Monday, June 28, 2010

Conflict Minerals in Congo

Conflict minerals is a term that I never heard in Swahili. Of course I heard about minerals (generally in relationship to whether I might like to buy some). And I heard plenty about conflict. I just didn't hear very many people in Goma put those two words together.

But now that I am back in the US, following the hot celebrity trends and flashy advocacy campaigns, and conflict minerals is all I ever hear about Congo.

Well, besides the fact that Congo is "the rape capital of the world" of course.

So is it true?

Are there minerals in Congo? Absolutely. I could watch young men sitting around a water tap and washing off coltan from my balcony from time to time. (coltan's that mineral that makes our cell phones work)

Is there conflict in Congo? I don't think I even need to answer that question.

Are the two related. Of course. The mining of minerals helps fund many of the armed groups in the region. But so do truck loads of cabbages traveling from farm to market. Road blocks on the insecure roads throughout the countryside in Eastern Congo are used by various armed groups to demand money from anyone and anything needing to pass by. Including cabbages. Roads are a valuable (and scarce) resource in Congo, and just like the minerals, they are seen as a revenue stream for no shortage of armed groups.

And that I think is why I never heard much talk about conflict minerals in Congo. Along with the fact that I hung out with women who were far more likely to be talking about the best way to prepared ugali (a food) than the best way to mine minerals.

But primarily, I think I never heard much about conflict minerals because it would kind of be like talking about conflict cabbage. It's not that it is incorrect, so much as it is incomplete. The reality is that most of the produce you can buy in Goma probably paid a roadblock "tax" at least once to get to you, and part of the price you pay for those goods, is going to support the armed men who demanded that money. There is little in Congo, that the conflict hasn't touched in some way. If people in Eastern Congo started adding the "conflict prefix" to every applicable word, where would it stop?

And yet, Western consumers don't buy conflict cabbages. And they do buy products made from conflict minerals, especially trendy little devices like iphones, hence the suddenly popular use of the term.

There is a bill in congress aiming to reduce the use of "conflict minerals" by requiring electronics companies that trade on the stock exchange to identify the source of their supplies.

I am all for shortening supply chains and making them more transparent. I believe that one of the great evils of our times is that we have become so disconected from the things that we buy, and the ways that they are produced.

What we buy does matter, and the fact that we buy from very large companies, who in turn outsource many stages of production, makes it ever more difficult to know exactly what we are buying and how it was produced.

Any move to demand greater accountability from international corporations, and greater responsibility for all levels of the supply chain, is good.

So in principle, how could I argue with the conflict minerals legislation?

But still there is something that bothers me about this whole movement, and I just can't let it go.

I think it is the ease with which "conflict minerals" rolls off the tongue. It's like it was ready-made for a marketing campaign. Or maybe it is the fact that I never really did hear it roll off the tongue much in Congo.

While in Congo I would often ask people what they believed the solution to the conflict was. Most people found this question extremely difficult to answer, and would often remain silent or respond "Mungu anajua" (God knows)

So when I read this statement from the US based advocacy group behind the push for legislation, I start to get nervous...

"Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo... the battle for the resources has left over 5 million dead. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Congo, making it the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or girl.

We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution."

I'm glad we have all the solutions. Especially for such a complicated war. It is quite convenient and all.

But just in case there might be a few more words that need to be said on this topic...I'll be back tomorrow for the second half of this blog.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When the days get a little long

And the weather gets way too hot.

I often think of the Argentine, Riziki, Solange and Mapendo.
And how much they love playing "sit-ball".

How they dive for the ball and race around the cement floor.
Loving every minute of it.

Thanks to Molly Feltner for befriending the SHONA ladies and for donating these awesome photos!

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Today I would like to show you a beautiful video. It is a video I made with my ESL students here in NY. My students are Spanish-speaking adults. Most of them have extremely limited English (although they are getting better by the day). We made a video of them talking about their dreams. It is beautiful. The dreams that they have are the same dreams we all have.

But I can't put it up here. Many of my students do not have documents. And so I cannot show you this video today. But here are some examples of what they said...

I have a dream that...
One day I will speak English.
I will see my children grow up with good hearts.
One day my family will be all together forever.
One day everyone in the world will know God.
Some day I will have a good job.
The world will finish violence.
One day I will return to my country and help people.
I will have documents.

You see what I mean? People are people. And we all have dreams.

We can have many different positions on immigration reform, but what we cannot lose sight of is the fact that we are all brothers and sisters.

So I am sorry to have to cut the video and silence my students' voices.

But I have good news as well.

This week we are introducing tweets live from Congo. We are receiving tweets directly from our craftspeople in Congo and publishing them on twitter in Swahili with translation.

The topics our craftspeople will be tweeting on will be limited. They can't comment on the ongoing conflict in Congo, but they can tell you a bit about their own lives. The tweets will provide at least a glimpse of their lives, their words, and their voices. They will tweet about what is going on from week to week, and some of the joys and struggles in their own lives.

Too often I take my own voice, and my own freedoms, for granted. But many people, throughout this world, live in situations in which their voices are often either silenced or unheard. So check out our website, where we are posting our twitter updates, or join us on twitter, in one small attempt to bring a few more voices into the global community? And remember you can sign our guest book, and send messages directly to our craftspeople! Both your voice, and their voices, do matter!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Summer Stock!

What is summer for?

If not for African colors?

We are celebrating summer with a special gift!
Make a purchase in the next 3 days and receive a free SHONA TOTE BAG with your purchase!

Visit our store
or take a peak below to see a few of our brand new designs!

Check out this patchwork throw cloth. What's it for? You decide. You can throw it over a table or a chair. Take it on a picnic or to the beach. Throw it over your shoulders or wear it as a sarong. No matter what you decide to do, it's the perfect summer companion!

And we've got funky new aprons, with contrasting cloths on the pockets and straps to add a little spice to your life!

We love this beautiful new shirt. It's cool, light-weight and super comfortable, with amazing embroidery!

And we are super excited about this all new product. There can't be an easier way to add an artistic African accent to your home. This short and sweet patchwork cloth is the perfect size to throw on a coffee table, shelf or desk. Or make it the centerpiece of a larger table, you won't be disappointed with this beauty!

And my personal favorite. Our knee-length summer wrap skirt is fun, flirty and super comfortable. It easily fits a variety sizes, just throw it on with a t-shirt and it looks great!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Talk to us!

We have a brand new guest book on our website and we hope you will visit!
You can visit our website

or go straight to the guestbook.

We are a small organization and we heavily depend upon encouragement from SHONA friends. Will you come and be the first one to sign our guestbook?

Not only that, but we are offering a cool new way to connect you with our craftspeople directly. If you are a SHONA customer, we invite you to send a message directly to the woman who crafted your purchase. Just include her name, and a brief message to her, and we will translate it and send it on to her through text messaging. You can send words of encouragement, or even a question about her life, and we will post her response back to you on the guestbook, in Swahili with English translation.

How cool is that? How often do we hear about women in Eastern Congo? How often are they described as victims? They are not. They are beautiful, talented young women who have a world of things to say. Send them a message today!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

To Be of Use

"...I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
~ Marge Piercy ~
(Excerpt from the poem To Be Of Use)

I find very little to say, that isn't better said in this poem.

I have spent the last year 6 months exhausted. I teach ESL classes to Spanish-speaking adults during the day, and to Russian-speaking adults at night. The classes couldn't be more different, and yet in the end they are the same. Honest people, hard-workers, determined to embrace a culture and a language that is not their own. We talk about the difference between "work" and "walk", and why Americans insist on using articles before nouns. And we talk about our families and homes and dreams.

Somewhere in between the two classes I often get on the phone, and switch from English to Swahili, to talk with the SHONA ladies half way across the world. This time my language is stumbling and theirs is fluent. But still it is the same. We talk about the cut of a cloth, and the length of a stitch. And we talk about families, and homes and dreams.

Sometimes I feel that SHONA inches along. You may notice that umm...I haven't been doing a great job at getting new products up in our store or getting publicity out there. That is not to say it's not coming, but I am sure a different person would be out there networking and "advocating" and tweeting up a storm by now. Sometimes I believe that the SHONA women deserve a louder voice, or a more connected friend. There are people that would probably have them on Oprah by now.

And here we are in the mud, "the work of the world is common as mud". And we inch along slowly.

But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

And when I look at the faces of those standing beside me,
I am thankful for work that is real.