I’ve spent the past few months perfecting my sales pitch about porcupine quill bracelets, hand-dyed tapestries, and acacia wood talking sticks. These products filled the heavy boxes that I unloaded in the morning; they crowded my table later in the day, sheltered from the falling leaves by the white canvas of a small tent.
Working at a fair trade stand, I had found a way to help combat the issue of gender inequality and provide educational opportunities to girls in developing countries.
All profits made in the United States fund education, job training and community construction projects in Oyuma, Kenya.
Earlier in the year, I met Delta Ryan, founder of Take Heart Africa, a local, non-profit organization. Her vision allowed me to start a club at my school to support women and girls in Oyuma. During its first year, the Take Heart ASA club organized a bonfire with live music and a Valentine’s Day Dance for elementary schoolers, sold pizza at lunchtime, collected used clothes for garage sales, and held a fair trade home show to support Kenyan artisans. Every Saturday, I attended my local farmers market to set up the Take Heart booth and spent the day explaining to passersby how a particular piece of Kenyan artwork was painted on banana leaf, or that the necklace they were holding was made of magazines. By simply reciting what I had learned from listening to Delta, I could recount the stories of the Kenyan women who had smoothed and carved the small soapstone hearts sitting on the table, convince mothers to purchase fabric hair clips for their daughters, and cheer up a child with a hand-sewn stuffed elephant. I enjoyed checking out customers and watching proceeds increase throughout the day — a visual representation of change beginning in Oyuma — but I had no further personal connection to the artisans and places where these goods were made than did the shoppers passing by on their way to the organic vegetable or goat’s milk soap stands.
This summer in the seemingly endless plains of the Masai Mara and among the hyacinth reeds of Lake Victoria, the fair trade aspect of Take Heart suddenly came alive. I walked from store to store, examining hundreds of lions, elephants, and angels intricately carved from the blocks of soapstone I had just watched being shipped across Lake Victoria. I danced with the women of the Masai tribe and then selected the necklaces I thought would sell well in the U.S. I washed dishes each night with Rosemary, until she took a break to crochet one of the headbands I have since worn countless times. I held Alice’s children as she laid out paper bracelets of all colors for Delta to look through. The items I sold at the market began to mean much more as I interacted with the women who spent hours each day creating them, women like Alice whose endless labors improve their own lives and communities. Now when I hold out a scarf to a customer, I see Rosemary’s hands working tirelessly in the fading light. When I untangle a necklace, I remember the tribal songs of the Masai. These images are a constant reminder of our capacity to empathize with others and to become a part of their struggles and successes. The women I met in Kenya provided me with a powerful motivational tool; my work at the market is now directly connected to them. Fair trade in my eyes is now not only a beneficial business model, but an enduring link between cultures, a way to interact with women thousands of miles away every Saturday morning.