By: Kristine Sloan, Interim Burundi Country Director
“We are the world. The world is you and me, the world is not separate from you and me. We have created this world – the world of violence, the world of wars, the world of religious divisions, sex, anxieties, the utter lack of communication with each other, with no sense of compassion, consideration for another… There is a common relationship between us all. We are the world essentially, basically, fundamentally. The world is you, and you are the world. Realizing that fundamentally, deeply, not romantically, not intellectually but actually, then we see that our problem is a global problem. It is not my problem or your particular problem, it is a human problem.”
― Jiddu Krishnamurti
You’re sitting in the middle of 80 women. You’re in a rural area, everyone is wearing second-hand clothes, there are babies strapped in every possible way to around 60 of those 80 women. If you were to ask, you’d cry and simultaneously want to laugh jubilantly at the pain, grief, and triumph of their life histories. One woman, for example, knew no home for five years – fleeing perpetually from violence each night, to a new unknown, only to pick back up the next day and keep moving. Most women can’t read, can’t write, and can’t count, having been denied the opportunity of education. Most of these women have worked tirelessly their whole lives in fields, in the streets, for their children, for their families.
These women are survivors. What they are not, however, are artisans. Yet. You’re sitting in the middle of 80 women, explaining that this particular color of pink “isn’t quite” blush. And blush, that’s the color we need for the market. And the dimensions must be 6.5cm in diameter. Always. And oh yeah, you all have to work together in a functioning group. That understands how to save money, and how to operate a bank account, and function within a legal and administrative system. This group should have fairly elected leadership, and should distribute money and resources effectively. This group needs to produce 500 “exactly blush” bracelets in 5 days.
In some ways, the fact that this works ever, at all, anywhere is amazing. The momentum and push that it takes to get this to work in the resource-limited and infrastructurally… challenged East Africa, and specifically in Burundi, is overwhelming.
This is the key difference between Opportunities Across Africa (OAA), our nonprofit organization, and All Across Africa (AAA) our social business. Opportunities Across Africa works with people who have never been trained in artisanal craft – we work to form and register cooperatives, train on leadership and group cohesion, and of course, provide skills development and training for the production of high quality artisanal goods.
All Across Africa seeks out existing artisanal groups that have capacity to produce but don’t have a market. All Across Africa provides training and support on new colors, designs, and adaptability (leadership) to these existing groups – giving economic and employment opportunity to thousands of talented artisans throughout the East African region.
All Across Africa partners with artisans. Opportunities Across Africa creates them.
Both are hugely important, and we believe that the connection between them is what makes our model so strong.
OAA functions as a nonprofit that accepts grant and private funding for artisanal development and any other holistic social development projects (educational funding for rural schools, campaigns for the urban homeless, etc.). For the artisans that OAA develops and trains, we then provide an optional market to them through a partnership with AAA.
AAA continues to invest and work with these new artisans on new color development, maintaining design and trends for an ever-changing international market, and ensuring fair and just relationships of partnership and trade. OAA cooperatives can also choose not to partner with AAA and to sell to other markets – it’s for them to decide and is enshrined in signed codes of conduct between all partners.
We realize that there are no simple solutions to poverty. We realize that to recreate stability, to bring back tradition, to invest in a human being – this is to invest, with our time, our resources, and our hearts in their complexity. In every possible problem they may face. To make decisions and pursue programs that may sometimes make no financial sense, but are real and matter. To not ignore the problems of one very talented, very creative, intensely intelligent human being for the sake of “efficiency”. Operating both a nonprofit and a business allows us to make these decisions and still pursue healthy relationships with the rural poor based not on dependency, but on partnership.
We believe that one day, we can function solely as a business in East Africa. That there would be no need for a nonprofit in the region. That every person would break the chronic cycle of poverty for themselves and their families. We are working tirelessly to make this belief real. Actual. Tangible. We aren’t working near as hard as the thousands of artisans, educators, and youth with whom we partner through the region.
Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. – Cesar Chavez
Those 80 women – they will break your heart and bring you joy. They will argue with you endlessly. They will educate their children. They will fight, every day, to see a better tomorrow. Cheers to them.