Real Life

Borneo adventure ‘I swapped Motueka for the jungle’

After joining a remote tribe, Jacky is doing the people a bag of good!

Watching a critically ill young woman from the Borneo jungle receive treatment in a makeshift medical shed, Jacky McLaren promised herself she’d find a way to help the embattled Penan tribe.

The Motueka mother-of-two, then 49, was teaching in Brunei and discovered the tribe’s plight while hiking in the neighbouring Malaysian state of Sarawak during her time off.

“I went to a shed that had been set up for people from the rainforest to stay in while awaiting medical treatment,” recalls Jacky, now 67. “A young woman had left her children in the jungle with her parents to come with her husband. She’d had tuberculosis, most of her lung had been cut away, she was paralysed from the waist down and had a huge wound on her back.

“This is not uncommon – this tribe is at the bottom of the pecking order, and lack of antibiotics and follow-up support treatment often results in treatable diseases turning fatal. We raised the money to get her to Kuching Hospital, but she died there. That experience spurred me on.”

During these treks, Jacky fell in love with the peace-loving Penan people, who were still largely living traditionally, relying on the jungle for food, medicine and shelter.

She witnessed how palm oil deforestation was destroying their homeland and livelihood, with the tribe also desperately struggling to access adequate healthcare and education.

“I also saw the amazing products they wove and thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to use these to raise money and help them cope with these life-threatening changes.'”

Her efforts to help started slowly with Jacky selling the rattan products to wealthy parents at Jerudong International School, where she worked.

Bag weavers’ stylish rattan bags.

Soon after, other parents got involved and students were running projects selling the handmade goods to raise money too.

Jacky, who lived in Brunei for 10 years, estimates since 2006, they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s helped to fund vitally needed medical supplies, sponsor Penan children’s education through school and tertiary institutions, and to buy a 4wd vehicle with a driver to transport the children safely to and from school.

“We started sponsoring Lonnie, the daughter of a village headman, through school at age 14,” shares Jacky. “She gained a diploma and a degree, and is the first-ever Penan child to get through university.

“There are some things that are hard to handle emotionally. Children as young as seven were raped on the treacherous trek to school or trying to flag down a truck for a lift. Life was very difficult for girls after this, so we did all we could to help them, collecting clothes and offering financial and medical support.”

Jacky with Lonnie’s grandmother, the first-ever Penan child to get through university.

While life in Brunei was radically different to home in Aotearoa and she missed her daughters, Sally, then 21, and Hannah, 19, Jacky knew she was making a real difference while also setting up a better future for herself and children.

“I’d been a solo mum in Motueka and financially, times were tough,” admits Jacky, who taught biology at Motueka High School for 18 years. “We had to find inventive ways to survive like getting rotten fruit and vegetables, and cutting out the bad parts, or free bones from the butcher. We always had boarders with plenty of nationalities in the house.

“I love embracing difference and my children have grown up with that as well.”

Sally and Hannah are supportive of their mum’s sacrifices and altruistic efforts, having both visited her in Brunei and seen the impact she’s making first-hand.

After a decade of service, Jacky, who is now a grandmother of three, moved home to New Zealand in 2015, but is still just as dedicated to the worthy mission.

Around 18 months ago, she founded social enterprise Borneo Bags, and is importing the products direct from the Penan weavers to sell at markets and throughout stores nationwide with 100 percent of the profits going back to the tribe.

The project has come a long way, with Jacky helping develop commercially viable and fashionable products for the weavers to make from pallet strapping, a durable recycled material she buys directly from other Sarawak women.

Supported by her daughters, who run the website, social media and accounts, Jacky has converted her home into a showroom. She goes back yearly to visit the weavers and is in daily contact via the phones she gave them.

“I’m always on the search for retailers whose ethos aligns with ours,” says Jackie. “The bags are so unique – every element is hand done and it takes a full day to make one.

“My ultimate goal is for my weavers to supply directly to shops and for the money to keep going back to them. I have so much empathy for these women and am totally emotionally invested in them.”

To support the project or for more information, visit borneobags.com

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