The traditional bags are a crucial source of livelihood for PNG women, providing many their first opportunity to enter the formal economy and escape rural poverty.
A bilum is a traditional woven string bag worn mainly by women in Papua New Guinea (PNG). They come in different colors and styles according to their origin, so bilums from the Highlands region are generally made of wool and brightly colored, while Gulf bilums are made of animal fur or vines, and its drab colors come from natural, plant-based dyes.
These bags are a crucial source of livelihood for PNG women, providing many their first opportunity to enter the formal economy and earn money in areas such as the Highlands, where inhabitants of remote villages have few opportunities outside of low-income subsistence farming.
Women thus become empowered as micro-entrepreneurs, elevating their status in the rural communities they belong to, and boosting their decision-making power within their own families.
Apoa Komia, 45, has been making and selling bilums for a decade and displays her stock on the fence that surrounds Mt Hagen Airport. She learned the skill from her mother, who started weaving bilums to sell them to European missionaries who admired the bags upon visiting her hometown when Apoa was just a child.
“I enjoy making bilums,” she said. “I’m not an educated woman, so making bilums is very much part of my life and the only way I can financially support my husband and nine children.”
Like saris are more than a traditional dress in South Asia, bilums are more than a bag for many PNG women.
Rosa Mathew, a 40-year-old mother of seven, is a self-taught bilum weaver and explained it takes more than two weeks of hard work to produce one bag.
“All my designs tell stories of people and places, they are all my own and I am proud of them,” she said.
Some bilums have geometrical patterns that identify their owner as belonging to a certain tribe or clan. Bags with more complex patterns are proudly displayed at public events such as festivals or bride price payment ceremonies in a society where this garment far transcends use a mere fashion accessory.
Bilums can be a gift from a loved one, a memento from one’s hometown, a symbol of wealth or of one’s position in society. Women tie their bilums around their foreheads to maximize their strength and for better balance when transporting a heavy load. Thanks to the resistant and elastic natural fabric, mothers use bilums as hammock-cradles for babies suspended from trees. And some women nowadays even use pocket-sized bilums to carry their cellphones.
Well known across the country, bilums are now becoming increasingly available in international markets as tourists buy them as souvenirs, and a French company that makes bags and seatbelts from recycled plastic has registered the name as a trademark.
In Western society, men and women may typically carry money, makeup, keys and other personal items in their bags. In PNG, bilums tell stories of communities and societies through the patterns. They carry babies and other precious cargo and they provide many women the opportunity to enter the formal economy and in doing so these versatile bags have become symbols of the economic empowerment of women in PNG.
Perhaps their internationalization will bring even more income earning opportunities for the women of PNG who make them and their families who depend on those sales to escape poverty in the country’s remote rural areas.