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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Shona Sculpture at Hartsfield Jackson Airport

I love Hartsfield Jackson Airport!! Hard to believe with the long security lines being the busiest airport in the world... So why all the love? Well this is where the biggest display of Shona Sculpture from Zimbabwe is displayed in the Western world.

The sculpture is located on concourse T of the airport. It’s the first terminal after you walk through security. If you take the train to your concourse you will miss it, so make sure you catch the train after walking through concourse T.
I couldn’t resist taking photos, and to my surprise & immense pleasure I wasn’t the only one.

I didn’t take photos of all the sculpture because I want you to go and see it for yourself. Isn’t it amazing??

Word has it the display was put up when Andrew Young was mayor of Atlanta and the pieces at the time were valued at an estimated $1 million dollars!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Birth of the Afrobag - Part 2

One of my most important goals when I visited Zimbabwe was to find a bag manufacturer to make African handbags called Afrobag. This is something I’ve had on my mind for several years. The reasons behind the Afrobag are simple:
a)create a product with a positive multiplier effect within the grassroots levels of society, & thereby contribute to the elimination of extreme poverty; and
b) take something back with to America to remind me of home on a daily basis.
The first (and currently, the only) line of Afrobags is made using batik fabric which relies on the skills of several types of low income (but not extremely poor) artisans and suppliers. These are batik artists, bag makers, weavers and leather suppliers. These groups are typically still consistently linked to their rural homes where extreme poverty in Zimbabwe is greatest. So for example, during Christmas or planting season, they’ll go to the rural areas to share Christmas festivities or purchase fertilizer for planting season. They can only do this if they are financially able to do so. Mr. Meneyere for example, who is our Afrobag sewer, lives in the city but his wife and family (and extended family) live in the rural areas. He visits them when he can afford to do so, but he is currently the main breadwinner for his entire immediate and extended family. You can imagine what a huge weight this is to carry. So Tashanda’s plan is to find people like Mr Menyere and use them to continue their support of their extended families in the rural areas. If demand for his skills grow, he may even be able to pass on his skills to family members and help them out of poverty in that way.

One might ask why Tashanda does’t go directly to the areas where the extremely poor are located. The answer lies in the fact that they are situated in areas which are so remote that there is unlikely to be any electricity, accessible roads, and/or communication. We have identified some remote locations for other projects which do not need electricity, but that is another long story…
As mentioned above, the other reason for creating the Afrobag was really for personal gratification. I love sadza batik so much that I absolutely had to create something with them. In 2006 my sister came to visit me in the USA & was the first person with whom I shared the idea of making handbags. At the time I was struggling to find a name and in an instant she said “why don’t you call them Afrobags?” Wow, so simple for some…

Mr. Menyere is a really nice, down to earth man. He’s quiet, patient, very respectful and hardworking. He’s also a man with a huge talent that he has managed to maintain in spite of Zimbabwe’s economic decline. He told me that he used to work at a factory in Zimbabwe which made handbags until it was forced to close in the late 1990’s. The owner of the factory liked him very much and left him some of his sewing equipment prior to relocating to South Africa. Today Mr. Menyere is based at the home of his former owner where he sews bags to sell to local shops. I asked him how business was treating him & he shook his head in despair. The price of leather, glue, lining, zippers – everything – has gone up and continues to go up every day. He was referring to Zimbabwe’s escalating inflation rate which is currently the highest in the world. He doesn’t own a car so he uses public transport or a bicycle to carry his products to his customers. He showed me some samples of his work and I was impressed with his workmanship which was very neat. He makes a variety of bag styles using mainly leather and fabric combinations.
I showed him Tashanda’s batiks & asked if he could do something with them & he said he could with no problem. So I left him with as many as he thought he could handle in the week and a half I had remaining. By his estimate he was going to make 30 bags, although in a good week he can churn out up to 100 a week. He told me he works with his brother who also used to work at the factory. His brother Maki is much younger & he too is a great person to know. We showed the two brothers the 2 bag patterns we had designed and wanted him to make. We also agreed that we’d take him to a high density location where he would then purchase the leather he needed for the bags. We also left him a 50% down payment to enable him to purchase other materials / costs for the order.

The next day, we drove to Epworth, which is a low income high density neighborhood in the greater Harare area. The town of Epworth began as a place where displaced people used to live and as a result, does not have much of the town planning you typically see in other Harare locations. Here, it’s not unusual to see a mud hut next to a well constructed, modern brick building coupled with unpaved roads. There was a roadblock along the way and the police stopped me & asked for my license. Due to all the Zimbabwean money I’d been carrying, I’d been having to travel with several handbags at a time and as my luck would have it I simply couldn’t find my driver’s license. As I searched the car I felt a rising sense of panic – not because of anything the policeman had said or done, but more because of the BBC & CNN news articles I’d read about the “escalating violence” in Zimbabwe. When I’d lived in Zimbabwe I never felt this way and fortunately my fears were unfounded because the policeman told me to move along but make sure I had it on me next time. Phew!! Needless to say, when I returned home that evening I saw another handbag under the driver’s seat, and sure enough my driver’s license was in there!

As we proceeded to Epworth, My Menyere explained that the place we were going to was the home of his friend who imports scrap leather from South Africa as the leather costs in Zimbabwe are quite astronomical. While Zimbabwe has about 11 tanneries the shortage of livestock and decline of farming and agriculture has forced prices so high that they are too high. This friend of Mr. Menyere used to sew handbags as well but decided to change professions & become a leather supplier instead. He did have someone sewing wallets on his porch though, which he explained he sells to the local market. The leather was very expensive. The prices were marked on the exterior of each bale and I watched as Mr Menyere sorted the pieces and the colors he wanted for the bags. It was a hot day and the selection process took ages. This man was so meticulous!

As he continued to sort through the leather his friend started telling me how well his leather business was doing and how he had managed to build two houses in the Epworth area as a result. He was also keen to assure me that his leather was imported legally (Zimbabwe has so many punitive laws and regulations which can result in heavy fines if not complied with, especially in the area of import/export) and he showed me his customs documentation. His home looked like it had about 3 bedrooms & it had a large yard which was walled and gated. It was a nice home.
Zimbabweans are into so many forms of employment. When you read statistics telling you the unemployment rate is 80% what that statistic is really saying is that 20% are in formal employment (banks, schools etc..) and most of the rest are working for themselves, and maybe even employing others who are being excluded from the statistics. This leather dealer is a typical example. There were also a multitude of vendors in the area & they were everywhere, selling fruits & vegetables and baskets.
Finally when My Menyere finished making his selections, we drove back home & left him and his brother to start the debut Afrobag range.
At the end of the week I went to examine the samples he had managed to produce and I was pleased with the result. This is the very first bag he made for us:

The biggest challenge faced by Mr Menyere was the power cuts. I would get to their studio in the middle of the day & he & his brother would be asleep because they were up all night working when the electricity was on. Such is the life of Zimbabwe today. These are hurdles we face on a daily basis and I worry sometimes about how Tashanda will overcome this, especially if larger orders start coming in. Right now the only solution is to ensure that orders are placed very early, much earlier than your average factory order. The other option is to consider solar energy, or a generator. I have no clue about the former and the latter is very expensive.

I’m happy to say that the order was completed in time for me to leave for the USA. Not all the bags came out the way we had hoped but we were happy with the initial response from our customers. Mr Menyere is calling me almost daily to find out how his bags are selling. The order for 30 handbags made a tremendous difference in his life and a continued stream would certainly lower the current financial burdens he has on his shoulders. He is keen to get more orders as soon as possible and we are working really hard to find orders for him.

There are hundreds of skilled workers like him in Zimbabwe whether they are shoe makers or natural jewelers or sculptors, who need access to international markets and micro finance, but as far as I can tell there is no financial assistance available for people like him. If it’s there, he doesn’t know about it and even expressed some reservations about approaching a bank for a loan. Why? He’s never approached a bank in his life and feels intimidated and unsure. He didn’t have to say it out loud, I could just tell from the manner of his response. There is so much work to be done. As the old Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So this is the story of how the Afrobag was born!

Zimbabwe Votes

Zimbabweans headed for the polls in late March, 2008. I was travelling at the time but every second I got, I was watching CNN and BBC news from my hotel room, and scanning all the online newspapers and blogs I could find. I prayed. I prayed really hard. I prayed for peace and I prayed for the country that I love so dearly. I prayed that whatever the result, it would be a true reflection of the will of the people. I also prayed that the winners & losers would realize the enormity of the power in each of their hands, and that they would choose to make the right choices - choices that would keep the peace in a nation on the already on the edge. It’s been 2 weeks since the elections and the results have not yet been announced. Nobody seems to know what's next and most people have already lost hope because of the silence on the election results and are continuing their lives as before. Please keep Zimbabwe in your thoughts and prayers...