For the Love of Laos
An alumnus connects and gives back through a creative foundation
Philanthropy may not seem to be the path that follows a degree in journalism and mass communication, but Bill Newbrough
(BA ’67/MA ’69) recognized that the JungleVine® Foundation was his fate.
Newbrough established the foundation with Laotian
student Bonsou Keoamphone in 2005 to preserve an ancient craft and support economic opportunity in this Southeast Asian country.
During a visit to Laos, a place that first captivated Newbrough as a UI student, Keoamphone accompanied him on an extreme bicycling adventure into the remote countryside of Luang Namtha Province in Northern Laos. He gave Newbrough a traditional Khmu bag (also known as a Nature Bag) as a souvenir.
Says Newbrough: “It came to Iowa where it remained forgotten until a roofing project brought me to what I assumed would be a one-time use because of its perceived fragility. Completely undamaged after holding heavy tools and sharp objects, and demonstrating remarkable characteristics of elasticity, it compelled me to learn more.”
After research, Newbrough found that the bag had been made entirely by hand from wild-growing jungle vine by the indigenous Khmu people, many who had lived exactly like their ancestors for millennia. The Khmu ethnic group is the largest indigenous population in northern Laos.
Traditionally, The Nature Bag was used to carry a day’s harvest. The design of The Nature Bag has been passed down from generation to generation; however, cheap plastic imported bags from China threatened the craft.
Newbrough saw an opportunity to help reduce poverty in rural Laos, while both preserving the ancient tradition and practicing environmental responsibility by promoting the organic, vegan JungleVine® fiber.
The foundation connects remote, secluded tribal communities with the global market by promoting their natural fiber handicrafts. The Nature Bag is strong and expandable. Khmu artisans gather JungleVine® from the forests surrounding their villages, strip the pulp from its fibers, spin them by hand, and then tie them into bags.
From start to finish, each bag takes about two weeks to make. JungleVine® grows without irrigation or chemicals, purifies the air, and improves the soil where it grows. The Nature Bag’s fiber can grow naturally without chemicals, cultivation, or other agricultural input almost anywhere in the world.
“The icing on the cake: artistic and style-conscious western friends found it strikingly beautiful,” says Newbrough.
Newbrough first traveled to Asia in the early 1970s to visit a friend from high school serving in the Peace Corps in Malaysia. He visited Laos, and it quickly became a place of intrigue, a “life-changing experience.”
A 2008 visit to a Khmu village especially stands out. It was the first time a road made the village accessible to non-Khmu. Upon arrival, Newbrough was surrounded by impoverished, yet extremely curious children. He communicated without words, and sensed a mutual feeling of friendliness. When he extended a handshake, they fled in fear.
“I was the first white person they’d encountered, and
they feared that my touch would give them the ‘disease’
that caused me to have such an unhealthy color,” Newbrough recalls.
The village leader, who had previously seen white people, approached Newbrough to take his hand. Soon, children warmed to Newbrough, and made a game of touching him.
Newbrough credits his immersion into the liberal arts that came with living in 1960s Iowa City for his perspective. His first exposure to the plight of Laos came while serving as editor-in-chief at The Daily Iowan. He learned of the horrors of the country’s civil war, and he embraced a strong, global perspective on the world.
“While there are many specific experiences that have helped me become what I am, virtually all have derived from my years at the University of Iowa,” he says.
The Artisans Impact
The JungleVine® Foundation has changed the way artisans live through the concept of quality. These are the same people who, 13 years ago, were reluctant to create bags because they didn’t believe anyone would want them. They didn’t understand the value of money in a traditional economic structure because there was nothing for them to buy.
Before this project, the villagers had no need for money. They were isolated from modern world by distance, weather, and impassable roads. They were a barter economy without electricity and running water.
Since the extension of electricity to the villages, their day-to-day has changed indefinitely. They can make Nature Bags while nurturing their children and preserving traditional social interaction within their villages. They’ve enhanced their role in their developing society and enjoy a measure of independence.
“They are taking increasingly important roles in developing the strategies needed to empower families in the most isolated villages to participate with us,” Newbrough says.
Now that the need for money is more universal, the artisans recognize the opportunity to make this a better alternative to the well-paying, but unhealthy and long days, working in the commercial agriculture industry.
The overall goal of the JungleVine® Foundation is to provide an indigenous support system for the challenges of the remote villages.
Says Bob Shreck (BA ’71/ MD ’74), president of the JungleVine® Foundation: “It takes ancient and persistent arts and crafts and brings them to play in modern society.”
Adds Newbrough: “We understand the urgent need to allow the Khmu to improve the quality of their lives while maintaining traditional ways, especially the preservation of crafting Nature Bags from what could be the planet’s best natural fiber.”
Newbrough says he will feel truly fulfilled when global citizens recognize the gifts of such cultures to humankind. He hopes to see JungleVine® used universally as an earth-friendly fiber, reducing petroleum inputs for fabric needs and improving the health of our climate.
Nature Bag is currently in 16 counties. Approximately 29,800 items, mostly traditional Khmu totes, have been made from JungleVine® and have been purchased from around 750 households in over 30 villages, directly affecting more than 2,500 people and indirectly impacting many thousands more.
To date, the foundation has sold almost 9,500 items and donated hundreds more to other non-profits.
For more information, visit https://www.naturebag.org.