Florence Jaukae Kamel, known fondly as the 'Bilum Meri', is a fiercely passionate advocate for the women bilum weavers of Papua New Guinea and an integral part of Among Equals, not to mention a constant inspiration.
In 2017, Florence started the Bilum Festival and Goroka Bilum Weavers, after leaving a home rife with domestic violence under the hand of her husband. She bought betel nut with 2 kina and spent 5 kina on internet access to email Ruth Choulai whose business card she had had in her wallet for four years. From so few resources, she has created so much.
Florence is the epitome of strength, humility and what it means to be a woman forging a better future for the children of multiple communities. She works tirelessly to lift up her sister weavers and Mamas, to promote bilum at an international level, amongst many other creative pursuits and her own artistry. She cares for 10 children and 5 grandchildren, some biological and others she has taken in to provide a safe and loving environment.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Florence taken in 2017.
"My name is Florence Kamel. I’m from Goroka and I have been working with bilum for the past 15 years now. But most of the time I try to find market for bilum weavers. There are cases of bilum out there but nobody to find market for us, so I have to find a way. I believe there is always a way around things and I do really believe in that. We went to an... exhibition and I was introduced to Caroline Sherman of Among Equals.
Sometimes when you have challenges and tough times, you just want to give up and say, "ok, I’m going to give up, there is no hope” and so I just had to be strong. So what I did, I had to do something to make a promise with bilum and the women that are behind me. Yeah, and I had to get this tattoo on me, which is the skin pig tattoo.
So, skin pig talks about the status of women, and I have worked with women who are not recognised in communities, women who are single mothers, women who are trying to make ends meet and all this, so I had to tattoo the skin pig on me so every time it reminds me, "Florence you do not have to give up". So I got this tattoo... a traditional bilum design… it’s more like a promise between me, bilum and it's the challenge I have to take on... a reminder of the pain I went through to get the tattoo, and all of this, that’s where I got it.
If you are buying a bilum through Among Equals, you’re buying a bilum that has a very big downstream effect. It goes back to our village, our community. One bilum benefits 10-15 people, it does. The biggest impact is new clothes, a warm blanket to cover oneself at night. It is not about charity. You are giving business to us as weavers. And we are making business out of it. Business is not only big business, buildings and all this. It comes right down to the home that we have and we live in. And our experience is the greatest experience of a lifetime that we have, with selling our bilums."