Kommaly Chantavong (born 1950) is a farmer’s daughter from the mountains of eastern Laos. When her village was bombed by the Americans in 1961, she fled to Vientiane. In 1976, she founded a cooperative for the production of silk, which she still heads. The cooperative teaches mostly women traditional skills in raising silkworms, making natural dyes and weaving traditional patterns. The successful marketing of the products provides a fair and steady income to several hundred families that used to be very poor.
Kommaly was 11 years old when her village was destroyed by US bombers attacking the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She walked for a month to Vientiane, the capital, bringing with her silk weaving skills that her family had handed down over generations. "I learned to weave from my mother, when I was six years old and I loved it," she recollects. Kommaly studied nursing, but then she found her life's goal: "I met many desperately poor families displaced from rural areas without any marketable skills," she remembers, "so I started to teach the women how to weave silk." In 1976, she founded a cooperative with ten members; now there are over 3000. Kommaly runs it like a mother: energetically, efficiently and warm-heartedly. In a model farm which she manages with her equally dedicated husband, Kommaly offers free courses on the production of high quality textiles: from raising silkworms (the most difficult part), to growing mulberry trees for their fodder, to spinning the ultra-fine threads, to preparing natural dyes, to weaving traditional patterns. The results are available in a shop that Kommaly set up in Vientiane and which guarantees the silk producers fair and steady earnings. "Our greatest challenge is to compete against cheaper low-quality imports," she says. One of her daughters helps with the marketing in Australia, another in the US. "Our goal is to strengthen the position of women by giving them a dependable income and thus improving the chances of their children,” says Kommaly with a gentle but radiant smile.