words & images tiffany vlaanderen
On my team’s first field visit in Kibera, which is not only the largest slum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, but also one of the largest slums in the world, we met with Samuel, a craftsman who specializes in making jewelry from cow bone. My Algerian-Canadian colleague had previously funded a micro-loan online for Samuel’s business, and it was incredible for her to be able to meet Samuel in person and see his operations.
The trek over open sewage through small alleyways to meet him could have been eye-opening in itself. However, Samuel's workshop had a strong and distinct stench of bones raw from the butcher—bones which would then go through a lacquering process in the workshop to be prepared for crafting. The heat of the day hung heavy and the dust particles from the bone sanding had completely filled the workshop. I had to step outside the workshop for a moment to regain myself.
It was, and is still, one of the most stinging moments of my work, an experience where no amount of knowledge, empathy, or strength could deny the reality at hand: These working conditions were inhumane no matter which way you flipped it.
Later, as we were saying our goodbyes, Samuel asked if we would like to buy some of his pieces.
“How much would you like for them?”
Samuel looked at his work partner. “Two hundred,” he said with hesitation.
For about two US dollars each, we went home with three black and white bracelets.
Over the years, I’ve met many skilled artisans who let the work of their hands speak for them. Whether dyeing and weaving textiles or melting and molding repurposed brass into beautiful accessories, their processes and techniques are incredible. Some artisans collaborate with western companies on commission to create handmade pieces, and others, though just as skilled, create pieces that only make it as far as the local tourist shops and markets.
Incredible work ethic cannot be discounted here, of course, but to say that this alone will move mountains in these artisans' lives is something I can’t continue believing after working with jewelry makers, as well as farmers and stove and sanitary napkin makers. Yes, there are immense disparities in our world, but what ultimately distinguishes the opportunities we have been given in life comes down to arbitrary circumstance.
This makes our self awareness that much more important. It might seem like a given now that we can go to our local department store or boutique and buy $2 bracelets made in Kenya or head over to the mall for $9.99 dresses from H&M. We’ve somehow been conditioned to expect extremely low prices without a second thought.
But what about the crafters making these products around the world? We’re eerily detached from the items we use everyday and covet the latest technology, clothing, and brands without knowing anything or much at all about who makes them, where, and in what conditions.
Thus it’s no wonder that we’ve used the same language for decades to highlight some these global challenges—language that grabs at our emotions. I’ve found that companies and NGOs depicting imagery in the developing world straddle two moods: images of complete destitution or smiling women and children carrying hope in baskets on their heads, set against unpaved roads.
Working with different community development initiatives in Indonesia and Kenya, I’m aware that it's a struggle to convey an image other than these two to those outside our work. Yet, “We empower women to rise above poverty” unfortunately still feels like an echo of colonialism that we haven’t been able to shake yet.
With that perspective, my hope is that if we’re mindful of our relationships with the items that we spend our lives using and wearing that we can then make the connection to the human (maker) behind the product. It's this seemingly modest step that has the guts to really transform a global narrative that is sorely in need of an overhaul.