Friday, November 03, 2006

Kariobangi South

Something has changed in the studio. Everyone is tougher and more motivated to save money, find different vendors, create online orders and design an affordable product for the local market. Because they can see now after all their hard work starting in April that this business has the ability to grow for them. At first everyone was happy and grateful for the work but now something is different because I am slowly and carefully handing things over and each time I do this they come up with something innovative and colourful that will work here. That uses the local capital available for their own trading advantages.

Sometimes people criticize me because I focus so much on income and sales and profit for Africans, but really and truly that is how poverty does become history. It doesn’t happen by a fundraiser whose donations run out. It doesn’t happen after a massive press conference to shock us all by the statistics. What really works are the small local things that Africans are building for themselves. They are tired of saying thank you. They don’t believe the hype anymore. They want to live in their own private dignity of self-sustainability like the rest of us. And they know this is their right to do so.

Mary is the one leading this charge. She is the one who says that we have to save a little bit from all our revenue for the future. She is the person Uchumi obviously didn’t have on hand when it was forced to shut it’s doors last spring. Quietly yet with pride she tells me about her dreams of moving to a better home so her son can come live with her. And when she told that from her earnings she was able to build a home for her mother I stopped in my tracks on Kimathi Street. We were coming back from visiting the mayor’s office to ask him if he could write a forward to our book and again I realized the immediate massive power of what happens when Africans are able to accumulate wealth.

In Mary’s case it’s not much right now but it’s more than she’s ever had and it’s enough. She is changing and she is starting to inspire others. Last Sunday I went to visit her in her neighbourhood called Kariobangi about 20 minutes by hot noisy matatu to the South East of the city along the road full of houses built for the railways. I alight in front of Kariobangi South Primary School and there is Mary waiting for me in all her slightness. She is such a slim pretty gal. She is becoming my friend and in a strangely familiar way she reminds me of my mother. She knows how to do everything and wants to learn it all. She will fill my place when I am not here.

After we have tea in her modest room of corrugated metal, a bed she shares with her cousin, all of their clothes and their cooking tools, I ask her if we can go for a walk. And like so many residential neighbourhoods in places like Nairobi in it’s own way it is really beautiful. A westerner would not see this right away, I believe I can only see it because I have come here a few times now and deep my heart I have great respect for these people.

At first glance you would see what you see on the tv commercials about how Africa is so poor and this is so sad. You would see the broken roads full mostly of big rocks that nobody removes and how awkward this makes for walking. And then you would see the garbage that is everywhere – plastic bags, food things, a shoe, a broken bit of something metal. Beyond that you would see a gaggle of kids who are missing items of clothing, shoes, whose clothes are soiled because everything is dirty and dusty and kids after all, are kids. And likely you would feel sorry for all of this because it’s not what you know, what you think is the right way to live and you would stay there on the outside of everything that is happening around you.

I never take my camera to these places and then I always regret I didn’t. I don’t like strangers thinking that I am one of those photographers who will take a picture that is sad or will show yet again something tragic of Africa. Those aren’t the kinds of pictures I take but the Africans don’t know this because why would they? So many of us have just come and gone with open mouths and or sat in meetings debating solutions without ever really stopping to see what is really there. To look but not to truly see.

When you do that what you notice is quite different. You see strong little bare feet capable of running quickly and fearless across very harsh terrain with no complaints, with nothing but a smile. And then you see a network of women caring for children, selling simple fruits in the street, trying on used clothing – maybe something pink and quite lovely that brings a smile or a blush. Of course you would hear the church in it’s thumping, it’s grand belief that what really matters today is a baby that has been born, that life has come yet again to this beautiful and complicated place. And if you had stayed that long and touched the hands of people as they do so often you would feel like you do everywhere in Africa, that you are welcome here.

I no longer get a discount on our t-shirts. I have to pay full price which is startling but wonderful. I am buying as many t-shirts as I can before I leave again so I will have reminders of how simple and precious this beginning time has been for all of us but I think especially me because I am a guest here.

As soon as our book is printed and our sales coordinator is sitting at her computer I will go back to North America. Probably I’ll go to Vancouver to see my accountant and my friends, get some rest, check in. And then I will find somewhere where I can earn some money for myself while shamelessly selling our shirts. I may go to Atlanta. I’d like to visit Georgetown or anywhere in California would work. I need to be in a place where people not only respect what our t-shirts stand for but they see the power of trading with us. Usually this is women. And when an American can pay $40 USD + shipping from Nairobi for one of our beautiful handmade shirts everyone can pay their rent.

The best thing I can offer my business in Kenya ironically is to leave here and go back to where I come from to spread the news. The Kenyans don’t need me anymore here, they just need me to hold the door open for them which thankfully – is one of my best qualities. For all the things I feel I have failed to do or understand in business, sales is not one of them. Nobody sells our t-shirts like me. Nobody says no when I tell them what I have learned about trading fairly with Africa. Nobody can show me in any kind of pricing structure that higher margins for Africa isn't a pledge of dignity, of kindnessness, of repect. Na Heshima.

The Ethiopians are trademarking their coffee brands in order to secure higher trading margins on global commodities markets and Starbucks is trying to stop them. Shame on them. Shame on us all for not acknowledging that paying 3cents more per cup is not an act of losing power in our own personal economies but of creating solidarity with the much greater community we live within that spans the circle of the globe. So we have less. So we go without for a change. So we consider to be far more grateful than we ever have so that others can sustain, so they can have what we have had in abundance for so so long.


Blogger Naima said...

I am not sure when this was posted, but I must say thank you. I am a Kariobangi native raised in the States, you described my home much like I would, thank you for noticing the beauty beneith what seems like pain and unbareble suffering on the surface. Ahsante sana! I would love to hear from you.

11:00 AM  

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