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Willa Shalit

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Working, Not Begging in Haiti

Posted: 02/14/2012 7:16 pm

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
-- Marge Piercy

I'm flying back to Haiti, remembering words spoken to me nearly a decade ago: "We are not beggars!" The speaker was Rwandan master weaver Pascasie Mukabuligo. She walks with a cane, in daily pain from an injury suffered as she lay under bodies and crawled through trenches waiting for the genocide to end. I'd come to Rwanda on a UNIFEM mission to help women form businesses and was struck by the stunning baskets Pascasie's widows group had created. I asked if she would rather I form a charity to raise supportive funds or help them form their own business with me as their U.S. partner.

"We don't want to be beggars." She almost spat it out but with the reserved dignity of a wounded queen. "We want to be in business with you."

Thus began a journey that started with 100 baskets, led to tens of thousands more, and introduced me to gifted artisans in the U.S., Africa, Asia, South America, and now Haiti. What was a mission in 2002 was, by 2006, a mission-based corporation: Fair Winds Trading, Inc.

When this flight stops in Haiti, I'll be welcomed by my new partners, gifted artists who have survived the Earthquake, poverty and political instability. Bright faces and brilliant minds will gather around a dusty table in a tent camp to show me paper beads that might just make it to market. We'll discuss techniques and quality, market competition and pricing, the designs that Chan Luu has ordered and her proper demand for absolute excellence. This will be no case study for academic interest. It will be women at work, partners planning how to stay financially afloat, people doing business with creativity, honesty, energy and laughter. No one at this table is willing to beg.

We'll also visit the metal smiths of Croix-des-Bouquets to check on their orders: fine works, hand-hammered and hand-cut from recycled steel. The artisans will tell me the meaning of their work. Pierre Michel will quietly hold up an exquisite metal pendant: "This is my heart," he will say, "and this" -- pointing to intricate detail within the shape -- "this is the love within my heart." We will be with Marcus who's crafted a frame with two birds. "This bird has heard good news," he'll confide, "and he has told that bird who is flying away to share it with others." All art communicates. And all artists work.

Usefulness is a joyful state of being. Michelle Hatch, our sainted buyer at Macy's came to Haiti with us and was shocked to see the poverty from which our beautiful products arose. She had never seen such lack. But she did not offer tears or charity. Instead, with respect and dignity, she challenged us to find products that would appeal to her customers. It was the path by which we could all succeed. She watered-down nothing; pointed to design trends, quality standards and the urgency of firm delivery dates. We did business together, not begging.

With generous support from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, in partnership with Keith Recker's Hand/Eye Fund, we are establishing an Artisan Business Network so the Haitian artisans and entrepreneurs can sell, repeatedly, to U.S. businesses. If we succeed, the children of artisans eat and shoppers celebrate -- it's a partnership.

On the hillsides of Rwanda, and amid the blue plastic of Haiti's tent camps, we laugh and dance when sales are good. We worry and work when sales are low. We spend our earnings on school fees and health care, putting our daughters through school and putting food in the hands of Haitian children. We have the privilege of work because... we are not, any of us, beggars.