice in my daily life and work by avoiding lying or getting angry and taking one’s work seriously. It is sometimes extremely difficult to do everything in accordance with the Dharma and even while reciting the six-syllable mantra I may do something that is not good for others.
Whenever there are Buddhist festivals and ceremonies in my village, such as the holy month of Sagadawa, we make prostrations and recite mantras and try to do good deeds, as any good deeds done in that month will reap the double in positive karma. I wake up early in the morning, offer water, light a butter lamp and a stick of incense, prostrate and pray. I will set a goal of 300 to 500 prostrations for the day accompanied and recite thousands of mantras. After work, I will go with my coworkers to the temple and circumambulate reciting mantras.
These are all important elements of my life, and they bring a lot of happiness. Every time the children wake up and wash their faces, or before going to bed, my husband and I make them read some simple Buddhist scriptures and recite the six-syllable mantra.
What is your relationship with nature?
Because I was born in an environment where people live in harmony with nature, I feel very much part of it. I don’t think I could live in a place where there are no mountains, water, horses, cattle and sheep. Sometimes I go shopping in the nearby town of Tso on weekends. If I stay too long, I feel my spirit is about to burst and I realize how the vast prairie is the home of my soul.
What does beauty mean?
Many people today only care about beauty of the surface, but when I was a child, my parents and grandparents always emphasized that as a Tibetan, you should be kind-hearted, and that real beauty lies in the heart. Therefore, I feel that the most beautiful people are those who recite mantras, do prostrations, are kind to others and don’t talk and gossip too much.
What have the past 10 years meant for you and your future?
In these ten years, I had a stable income thanks to my job. I met my husband, got married and had children. I feel lucky that everything is going well. These ten years have been a turning point in my personal life, one that took me from grazing to weaving, and being single to starting a family. We also built a house. My life was built during these ten years, and laid the foundation for the rest of my life.