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In short

Language Group: Sino-Tibetan
Province: Phongsaly
Project start date: May 2002

The Story

The Oma are one of Laos’ least populous ethnic groups, with an estimated 2,000 persons in seven villages of Phongsaly Province. The Oma are accomplished cotton farmers, indigo dyers and embroiderers, as seen in their colourful and unique traditional clothing. Residing in remote mountain villages, the Oma still retain many of their traditional practices. For example, Oma women still make and wear traditional clothing, including a long distinctive applique headscarf worn by married women.

The Oma were one of the first participants in the Village Weavers Project. In 2002, the Lao Women’s Union invited Ock Pop Tok to purchase Oma’s handicrafts, and since then, OPT has been collaborating with the communities by providing creative and financial support. In addition to traveling to Phongsaly to work alongside the Oma, the Village Weavers Project supports artisans to OPT’s Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang, where they learn product design, quality control and basic costing and business skills. At LCC, the artisans also have an opportunity to collaborate and benefit from meeting artisans from other ethnicities and OPT’s international visitors. One Oma woman, Amee, traveled to Luang Prabang on a few occasions to work on product designs that she in turn taught to her fellow artisans back in the village.

Headscarves and jackets (still made and worn on a daily basis by the Oma) can be found in our shops and webshop.

In April 2019, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) discovered that items in the Weekend Max Mara clothing line featured designs of the Oma ethnic group from northern Laos, but were being sold without acknowledgement of their origin. Cultural intellectual property rights are a complex issue. In an episode of Radio Ock Pop Tok in December 2020, Cultural intellectual property and fashion attorney and founder of the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI), Monica Moisin explains the colonial roots of fashion and the importance of protecting the traditional knowledge, designs and traditional manufacturing methods. Listen here.

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Our collaborations

Ban Longthang, Phongsaly

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Ban LongThang is an Akha Oma village in Boun Tai District, Phongsaly Province. We work with 10 out of the 100 families who live there. The remote location of the village makes trade difficult but some of their products — jackets, head scarves, belts, purses, coasters and placemats — mixing cotton and embroidery are in high demand. With our support those unique products have better access to the market.

This activity was supported by ECL Project which is funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF). EIF is an Aid for Trade partnership in action for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Operational since 2009, the EIF is a multi-donor program that supports the LDCs to become more active players in the global trading system by helping them tackle supply-side constraints to trade.

ECL Project intends to promote private sector-led economic growth in the least developed Northern Region of the country in response to the Government’s eight National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP). The project consists of three components: Improvement of the local business environment, Enhancement of productivity and exports of critical sectors, and project management.

Culture & Lifestyle in Ban Longthang, as told to us by Mrs. Sychanh

Their daily life revolves around rice farming and textiles. Their mornings are always focused on food, for a good start to the day… They prepare the food for their family and also feed their animals like chickens, pigs and ducks. After their breakfast of steamed rice and vegetable soup, with pork often, they head to the farm. When they come back, it’s time for some house chores and embroidery. After dinner, they relax and watch TV. 

Their main income comes from selling rice and textile products but also from the trade of animals like pigs. The men in their village mostly work in the rice farms and take care of their animals — cows or buffalos. The women divide their time between the farm and embroidery/sewing. 

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In their daily life they now mostly wear western outfits. They keep their traditional Oma outfits for special events like weddings, baci or Oma New Year which is celebrated in December.

When New Year comes, they kill an animal — a pig or a chicken — and cook some very thick sticky rice to offer to their ancestors. After the ceremony, they eat what they had prepared. They dance and sing Oma songs while the children play games with their spinning tops and paper planes. They also enjoy chicken fights. 

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