Maeshee Pranom Pengtowong
Maeshee or “Nun” Pranom Pengtowong, known to one and all as Pronom, is the literal and spiritual leader of the Pa Dang Village Women Weavers’ Group. Her quiet but charismatic presence infuses every aspect of the Group’s identity and operations. Her soft touch guides without pushing every decision the Group makes.
Pranom comes from Nakorn Pratom Province in Thailand’s northeastern region. She first visited Pa Dang with her relatives on a merit making pilgrimage to the four huge golden Buddha statues for which Wat (temple) Pa Dang is famous. Pranom loved the peaceful setting. The temple and statues are shaded in a glade at the base of a low range of mountains that run north-south. The morning sun lights the gentle Buddhas and in the evening as the mountain’s shadows lengthen over the temple the trees are alive with the songs of birds.
Pranom decided to become a Buddhist nun and was ordained in 2541 BE (approximately 1998). She chose to come to Pa Dang to practice Dharma and built herself a small house at the edge of the temple grounds. At the start, she says, the villagers didn't like the idea of a nun living near monks, but her quiet persistence won them over.
In tiny Pa Dang, Pronom could see that profound poverty affected every aspect of life. She decided that in this life one thing that she could do was to help people find ways to live better. Seven years ago, she established the first women’s group to make macramé bags. Pranom invited women in the village to be trained by a woman from a nearby village who was a successful producer of crocheted goods. Today Pranom laughs when she says that they made many, many bags – but didn’t sell any because they had no marketing ideas at all. Still, she says, the villagers were not discouraged. They were excited about the idea and wanted to try a new product that would do better.
Following His Royal Majesty’s Sufficiency Economy philosophy, the Group decided to try weaving with home grown cotton and silk threads that they dyed with dyes made from traditional recipes. Pronom made a request to the local administration. The group - now called the Pa Dang Village Women Weavers' Group - received funding for looms from the government. And then they had exactly the same problem as before – no marketing!
Luckily for Pranom and the Pa Dang Village Women Weavers’ Group a wonderful Thai-American woman, Hope Watcharaprecha, and the Sonda International Group, stepped in to help, buying products, organizing sales in Chiang Mai and bringing buyers right to Pa Dang! “Nobody was getting rich,” Pranom laughs, “the weavers were making just 1,000 baht per month (about $25), and we were putting everything into our savings pool, but we felt such hope.”
In the four years that the Pa Dang Group has been weaving, Pranom and the others have learned a lot. “There are many, many steps in growing, dying, spinning and weaving,” says Pranom, “and we have to spend time on each one. So much of what we do we learn by trial and error.” Any time there is a mistake, “we have to remake it until it’s right.” Still, she says, Pa Dang has established a strong “product identity” that comes "from growing the organic cotton ourselves, feeding the silk worms ourselves, spinning our own thread, making our own dyes, and dying our own thread”
Pranom shrugs at her many responsibilities and says simply that her job is to lead by example. For her, what matters is that the members of her group are happy, feel that they are doing something to improve their lives, and earn a bit more income. Quiet, peaceful Nun Pranom looks right at you when she says, “I will fight for the villagers and community.” When she makes the traditional Thai “why” – palms together as in prayer – to bid us good bye, you can see the dye under her short cut nails.
To see the Pa Dang Village Women Weavers' Group at work, visit our online album.
To learn about the art of natural dying, read Marjo Moeyes' wonderful book, Natural Dying in Thailand, available at the Warm Heart Bookstore.