Our dear Kak Nelly passed away in Sarawak, yesterday morning. This news was heart wrenching, as it was when we found out she had terminal lung cancer.
Kak Nelly, was the first Malaysian artisan we worked with at Earth Heir. In 2015, when we won the British Council / Arthur Guinness Foundation Social Enterprise Award, we were asked to make several Malaysian artisan products. Before that point, I was travelling throughout the South East Asian nations and India, working with artisans outside of Malaysia. Partly due to my urban living ignorance, thinking that there are hardly any artisans left in Malaysia (except for batik and songket artisans). With the commission from the British Council, I began travelling throughout Malaysia and Kak Nelly was the very first artisan in Malaysia whom I built a relationship with.
Kak Nelly and I worked on the first plastic packaging strip bag together. Making several prototypes before it was launched. In late 2015, while I was in the US for my Eisenhower Fellowship travel, I received the news that my alma mater, the Wharton School, was going to order about 400 bags from Earth Heir for the Wharton Global Forum in Kuala Lumpur. I contacted Kak Nelly and asked if we could work on this order together. Initially, she said no. She said there was no way she would be able to weave that many bags in time. Over the next few months, I worked with Kak Nelly on the costing of her raw materials, time needed, and showing her how she could oversee other weavers so we could make the bags in time. And….we did it!.
The order enabled Kak Nelly to earn almost 8 months of income. That is when I realised the full potential of working with partners who saw the value of ethically made products which make an impact. That year, 2016, we moved into our current studio space in Ampang, which also marked a new milestone in our journey.
Over the years, there have been times when Kak Nelly was upset at me, when I had given her feedback on the quality and consistency of her work. “Sasi, I’m an artist….not a robot”, she said. But as time went on and our friendship grew, she thanked Earth Heir for the training she received, it enabled her to improve the quality of everything she weaved. She understood how to price her products, she learned how to work on larger orders for other clients, and how to make bags of a high and consistent quality - watch the video of Kak Nelly here. As the main breadwinner, Kak Nelly increased her income and was able to educate her children to the university level and moved to a bigger home. The day the footage for this video was taken, was essentially the day I lost my father in November, 2018, when he went into a coma. Kak Nelly knew the pain I was in.
And now, with the pandemic and all that has happened, I didn’t get to see Kak Nelly before she passed. But my last memory of her was so joyful. Kak Nelly was an example of perseverance and hard work. My heart aches as I write these words, but I am grateful her daughter is now working with us, it’s like you’re still with us, Kak.
Kak Nelly, you were much loved. I am going to miss our chats and your laugh.
Till we meet again.