Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Just in time for Christmas, SHONA has been given a wonderful gift. There is a full-page article on SHONA Congo in the new edition of BBC's Focus on Africa magazine. Yes, that is it, right there, the impressive magazine pictured above. We are in there!!
See that? Well, maybe you have to squint a little, but that is Argentine sewing.
What? You don't believe me? You want to see it without squinting? You want to actually read the article? You can subscribe to Focus on Africa's digital edition. They offer a free trial edition but I recommend that you splurge on the annual online subscription, which is a fabulous deal for under ten dollars. Either way you will be able to read the article, and a whole collection of other fascinating articles. Focus on Africa is an excellent magazine. It is a great way to read about many of the issues facing Africa today, from African perspectives, in an extremely readable and interesting format. I promise I would recommend it even if we weren't inside! So check it out today. You won't be disappointed!
We deeply thank Nam Kiwanuka, whose column we are featured in. Not only is she a columnist for Focus on Africa, but she is a talented free-lance journalist, director and producer, not to mention a celebrity in her own right. A while ago, SHONA caught her eye. Since then she has worked tirelessly, determined to find ways to tell our story. Thank you, Nam, for believing in us.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Interesting cloth, right? Nice and bright. Very eye-catching. Look...it has little people on it....wait a minute. Exactly what is going on here? Are those scantily clad young women on a bib? Are they serving beer? Yes, I believe that is the famous African Primus beer, to be specific.
Perhaps there has been some mistake. What is this item anyway? Surely it is not what I think it is...a baby bib.
And yet, indeed, it is. This must be the only bib in the world, made out of Primus beer cloth, for your umm...beer guzzling toddlers?!?!?!
Welcome to the SHONA bloopers round. When I asked Roy, one of our craftspeople, to sew some children's bibs, I suppose he thought he was being.. well... thematic. You know food and drinks go together, beer bottles and milk bottles... Or maybe he just thought the design looked snazzy.
I do not think this was his idea of a joke. I am quite sure he sewed these in all earnestness. But I have been giggling for days, imagining the horrified looks I would get if I tried to sell these. Actually I am probably getting horrified looks just for including this in a bloopers round on my blog, but I just had to share it.
One of my favorite parts of working in different cultures, are the inevitable bloopers that result, on both my part and others. I mean if we can't laugh at all those things that didn't quite translate as planned, we'll be in for a long road.
Here is another one...
Last month I opened my latest SHONA shipment to find quite a surprise. Nestled amidst the tote bags and purses was a curious and yet familiar sight. A two pound bag of rice, fresh out of the Goma market.
"Oh no!!!" I exclaimed. "What am I going to do with a bag of rice! I'll have to create a whole new category in our store for "food items"...no that will never work. What about eBay. People buy all kinds of crazy stuff on ebay. Maybe bags of rice from war-torn countries are a novelty item of some sort.... No, probably not."
I mean it. This was a bag of rice, straight from Goma. Well, actually probably originally from Asia. The rice is still mixed with rocks and dirt, so that you can tell it is authentic. I suppose there is no market for it, even on ebay. Certainly not if I mark-up the price to cover what it cost us to ship it. I would have to mark it up at least 10 times over.
And yet my craftspeople sent me a two pound bag of rice. And when I translate it, it turns out to be be just about the most precious of bag of rice in the world.
You see the SHONA women knew that my husband and I returned to the US without jobs, and they knew that getting jobs isn't easy in this economy. They knew that I had been doing everything I could to keep SHONA going, while at the same time relocating and looking for a job. And they knew that we miss Congo. And so they sent us a little rice from Goma, to help along the way. This is the most normal thing in the world to them. They would have done the same thing for a neighbor in the next house, or a relative in the next town over. They share what they have. I am just a little further away.
And I cherish that , because in Goma I often struggled with NOT being like other people. By virtue of my skin color and my passport, I was often seen as the rich American, and to tell the truth, I often was the rich American. I often did have more money than others, and I certainly had more resources. And yet I struggled to communicate to people that I was just another person, like anyone else, that I could run out of money and that I too could get hurt and bleed.
Argentine and Mapendo sent me rice. So what if it cost a ridiculous amount of money to send? Don't worry, I won't be selling it on eBay anytime soon. That two pound bag of rice, which looks exactly like every other 2 pound bag of rice in Goma, is one of my most prized possessions. Everytime I look at it, I smile and am thankful again.
(However if you have any suggestions for what I can do with some beer bibs, let me know!!)
( I must point out that these beer bibs are also incredible examples of hard work at SHONA. Do you see how perfectly centered those scantily clad women are? This is not a naturally occuring phenomenon, this is the result of me insisting time and time again that the design must be in the center! Apparently I never thought to mention that the design should not involve beer bottles on a child's bib. Alas. )
Monday, December 14, 2009
Just in time for the holidays, we have a treat for you!
Not only do SHONA crafts make excellent holiday gifts, we now offer "one-stop shopping" for all your holiday needs.
How would you like a African Batik Christmas card to go with your SHONA tote bag? Or some Kenyan earings to go with your SHONA dashiki? Or a handcrafted Rwandan basket to go with your cloth placemat set? We have it all and more!
At SHONA we are introducing a new line of crafts called "ONE FOR ANOTHER". Here you can find crafts from Rwanda and Kenya that we have bought in the local markets and are selling to help support SHONA Congo.
We invite you to come and check us out. And give the gift of hope this holiday season!
Dawn, Argentine, Mapendo, Solange, Riziki, and Roy
Friday, December 11, 2009
Christmas is the season for the preposterous.
A king born in a manger.
And so I believe it to be SHONA's season as well.
SHONA started as a preposterous project.
I don't know why I thought it would work.
Who starts in internet-based business in Eastern Congo, on an internet connection that makes dial-up look fast?
Recently I visited a bookstore and looked at the business section, where I found all of these guides for starting small businesses and organizations. They contained chapter after chapter of carefully organized plans, to be created BEFORE starting the business.
In fact we are in the business of the preposterous in almost every way. SHONA started by making small cloth bags. I assure you that the idea of shipping small, handcrafted cloth bags out of Eastern Congo, does not strike the average Congolese person as clever. Congo exports gold and coltan, and other precious minerials. Things that are worth their weight in gold, literally. Cloth bags? Not so much. In fact I have hardly ever seen a Congolese person even using a cloth bag. Almost all of the bags used in Goma are plastic bags from China or Western hand-me-down bags.
And so we embarked upon a rather risky venture. And we embarked with some of the most "unqualified" people in the world. I knew nothing about starting a business, and nothing about sewing. And our craftswomen, while immensely talented and determined, are handicapped young women who had never been to school and were easily taken advantage of in other groups. That's it. That is all we started with. There was no funding, no studies, no managers and directors. Just us.
And here is the kicker. Almost three years later. We are still going in precisely that fashion. We still have no outside funding (except a few gifts from friends) and no managers. Each item you see is truly the work of our hands.
Four months ago I returned to the US, with the plan that my husband and I will be based out of New York for the next couple of years. We loved Congo, but we need to be closer to family for a while. And in many ways, in order to continue with SHONA I need to be on this side for a while.
But it was a risk. I left the craftspeople in Congo to stand on their own. The test of a project, is not what happens when the "founder" is hovering over it, but what happens when she is not. Many, many people advised me that I needed to leave a manager or director, a boss of some sort, but I wanted to see each craftsperson operating as her own small business. I think that is the best way to empower the craftspeople and the best way to avoid many of the issues of corruption and mismanagement that doom many groups in Congo.
And the craftspeople have exceeded all expectations in terms of taking ownership for their work. I speak on the phone with them often, but almost all of the details of our work are done through text messaging, believe it or not. The craftspeople are far from computer literate (although this is a goal for the future) but they are well versed in text messaging. So I text message an order to each craftsperson each month. She goes to the market, buys the cloth, works for weeks to sew the order, calculates her earnings for the order in a simple accounting book, and submits that total plus the shipping cost to me via text message. And so it goes. Preposterous, except that it works. Really well.
Of course there were years put into making it work. My relationships with the craftspeople were built over years of living next-door to them and working with them daily, not through text messaging. Without the courses I taught them in math and writing, and without the skills they taught me in sewing and Swahili, this would not have been possible.
But my move back to the US was a risk for another reason as well. I need to work. I have spent the last three years of my life working on SHONA full-time for free. I was able to do that because my husband had a job in Congo and we didn't need much to live on. But life in the US is a tad bit more expensive, and I knew that I would need to find a job, at least a part-time one.
And for that I am sheerly amazed as well. I have just taken a position teaching ESL to women in cooperatives (they have a nanny cooperative and a house-cleaning cooperative). The goal of this organization, as you might imagine, is to empower these women through employment and education. Sound familiar? In many ways SHONA has been a wild divergence from my expected career path, and yet it comes together in surprising ways. This job is a combination of my teaching experience and my experience working with SHONA. In fact my experience with SHONa is probably why I got the job.
And it is a 25 hr. a week job, leaving me time to continue working on SHONA. This is precisely what I needed, but hadn't really imagined that I would find.
Don't get me wrong, a lot of blood sweat and tears go into SHONA. Things don't always line up right the first time around. But I have to say this: I am amazed at how much is possible, in ways that I never would have dreamed. I am, indeed, thankful for this season of the preposterous.
Friday, November 20, 2009
This week a plane crashed in Goma. It is neither the first nor will it be the last, in this town where the only major runway is cut short by hardened lava. Many of the planes that fly into Goma are too large to safely use such a short runway, and yet the air traffic continues, because after all, what other option do you have in a country where the roads are often cut off by armed gunmen demanding payment for passage. During the three years we lived in Goma, there were at least 2 fatal plane crashes, and now here is one more to add to the list. Thankfully it appears that all the passengers and crew, as well as the people on the ground, have survived this accident, although some injuries have been reported. In last year's crash many people died not only on the plane but on the ground because the plane plowed into a crowded market area. This time, it appears that the plane did not reach the market area. However, yet again, this should draw serious attention to the fact that Goma's runway is too short, and is situated directly next to Birere, the most crowded market area in Goma.
There are many serious safety issues in Goma which are difficult to address, from the war to the active volcano to the gas in the lake. But one is left to wonder how there can possibly be so much money to facilitate countless flights into and out of Goma each day, carrying both passengers and valuable cargo, and yet no funding to make the runway longer or the airport more safe. The people of Goma already have enough to worry about. Why should they have to fear being run over by an airplane while they sell produce at the market?
The airport in Goma is a disaster. And it is not just waiting to happen. It has already happened. We saw it in 2007. We saw it in 2008. And we see it now again. We ought not feign surprise when something goes terribly wrong.
Below is a report from a young man in Goma, who also submitted the picture above.
"This is to inform you that at approximately 11H55, a CAA commercial passenger aircraft failed to stop on the runway whilst running landing at the Goma airport consequently crushing on to some lava rocks. The air crash was accompanied by a huge sound which reverberated all over Goma town sending a wave of panic amongst the local population.
Pursuant to the air crash, MONUC aviation, MONUC military and UN Security rushed to the scene of the accident for purposes of rescuing the injured and traumatized passengers. It was immediately observed that other than some broken wings, the body of the aircraft's fuselage remained intact and undamaged and there was no fire around the area.
All the 117 passengers on board were safely helped to disembark from the aircraft. Preliminary reports indicate that one passenger was found unconscious whereas 20 others were in a state of shock and with minor injuries and bruises.
Note that the governor of the province of North Kivu, Sir Julien Paluku was aboard this aircraft.
MONUC ambulances helped to transport the injured to the level 3 Hospital in GOMA."
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
And I am eating them for dinner."
That is a slogan I just read on a Whole Foods shopping bag. At least it went something like that. I didn't actually purchase the bag...or my standards...so I can't be quite sure. But you get the idea.
How thoughtful of Whole Foods, don't you think? They have made it so nice and convenient to have our standards. It we start running low, we can just drive across town and pick some up. But I am starting to wonder if they are being a bit too generous with their standards. I mean does everyone really qualify? If I go and buy a bag of apples at the store, then surely I have earned my standards bag. I mean who can deny that an organic apple has standards? But if I buy a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream, maybe they should just give me a regular brown bag. Or maybe they could just put a smiley face on it...
In that same Whole Food store I noticed bags of food on display. Each bag had a hand-labeled tag displaying the contents and who had donated them. Presumably they were being shipped off to some needy cause. I enjoyed looking at the carefully selected cereal bars and Thai rice mixes that filled the bags. And as I swiped my debit card (oops.. I admit it...I did actually purchase something....it just was so small I apparently did not qualify me for a standards bag. Perhaps I should have demanded my standards?) But as I was saying...as I swiped my debit card, a picture of Rwanda flashed on the screen, offering yet another way that I could donate money to help feed hungry people...school children I think.
Now don't get me wrong. I have no problem with feeding school children, or donating to food pantries. I just am starting to wonder if it has all gotten a bit too easy.
In this age of convenience have we made our giving just another fast-food convenience? Have we become so consumer-oriented that we have begun to think of giving as a commodity? We want to give, but we want it to fit on our clocks, and in our check-out lines, and don't forget to make sure it is tax deductible.
The problem is that fast-food isn't very good for us. The reality is that the flashiest, easiest to reach, and quickest to consume snack is not usually the most healthy one. And "fast-food giving", probably has much the same problem. If you give a donation to something that looks flashy, is well placed and well advertised, it might be a good thing, but you had better count on a decent percentage of your donation going toward marketing and overhead. It takes money to create that convenient and compelling package.
But that isn't even my real concern. Perhaps we are perfectly happy to consider part of our donation as the cost of making it quick and easy and pretty.
But what happens when we think that we can address the problems of the world, by swiping a card or carrying a bag. Sure we swipe more cards and carry more bags, but do we also begin to believe that this is what social activism should look like?
Charity organizations rely on donations, and spend a significant amount of time and money figuring out the best way to attain them. They cater to our demands as "consumer-givers". We give to help, but we also give for the experience. And they know that. And they want to produce the best "giving experience" for us. The child sponsorship model grew into great popularity in the 90s because it met the consumer demand for personal connection. It provided people with the sense that they could connect to an individual child and make her life better. Likewise the organizations where you can give a goat, or a cow to a family in Africa have similar, personal appeal. But in both cases, the reality is more complicated. Money is not often miraculously delivered to individual families, and goats are not often delivered directly either. Rather donations become part of larger, more complex programs. Both child sponsorship organizations and animal giving organizations have had to go back and explain that the actual money you donate may not go to that individual child, or to buy that individual goat. Often your donation is used as part of a larger program, which may do very good things, but... well, it is not exactly what their slogan said.
The latest organization to struggle with this marketing problem is Kiva, who markets itself as providing direct, person to person connections between small lenders and small borrowers. It is a fascinating idea, but the reality is that your loan is actually processed through local microfinance institutions and does not necessarily go directly to the individual person whose photo you clicked on, as described in this NY Times article and in this blog post. Now this does not make your donation any less effective in the lives of individual people, in fact it means that your donation is being better monitored and better distributed. Ohhh...but we so love clickable photos.
And isn't that the problem? When we support easy, fast and flashy ways of giving, we encourage other organizations to package themselves in this way. We encourage them to simplify the problems for us, and make promises they may not be able to keep. Kiva is an excellent organization with a unique and valuable model. And if we read the information on Kiva's website, the lending process becomes clear, and if you know much about microfinance, the way Kiva is operating makes a lot of sense. In fact it makes a lot more sense than it would if Kiva worked exactly they way people imagined it did. The problems of people around the world are complex, and so must be our part in them.
I recently received a fund-raising appeal from another organization. As far as I know, they are a very good, solid organization that works to treat children with cleft pallets. The back or their envelope featured a big lettered promise that if you made a donation today, they would never ask you for anything again.
Is this really the way humanitarian aid should be packaged and sold? But this is what happens when aid organization find themselves marketing to a consumer market.
And so I worry about the convenience of our society. When I was living in Africa I hated waiting in restaurants. You would sit, and sit and sit. Then they would bring you a soda. And then you would sit and sit and sit. And then they would bring you a platter with a salt and pepper shaker on it. And then you would sit and sit. And about two hours later your meal would come. This never appeared to bother Africans in the least. I guess they were there for the experience. I, on the other hand, was there to eat. And was usually doubled over in hunger by the time the food came.
Since I have been back in the US I have not waited for one meal. I mean I have not once gotten to the point of looking at my watch and wondering where the food is. Sometimes I try and imagine what the trendy New York people sitting at the table next to me would do if their food didn't come for two hours. That always makes me smile.
But has fast and easy food really been so good for us? In his book "Africa Doesn't Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It" Giles Bolton
argues that there is a difference between the type of aid that we like to fund, and the type of aid that is most effective. Child sponsorship, and animal giving exist because we, as consumers like them, not because they are the most effective or efficient way of delivering aid. Bolton argues that real change must come from direct budgetary support to poor countries, but you see that got jumbled up in my mouth as I said it. It is hard to make that flashy and compelling, and it isn't readily available in the check-out lane.
How does SHONA fit in this? Did I really just say that we shouldn't think that purchasing a bag will address the problems of the world? I didn't mean a SHONA bag of course!!! I can just see the SHONA craftspeople jumping up and down and gesturing wildly for me to stop my rambling before I scare away our customers. Please don't go away. We desperately need your purchases and they make a very real difference in the lives of 5 incredible people in one of the most difficult regions of the world. And unlike some larger organizations, with us the direct connection is completely real. An individual craftsperson did sew each item and they are receiving 100% of the profit. But stay tuned for my next post, on how these issues do affect SHONA, and in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Alas, I am a procrastinator. I always wait until the last possible moment to buy my gifts. But it isn't just because I am a procrastinator. It is also because I know how hard the job is.
How do you find a gift that represents the true spirit of the holiday season?
How do you wrap up the hope and joy of the season and put it in a box?
But on the off-chance that you plan to buy at least one gift this holiday season, let me offer just one suggestion.
by making it possible for them to live and work with dignity and pride.
Imagine if each person that read this blog bought just one item from SHONA... Imagine if every person that read this post shared it with 2 more people...
Friday, October 23, 2009
"We have spent the last few days talking about Congo and my students have voiced over and over again how they can't believe this is the first they have heard of it, especially considering the magnitude of the situation."
The class has been reading my blog and has posted questions for me on their blog .
Check out their very interesting questions, as well as their other entries on the blog, and it will make you happy for the state of education in the US. (At least in this classroom!) I am afraid I won't be able to answer all their questions, but I am picking a few of them to answer here in the next couple days. Please feel free to add a comment and join in the discussion, whether you are a student or not. I think you will find it interesting. Here is the first one...
"You talk about the hardest thing about living in the Congo is being white, and you also talk about how they like Americans and are friendly to you, so I'm wondering why you think that's the hardest thing? "
What I meant was that the hardest part of my experience in Congo was being white. There are certainly many, many things more difficult than my own experience there. In fact, let me start out by stating that I love Congo and have deeply enjoyed living there.
But on to the question at hand. The hardest part (or at least one of the hardest parts) of my experience in Congo was being white. And yet, as I said, people were extremely welcoming and friendly toward me. Yet still, I was always a "white person" and a foreigner, and would be greeted with those names every time I walked out the door. And of course every time we label someone, there are stereotypes that go with those labels. In this case, a white person is often assumed to be rich and willing to give out money. Are these the worst stereotypes to have? Perhaps not, but any label can begin to weigh very heavily. Many of the white people who are in Goma are often working with non-profit organizations that are there to give out aid to refugees, and so you can see how the assumption would begin that white people are rich and are there to give out stuff. But when you are living there for years and you don't have a supply of anything to give out, it gets a little frustrating to wear that label every time you walk down the street. Sometimes you just want people to see you and not your skin, and that is not always easy when you are in the minority.
The second thing that makes being a "white person" or really an American of any color, difficult is that we are rich. No matter how humbly I live, or how poor I am in America, the truth is that I still have many more resources than most Congolese people. So what do I do with that? I found it difficult to be white in Congo because of the way that I was perceived by others, but also because of the way it forced me to perceive myself as part of a larger world, which in all reality is incredibly unjust.
"and also you talked about a lot of the good things going on in the Congo and in your life, and all I have seen and heard is the bad stuff about the Congo and I'm wondering do you see it and just not want to write about it or what?"
Hmm...Do I see the bad stuff and just not write about it? Why do I write so much happy stuff? Interesting question. Once I had the reverse comment. A young Congolese man pointed out that all people ever hear about Congo is negative stuff, and that I should depict Congo in a more positive light. So I guess I try to communicate some of both. It is a rough place with many difficult issues going on. But the people really are incredible on many levels, and the amazing thing about Congo is the way that life always goes on. I remember having visitors come to Congo shortly after the war started escalating last November and they were amazed to find that there were vendors in the streets, dance music blaring from the music shops and children playing soccer. Those images don't often make it in the coverage of "war-zones", but the fact is that the people of Congo have long ago learned to continue their lives in the midst of disaster. This doesn't mean that the disaster doesn't exist, or that it isn't terrible...it is. But it does mean that what you picture when you read the news articles about "the crisis" isn't the whole picture. I have spent the last three years just living life in Congo and working with some amazing people, and I guess that is what comes out in my blog.
But the war is very real. The refugees are very real. The epidemic of rape is very real. The disorder and insecurity are very real. If you dig around my blog a bit, I think you will find some of those entries as well.
All of that said...yes, there are things I don't (and can't) write about. I am just a regular person, I am not a war correspondent or a historian. I try to write about regular life and regular people, because that is what I know, but also because I think it is an important side to the story. We need war correspondents and advocacy groups to document the scale of the crisis, but we also need to be reminded that it is real people who live in the midst of it.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Here is the scoop.
When you buy that $4 cup of Starbucks fair trade coffee, where is your money going?
Well...the truth is that most of your money does not go into the beans. In fact the coffee beans actually seem to be a minor element in the whole "coffee experience". And after all, that is what we buy these days isn't it? We buy "the experience".
In the average $4 cup of fair trade coffee, about 5 cents covers the beans. And that is after the beans are roasted. So the farmer of those beans (who sells before roasting) is getting only a few cents for every $4 drink. (This info is from a very interesting book entitled Starbucked)
Is this marginally better than the farmer would get for non-fair trade coffee? Yes. Does that explain why you are paying $4? Probably not.
Essentially this is the problem, as many of you pointed out. With fair trade products, many times the producer is getting a few extra cents, while the retailers are charging way more. Fair trade products (along with "green" products) are becoming a great way to inflate your profit margin.
I have to say, I tend to side with "Podge" on this. I'd rather buy local. That way I know my purchase is making a difference to someone...that is...to an individual...not to some mysterious corporation. In the end I have more faith in the small business owner, that local coffee shop owner who is trying to make a go of it (despite overwhelming odds), than in the most philanthropic corporation in the world. This may not help get my money back to the coffee farmer, but at least my money is going back into the community.
Maybe this is wrong. I suppose there are lots of very philanthropic corporations. I suppose I should support them. Certainly there are corporations that should be rewarded and those that should be punished. Take Starbucks for example, in some ways they do deserve to be rewarded. They have been a pioneer in offering health insurance to part-time workers, while the majority of fast food companies go out of their way to avoid this. I still haven't figured out all the secrets of fair trade coffee, but providing health benefits for part-time wokers...this is something I can support. In fact, I could use some myself.
But corporations, even the best of them, rub me wrong. They are just so.....big. And I am so... small. And I am simply not sure that I want to live in a world that is quite so full of corporations.
Of course, in full disclosure, I must admit that I believe all of these things in abstract. Everything always seems much easier in the abstract. Let's take that great symbol of American corporations...Walmart. Walmart has certainly not been a pioneer in offering any kind of benefits to its workers. Nor does it treat its suppliers well. And yet I wandered in there just the other day and I must confess I went through the check-out lane. It's the prices, who can beat the prices?
But every time I go in there it blows my mind. Literally, I went to a Good Will thrift shop first and bought some clothes. I then went to Walmart and discovered that I could have bought similar clothing FOR LESS at Walmart. How is it possible that Walmart can sell new clothing for less than Good Will can sell used clothing? How do you sell t shirts for $4 and jeans for $10? Do I really want to live in a world where this is possible? Having seen first hand the amount of work that the SHONA craftspeople put into our clothing, I have absolutely no faith that the producers of the $4 T shirt are receiving anything close to a just wage. The math just doesn't work.
Yet still, those $4 t-shirts caught my eye. And when I go to Starbucks those $4 coffees catch my eye for a whole different reason.
So we live in a land of extremes. Where we can buy so many things for far less than they should cost, and so many other things for far more than they should cost. But the question remains, does it matter whether we pay $4 or $40? Where does our money go? Who can tell me? As long as the world remains so separated, with the producer and the consumer so very far apart, with lines of corporations and stock holders in between, I have the sinking feeling that very little of what I spend actually returns to the producers, fair trade or not.
Friday, October 9, 2009
I thought I would repost the responses here, so you can join in the conversaton too. Here are some thoughts to get you started...
Michelle"I never patronage the establishment. I don't drink coffee."
Judy: I was fortunate to have met Mrs. "Starbucks" in Tanzania. That company is extremely philanthropical. I saw IT in action!
Podge "I like the idea of fair trade products in theory... But to answer the initial question I don't drink Starbucks. I would rather give the three bucks to my local coffee shop who is an owner operator on their own, living and working in my area. If they happen to use Fair trade beans that's an added bonus but I am a firm beliver that your own back yard is as good a place as any to make change. So I will ask my cafe mate if he can use Fair trade beans and if it means an extra 10 cents on my coffee I will happliy pay that, but if it's an extra 50 cents to a dollar, I would have to really consider the cost v's the claimed benifits that fair trade makes, as the reults are not visible to a 1st world consumer in reality are they? The doubter in me always thinks some one is making a buck prior to the farmer getting a fair go, and the whole certification process... and commonly higher product costs are not the work of the coffee farmer in Africa, PNG or S America. Some one is making a profit by "Going Fair" so to speak." (excerpted. Full response is here)
hmm, that is quite a question.... for me, its always a balance of things - such as cost, organic, fair trade, local... I could buy local produce sprayed with toxic chemicals to avoid the co2 emissions associated with transportation, or go for the fair trade organic from Peru or wherever - and sometimes you can't get both fair trade and organic. ... And I am not sure how any of the labeling is controlled, as you say if it says fair trade - what does that mean? Same with "cage free" eggs, I just assume they do less harm, but have no idea what the standards are for cage free.
As for Starbucks - I do drink their coffee - my only reason is that it is the cheapest coffee on campus - 53cents to refill my travel mug - next lowest price is around $1.25, and for me, that's a lot of money
Ha! The cheapest?!?! Are you sure that isn't bootleg starbucks there, Meaghan? :)
I'll chime in myself a bit later, but I wanted to share some of these comments with you all first. And I'd love to here more of your thoughts as well.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Do you drink starbucks coffee?
a. it tastes good
b. they let me bring my laptop and sit there for hours
c. it is so well priced (hehehe)
d. it is fair trade coffee
e. There are just so many dang Starbucks locations it is hard to avoid them
No, no, no. This is not a morality test. I may wax sentimental from time to time, but I am looking for the down and dirty here.
Really. I am totally serious. Please ignore for a minute the fact that we advertise SHONA products as fair trade products. I don't want you to think about SHONA. I want to know whether you care that Starbucks serves fair trade coffee. In fact, do you buy fair trade products in general? Why? Why not? What are your immediate associations to the term "fair trade"?
Please take a minute and comment on this question if you have the time. Because, as I mentioned a minute ago, we do sell SHONA products as fair trade. And they truly are. But I'm not always sure I like the company we keep. Sometimes I wonder if the fair trade concept is getting popular or if it is getting hijacked. And as one of our customers once pointed out, she almost didn't visit our website at all, because she assumed fair trade would simply be too expensive for her. So what has fair trade become? Do you "buy it", in every sense of the word?
I'd love to hear from you.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Mapendo is the youngest child in her family. She is only 20 years old, and is the only member of her family who is physically handicapped.
Yet she has been rebuilding her mother's house on her own. (ok, so she is not exactly hammering the nails herself, but she is buying everything including the nails and paying the builder)
I wish I could find a better way to explain how impressive this is. In Congo, handicapped people, especially young women, are expected to be a burden on their families. How beautiful is it to see the reverse.
And now, finally, the house is finished. Her mother has left the refugee camp and moved into the new house!
There are still way too many refugees in Goma. In some cases it is simply too unsafe for people to return home. In other cases they simply have nothing to return home to. But, still, today there is one less refugee. And one very happy daughter.
"We can do no great thing. Only small things with great love." Mother Teresa
Monday, October 5, 2009
I get too busy and too worried...as though I truly am spinning the world.
So I'd like to give a shout out to our new friend Molly, who recently visited our craftspeople in Congo and took some beautiful pictures. She is a talented photographer who likes to travel and offer her skills (for free!) to small organizations like us. She took amazing pictures, and they will appear on our website soon. But in the meantime, I have them here sitting on my computer making me smile.
All I have to do is peek at the pictures, and I can hear the laughter. And it makes me feel small, in the best sense of the word.
People in Congo know how to laugh...I mean belly laugh. They know how to kick back and enjoy a moment. That is not to say that the problems in Congo aren't huge and the suffering isn't very real. But why is it that a culture's ability to laugh often seems to be directly proportional to the number of difficulties it faces? Perhaps that sounds irreverent. But I have a sneaking suspicion that in the midst of it all, the ability to laugh counts for more than one might think.
So in case you didn't have a very laugh-inspiring day today, I'm offering a sneak peek at a few of pictures that make me smile.
And you know what? I spent my first month of learning Swahili trying to find a word for the verb "to smile". People kept telling me "kucheka", but actually Kucheka means to laugh. I began to get very worried about a language that didn't have a word for to smile. But it turns out that kucheka means both...to smile and to laugh, as though they are one and the same. And perhaps they are. I may not have learned the belly laugh yet, but I choose to begin with a smile.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
We spent our first month back in the States visiting family in Kansas (which was wonderful!), and have now arrived in Connecticut, where my parents are located, and also where our SHONA stock is located.
It has been great to see my parents, except that I have barely caught glimpses of them over the cartons of stock. You see I arrived and walked into my parents living room, to find five cardboard cartons staring back at me. They were elaborately wrapped with packing tape and had large lettering all over them.
My parents do not live in a large house. 5 cartons in their living room is not exactly convenient for them. So I embarked upon the task of opening them and taking out the new products that our craftspeople had shipped to me while I was traveling.
I do a lot of talking. I talk about how capable the SHONA craftspeople are and how often they amaze me... But this was the test.
These were cartons full of the products they had sewn AFTER I left Congo. Products I had never seen. It is one thing to start a sewing group in Congo, while you are there to supervise it. And quite another to see it carry on while you are gone. Would these young women really be able to carry the full responsibility for themselves?
I had no shortage of people who told me "no". They told me to hire a manager or a supervisor. But in Congo, managers and supervisors usually end up eating most of the profits in a group. And besides, why couldn't the women do it for themselves?
This means that each craftsperson goes down to the market, buys material, and finds a way to get that material to her house (no small feat when transportation is usually on the back of a motorcycle and each craftsperson carries crutches and wears metal leg braces)
Then she reads the text message I sent, requesting certain products and sizes for her to sew that month. Then she has sews them. Then she quality controls them. And then packs them up in a cardboard box, transports the box to a shipping location, has it weighed and addressed and paid for. During the month she is also responsible for keeping a record of the items she sews and calculating her profit. In each shipment she includes that record, along with a budget for her income.
Let me just remind you that these are women who have never gone to school.
And I can't tell you how proud of them I am. They have passed the test with flying colors, shipping exactly the products I asked for, sewn with even higher quality than when I was there.
And sometimes I just stand back and marvel at how much can be accomplished when I just get out of the way. Well, that is not entirely an accurate picture. We didn't come by this by chance. Years of work have gone into lessons on math and quality control. I handed over responsibility over time, so that they were already doing most of the work before I left. But still. You never really believe what someone is capable of until you stand back. And more importantly, THEY never believe it. Now, I think, they are starting to believe.
So I am ear deep in cartons of stock. And it takes forever to get photos of each item and list it properly in our store. That is why our store is currently "closed for restocking". But it will be back up by tomorrow. And when you check out the new products, take a minute to remember who picked that cloth, sewed that tote bag, and shipped it on its way. I promise, you will barely find my fingerprints on it.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
This is the way meals are shared in Goma. Shared being the operative word.
It kind of makes you rethink the way we "break bread together" here in the US.
How often do we have our own separate plates and silverware and glasses? We even have separate little table cloths that we call placemats. I mean do we each really need our own placemat? Oh, wait, that is one of our best selling items in our SHONA store. Please ignore my earlier comments. I am sure placemats are of the utmost importance in eating a meal.
But just in case you are curious about other approaches, this is what it looks like in Africa most of the time. People gathered around a pot or a dish. There are always lively debates about whether hot pepper should be added to the dish. For example, Argentine doesn't like hot pepper. Mapendo does. So Mapendo is always instructed to put A FEW careful drops in her corner of the pot and NOT to stir it around. As you might imagine, that never actually works.
But sometimes it amazes me what does work. After years of setting the table with endless supplies of dishes and cursing the stacks of dishes that result at the end of every meal, it seems strangely simple to realize that actually we could all just eat from one dish. I mean think about it, you might get a little hot pepper where you don't want it, but you only have to wash ONE DISH. In fact you only have to buy one. There are some serious advantages to sharing.
And today I am thoroughly amazed. While I was talking to the women this morning, they informed me that Neema and Zawadi are at school. Zawadi is the younger sister of Riziki (one of our craftswomen). I wrote about her recently, about how she has chosen to return to Goma and live with the SHONA women, to be near her older sister. And this is Neema, a 12 year old cousin of Mapendo who is also living with the SHONA ladies. Both Zawadi and Neema help to cook and clean and run to the market. Neither of them has ever been to school. So it was a bit of a suprise to me to hear that they were suddenly off to school. These are girls whose own parents have never sent them to school. And here are the SHONA women, themselves having never gone to school, pooling their money to pay Neema and Zawadi's school fees. This blows me away.
I often think of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The ones that Jesus multiplied. Except sometimes I wonder if we have missed the miracle all together. What if the food didn't really multiply? What if the miracle is that they shared it and were satisfied? Wouldn't that be the greater miracle? Africa is full of kids begging in the streets. Have you ever stopped to give one a cookie? I don't recommend it. The kid will immediately be mobbed and chaos will ensue. I feel like I have seen too much of mankind at our basest. When push comes to shove, I am not convinced that our natural instinct is to share.
So today I marvel at the miracle of sharing. I don't know what inspired Argentine, Mapendo, Riziki and Solange to put their money together and send some girls to school. But I count it a miracle.
Then again perhaps I should start counting miracles more often. There are many difficult things about life in Africa, but in the hungriest place on the planet, look at the way they share meals...I, for one, consider that a miracle.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
When I first moved to Africa, the thing that struck me most was the roads. Or rather the lack there of. Ok, I know, this is not what makes for poignant imagery of Africa. I mean no one has ever said to me "oh, so you are living in Africa....What are the roads like over there?"
But that is because we have grown accustomed to our richness. Our overabundance of roads I mean. Believe it or not, I have been asked the reverse question quite a few times with thoughtful looking Congolese faces peering at me and asking "what are the roads like in America?"
The roads in Congo are notoriously bad, even for African standards. It is estimated that Congo has 300 miles of paved road in the entire country. This is a huge country, 1/4 the size of the US. The US has at least 5.7 million miles of paved roads. hmm...
This leaves cities like Goma, with perhaps 800,000 people living in them, and one paved road. These pictures are of the main road in Goma. It is a two lane road, eaten away at the edges and crowded with at least 5 lanes of traffic, including two lanes of cars, at least 2 lanes of motorcycles and pedestrians on both sides. Now the word lane is quite deceptive. Please do not take this to mean that there is any order at all. The motorcycles and men pushing wooden cars weave all about, the cars sit in traffic and honk, and the people endeavor to actually cross the road and reach the other side.
But this is not the problem with roads in Congo. The problem is that roads, even such as these, often do not exist, or are simply unusable. Years of neglect mean that the roads built during the Belgian colonial period are collapsing, and during the intervening half century, very few new roads have been built. Add on top of that the high levels of armed robbery,and check points manned by a variety of rebel groups and government soldiers, and traveling by road simply becomes untenable.
Here, in the tiny town in Kansas which we are visiting, my eyes keep being drawn to the roads. The roads seem laughably wide, probably because of all the farm equipment that needs to make its way through. But I still can't help thinking "this town's got some good roads!"
So as you make your way down the road today, as almost all of you will, maybe you will take a second glance at the road stretched out before you and begin to see it in a whole new light.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
She is the younger sister of Riziki, one of our craftspeople. She is not handicapped, and is in fact, perfectly healthy. But she spent two years as a young teenager, living at the Handicapped Center in Goma. What were you doing when you were thirteen? Going to school, playing sports, making friends? So was I. But this young girl was in a city where she had no friends and no family, living in a treatment center for handicapped people so that she could care of her older sister.
Zawadi is not unusual. She was doing precisely what was expected of her, what is expected of any family with someone in the hospital. In the US we have nurses and nurses aides. We have people who come in and change the sheets and feed us when we are sick. We have little buttons to push and call for help. In Congo there is no such thing. You bring your help with you. You bring someone to bathe you, cook for you, feed you, and help you stand.
At a hospital, people tend to leave quickly. They either get better or they get worse. And few people can afford to stay in the hospital for long. But at the handicapped center, people are there for years. Riziki was in the Center for an operation, traction and intensive physical therapy to straighten her legs, a process that takes years not days. And her younger sister was at her side every one of those days.
I find the Handicapped Center to be one of the most humbling places. It is filled with young girls like Zawadi and old women too. Carrying their loved ones, as though it were the task they were born for. And I suppose it is. I suppose it is the task we are all born for.
And I guess it is the same even here. We may have nurses and nurses aides, but I always think of my grandfather sitting by my grandmother's bed in the nursing home. Closing the door, he insisted on bathing her himself. And I think of Henri Nouwen the writer and Catholic priest, who was an esteemed professor at Harvard and Yale before he left to work in a center for developmentally disabled people, bathing them and feeding them...
In this life where we rush around, so full of plans and accomplishments, I am humbled by those who sit by that bed, day after day. Life in the Handicapped Center is full of lives interrupted. There are man and women, interrupted in the prime of their life, by a debilitating illness or accident. And beside them, are others who have allowed their lives to be interrupted too. No one chooses the disease or the accident, but there are those who choose to sit by that bed. They choose to put their lives on hold for the sake of others.
And that is my mistake. I am looking at it all wrong. I am quite sure that Zawadi never considered her life put on hold. This summer, she returned to Goma to live with her sister again. Only this time she is living not at the Handicapped Center but with the SHONA women. Riziki no longer needs her sister's help, but that isn't why Zawadi came. She came because she loves her sister and wants to be with her. And that is the same reason she sat by that bed at the Handicapped Center years ago.
I am reminded again that there is no such thing as a life put on hold, or a life interrupted. In fact it seems that life is found most in the very places we choose to lay it down.
On another note, we would like to thank each of you who have become SHONA members. We have already raised over a third of our goal and are deeply grateful to each of you. Your gifts have made it possible for us to keep cloth in our craftspeople's hands. There is nothing they appreciate more. We still have 27 days left, and if you are interested in helping us become self-sufficient please visit this link. Truly a small donation makes a large difference to us.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
This is it. If there is one critical step for SHONA, it is right now, right here.
We have the chance to become a self-sufficient organization.
And we absolutely have to take it.
We are a completely independent organization with no outside funding. Becoming a self-sufficient organization is the only way we can continue our work.
Now this is quite a proposition, when you consider that our income is built exclusively on the work of of handicapped craftspeople in one of the war-torn regions of the world. Can we really do it? That is what I have spent the last year and a half figuring out.
The answer is a resounding yes. We can and we will. The market is there, and our craftspeople are more than capable.
But we need your help. We need to maintain a much larger stock. In order to do that we need a Working Capital Fund to cover the upfront costs of material, shipping and wages. Those are costs that we must cover long before products arrive in our store. When products do arrive, and they are sold, those costs will be recovered and the fund will be renewed, providing a foundation for our work for years to come.
We know this is a stretch. “Working capital” just doesn’t have emotional appeal. It would be much easier to ask for donations to...
- help put food on the table
- provide medical treatment for handicapped women
- send poor children to school
- rebuild the homes of refugees
But the truth is that this fund literally will do all of the above. Or rather it will allow a small group of handicapped craftspeople the honor of doing these things themselves.
Our craftspeople use the income that they earn from SHONA to do all of the activities listed above, and many more. That photo above is Gloria, one of Roy's six children. With his income from SHONA he has put four of his children in school this year, two of them for the first time. In the past year our craftspeople have worked hard and created incredible change in their own lives, and in the lives of others. Will you help us make that change a lasting reality? We are starting a membership club for SHONA. If we can find fifty members, we can become a self-sufficient organization.
Join us today!
BECOME A MEMBER
Learn more about why this is important
Monday, August 31, 2009
In case you didn't read about the incident, it involved a town hall event in Kinshasa where a university student asked a rather inappropriate question. Again, this is hardly a shock. People asked me what I considered to be inappropriate questions on a daily basis in Congo. The questions aimed at me usually revolved around the fact that I have been married 8 years and do not have children. You can take it from there. But in this case, the student asked Mrs. Clinton what Mr. Clinton thought about a trade deal with China. Hillary was rather put out that the student wanted to know about her husband's opinion, rather than her own. I suppose that if I were Secretary of State I would have reacted similarly.
Afterwards, the student approached Clinton (Hillary, that is) and explained that he had meant to ask President Obama's opinion, not Bill Clinton's. Perhaps. Or perhaps that is simply the easiest thing to say when you offend the US Secretary of State.
For a while the incident was also reported as a translation error. But that does not appear to have been the case.
So what do I have to say about this incident? I feel that I should weigh in somehow. Surely the world is waiting for my voice...
I get it. I totally understand why Hillary Clinton would be quick to feel that she was being overshadowed by her husband. I would feel the same way.
But I also find it totally believable that this student did not make a mistake. That he intended to ask her husband's opinion. And I think very few Congolese, men or women, would find this question offensive. Why shouldn't a wife be asked about her husband's opinion?
Hillary answered the question saying...
Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. So you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion.
Diplomatic or not, I like her answer.
Perhaps that student really did make a mistake. But, in a country where physically handicapped women are not considered "marriage material", where wives are routinely deserted if they don't bear children, and where sexual violence has risen to horrific levels perhaps an indignant response was not the worst thing in the world. Hillary came to Goma to address (or at least learn about ) the problem of sexual violence in Eastern Congo. She made the usual remarks and speeches, and showed the appropriate level of concern. But pretty speeches can only carry us so far. The solution to the plight of women in Congo must come from many directions. Yes, laws must be written and enforced, and a culture of impunity must be changed; but women themselves must also demand better.
The media spun this minor incident into a hot debate on whether Hillary feels threatened by Bill's reputation. But I would argue that we are looking in the wrong direction. This "minor incident" may be the most valuable thing Hillary did on her trip to Congo. Speeches and conferences about respecting women's rights are all well and good, but that one minute exchange where Hillary Clinton arches her eyebrows and demands better from that young man, may be worth a thousand words.