Lenten Rememberings – Democratic Republic of Congo

Congolese Food

Decades of civil war and brutal ethnic conflicts have left many Congolese on the run. At the end of 2015, there were nearly 500,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Additionally the UN estimated there are 1.8 million internally displaced people within DRC. And while many Congolese have left their country and are living in camps in surrounding countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya and many more, there are more than 400,000 refugees from other countries who have come to DRC for refuge. When I read the history of the DRC, full of wars, genocides, mass rape, and more violence than I can wrap my head around, I picture a volcano inside of a volcano. Desperate people leaving, desperate people coming in from other erupting places.

This lush and beautiful country in the heart of Africa, home to nearly every valuable resource known to man is also the world’s largest source of cobalt. Without it, our smartphones and laptops would be powerless. The Washington Post has put out a story called The Cobalt Pipeline which gives an eye-opening look behind the scenes.  In 2012 UNICEF estimated there were 40,000 children working in cobalt mines in DRC. Children as young as 7 years old work in the mines in very dangerous conditions and are paid one to three dollars a day and many sacrifice their lives so we can carry technology in our pockets and scroll with our fingers while waiting for the next thing to happen in our lives.

With my belly full of Chicken Moambe, Eggplant Curry and Banana Fritters, I type these lines on my laptop which very likely has cobalt sourced from this country of incredible suffering and I feel a volcano within a volcano inside of me, beauty and horror colliding and I don’t know what to do with these tears but I let them come. I grieve for the lives lost, the lives now in terror, the lives in camps waiting and hoping. I grieve for the racial hatred between ethnic groups, for the greed of our wealthy and powerful who are all too willing to take advantage of black bodies to grow our prosperity. When you clear away the clutter, there’s not much difference between a cotton field and a cobalt mine…just a bit more distance.

Today I remember the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m grateful for the 16,370 Congolese Refugees accepted into the US last year. I’m grateful for the geeks that are out there who continue to develop technology that doesn’t require slave labor to thrive. And all the while I pray that the Democratic Republic of Congo, this country so rich in natural resources, will find healing and restoration.

 

Fair Trade on a Shoestring – 10 Tips For Your Tool Box

Tool Set

Let’s be honest here for a second. A lot of people want to support Fair Trade but struggle because of the higher price tags. Trust me, we know! For more than twenty years now, we have been either students, volunteers or bootstrapping entrepreneurs. If there is a crowd that shouldn’t be able to afford Fair Trade, we’re definitely a part of it. That being said, I want to tell that crowd, “You can’t afford NOT to buy Fair Trade.” There are more slaves today than there were during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade. This is not okay with me.

Most slavery today happens because, simply put, people are poor. This is not just living-below-the-poverty-line-poor, but a poverty so desperate that some choose to become bonded laborers with little hope of ever gaining their freedom. Others send their child to work on a plantation where the child’s freedom is taken away and he or she ends up working without pay. Some migrate to another city or country in promise of a job that turns out to be a hell on earth that they can’t escape. MBA Central has an eye-opening article with statistics and info-graphics that unpack slavery in our times. You can see it here.

When we buy Fair Trade products, we are ensuring that fair wages are paid and that working conditions are safe. Families are kept together. Entire communities grow and flourish. Human trafficking and slavery are prevented. That’s something I am willing to make a sacrifice for. Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Be Aware – Be willing to research the source of the products you buy. Visualize the conditions of the workers who made the items as you consume them.
  2. Consume Less – When a friend told me he no longer bought chocolate because of the slavery issues, I was shocked. That was the first I  knew about modern day slavery. We couldn’t afford Fair Trade Chocolate at the time, so we began eating much less chocolate and, when we did, we were aware of the hands that produced it.
  3. Be content with what you have. One of the reasons slaves are “needed” today is because we consume so much. Middlemen utilize slaves so that the cost of the products we “need” or feel we deserve is affordable to us. An awareness of where products come from can lead to contentment with what I have vs. the knowledge that I may be contributing to the world’s current slavery crisis.
  4. Shop second-hand – By the time a product reaches a thrift store, the resale no longer supports a large manufacturing company with unethical principles. It also is much more affordable to you. Don’t go crazy though, and over-consume just because it is “cheap”.
  5. Start with one thing and make it your thing. Buy it only when you know it has been ethically sourced. Research it. There are many options you could choose from to start with. These include cocoa, coffee, sugar, rice, rubber, mica (the glittery stuff in makeup), cotton and garments, shoes, gold, diamonds, tobacco, bricks, coal, electronic devices, palm oil, sea food, cut flowers. The list is endless and can seem overwhelming, but start with one.
  6. Buy local – I was horrified to learn that a significant amount of the sugar in the US market is processed in slave-like conditions in the Dominican Republic. In 2014, more than 100 tons of sugar from the DR was imported into the US. As a family we had already cut back on sugar consumption for health reasons but I wanted to do more. Fair Trade Sugar is still not something that fits in our budget, so I was thrilled to find a local source of sugar, Pioneer Sugar. Cut flowers are another industry where child labor is often an issue. Pick up a fresh bouquet at your local farmer’s market instead.
  7. Buy in bulk Equal Exchange offers coffee and cocoa in 5lb. bags and is more inexpensive than buying in small packs. Chocolate chips and chocolate bars can be bought by the case and split with a friend. One of our favorite coffee roasters, Hemisphere also sells ethically sourced coffee in in 5lb bags. They roast it right before shipping and I couldn’t be happier with the results!
  8. Shop Around for your favorite Fair Trade brands and ask to be put on their mailing list. I am emailed frequent coupons from Ten Thousand Villages. Other companies email me about sales they are having.
  9. Look for ethically sourced products – There are many great brands out there that are not Fair Trade Certified but still pay their workers fair wages. The key is to do your homework.
  10. Make a wish list and let your friends and family know about it. Not only does this help to avoid receiving junk that you will pass on to a resale shop in a few months, it gives you a chance to tell your family and friends about modern day slavery. You just may get the coolest birthday gift ever, enhancing not only your life, but changing the life of an artisan on the other side of the world. The chain reaction is real and inspiring!

From Slave to Saint

Pixie-Fern

A young teenager was captured by Irish pirates and forced to work as a shepherd for six long, formative years. During this time, he suffered cold and hunger. Isolated from his friends and family, he turned to God for comfort. His faith grew so strong during those years that when he had a dream of a ship that would return him home, he acted on the dream, escaped, and made his way back home.

Eventually another dream/vision inspired him to return to Ireland, the land of his captivity. There he worked tirelessly for the rest of his life, sharing his faith with courage and humility and was eventually declared a saint.

My dream is that today’s slaves, who are many, like St. Patrick, find freedom and become an unstoppable force for good.

 

 

Is There Finally a Sensible Prostitution Solution?

 

Pebble's Limited Edition Rag Doll

I heard a modern day abolitionist state that, “The effort to end modern day slavery and the fair trade movement, are not two separate things, they are Siamese twins.” I could not agree more. In Bangladesh women receiving a fair wage for their work will seldom resort to sex work.

I believe that there is only a fine line between prostitution and human trafficking. In many cases, that line has ceased to exist. The sex workers I have been privileged to know have been victims of horrific crimes. Not one of them woke up one morning and said, “Hmm! I could make a lot of money selling my body. This is what I want to do with my life.” No, it’s been a result of being victimized… of being so bloody beaten down, sometimes literally, that there is not much left for them to do or be. The whys behind prostitution are much deeper and complex than I can put into words but what I have seen in my experience makes me agree with something I read last night in an article entitled Sweden’s Prostitution Solution – in it Marie De Santis states that, “prostitution is a form of male violence against women.” In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sex and, instead of punishing the one selling sex, now offer help and alternatives. Not only has this greatly diminished prostitution, it has had a huge effect on human trafficking. An estimated 200-400 women and girls are being trafficked into Sweden yearly, compared to the 15,000 – 17,000 being trafficked into Finland every year.

Dignity is priceless. That has become a mantra in my life. Something is twisted when a woman feels she has no options but to sell her body and is then criminalized for doing so. Her dignity was lost long before the arrest, long before she sold her body and yet, the one who bought the sex can walk away from her with his dignity more or less intact. This is seriously twisted! Words cannot do justice to how wrong this scenario is. If Sweden’s government can “get it” and make real, lasting changes, maybe there is hope for the the rest of us.

I’m enchanted by women’s stories and love uncovering the ways in which they connect. I’m a bit of a mystic, and see these stories as threads spinning the issues of fair trade and sex work together. Pebble addresses sex work by creating a compelling alternative and preventing it in the first place. Our goal as Kahiniwalla (which means “storyteller”) is to tell Pebble’s story and create a market for Pebble products creating even more opportunities for employment. We want to use the stories that we spin together and turn them into warm blankets to soothe the cold, desperate and hungry that have been wounded and left out in the cold.

No Dark Secrets Please!

 

Fair Trade Chocolate Chip, Pecan Brownies

Fair Trade Chocolate Chip, Pecan Brownies

The shelves at the store seem to be sagging these days with the load of candy piled on them. From one store to another, one holiday to another, one ad to another, there’s not much difference. Oh the color of the wrappings change and the words used to lure us to buy lots of sugary “goodness” change according to the theme of the holiday, but underneath all the wrappings, there’s not much difference. I don’t know about you, but I get a little weary of it all.

It wasn’t always this way; I used to to be charmed by chocolate in any way, shape or form. I was pretty shocked, about 5 years ago, when a friend told me he didn’t buy chocolate because of the slavery issues surrounding it. I had no idea that such a sweet little item had such huge controversy behind it. It was appalling to me there were indeed many cocoa plantations in West Africa, in particular, which were run by slaves, often children. The more I researched, the more I became convinced that this was something I could no longer turn a blind eye to. For starters, our family simply began by eating a lot less chocolate. At the same time, I discovered a growing number of fair-trade companies who are sourcing their cocoa from farmers who are paid a fair wage and producing amazing chocolate. It was not a difficult decision to make the switch!  I fell in love with the baking cocoa from Equal Exchange. Not only can I feel good about my purchase, I believe the quality is far superior to other brands making it well worth the price. The most difficult thing to make the switch in for me was chocolate chips. Fair trade chocolate chips are hard to come by and are costly. As a compromise, I opted for organic chocolate chips for a time, since organic farmers are subjected to a lot of screening and it is less likely that slave labor is used on these farms. This past fall, I was thrilled to discover that Equal Exchange had begun selling chocolate chips! And are they good! A friend of mine didn’t believe me until she tasted what I’m about to share with you.

Fair trade, chocolate and baking are big passions of mine. I’ve combined all three and come up with a recipe that I want to share with you, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

No Dark Secret Brownies

  • 1 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup fair trade baking cocoa
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 3/4 – 1 cup fair trade chocolate chips

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the oil and baking cocoa. Cook for one minute. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Beat eggs and vanilla. Add the beaten eggs and vanilla, mixing just until combined. Sift the flour and gently stir in. Add the pecans and chocolate chips. Avoid over-mixing. Pour into a greased 9×13″ baking pan. Bake at 350 for 30 -40 minutes, until a toothpick an inch or two from the edge comes out clean. Cool completely before cutting.

Don’t fight over the corner pieces!

Disposable People

IMG_1743
He was just a stump of a person. Swept along by a surging wave of people, I nearly stepped on him as I descended an overhead foot bridge at one of the busiest hubs in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He had no arms or legs to propel himself to safety. Left alone, lying under the merciless sun with only a begging bowl. Alone, in a city of more than 10 million, with no one beside him to give him a drink of water or relief from the sun. I wish I could say that I did something heroic that day, something that would have altered the course of his life for the better, but I kept walking, pulled by the throng around me, my stomach churning from the sight. It’s been years ago, but I’ve not been able to forget him. The lines of his face are but a vague memory, but the clarity of his dented aluminum begging bowl still haunts me. It screams at me, informing me that there is someone in his life, someone watching from the shadows, listening for the plink of coins dropping into the bowl; someone who would pick him up at the end of the day, empty the begging bowl of its takas. Hopefully this same person would feed him and give him some rest before dropping him off again in the light of another cruel sub-tropical sun. A person who is content to use the unbearable suffering of another soul to fill his own pockets.

They say that slavery ended with the Civil War. They couldn’t be more wrong. Today more that 30 million people are held in slavery, in one form or another. 30 million disposable people. That is more than all the slaves trafficked during the years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Human Trafficking is second only to drug dealing, and is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, netting a profit of over 32 billion dollars every year. Nearly everything we own and love is tainted by this industry. From the cotton in our clothes to the sweat shops they are sewn in. From  diamond mines to florist shops. From cocoa plantations to sugar refineries. From covert transactions of forced prostitution to blatant pornography. Even components of the electronics that seem to define us in the 21st century, that mark our “progress” as humans, are tainted by the industry.

President Barack Obama said it well,

It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery.

The CNN Freedom Project defines it like this:

Slavery occurs when one person completely controls another person, using violence or the threat of violence, to maintain that control, exploits them economically and they cannot walk away.

It reminds me of the garment workers killed in the recent collapse of the factory in Bangladesh. Though they sensed danger that morning, they could not walk away. Financially they had no other options. Twenty two cents an hour does not let you save up, should you need to take a day off if your building is condemned.

While the scale of modern day slavery is staggering, I firmly believe that each of us has a voice and an important role bringing an end to slavery. If the world has modern day slaves, it requires modern day heroes. In the coming pages of this blog, I want to introduce you to some of those slaves and some of those heroes, but for today, I want to challenge you to make one change. One change that will impact one of those 30 million people. One change matters. You could decide to find ethically sourced sugar or coffee. You could buy a fair trade product. You could write a letter to Hershey’s. You could search for agencies in your area working against trafficking – because human trafficking is not limited to other countries, it’s right here among us. If you need more inspiration, you could watch movies like Human Trafficking, WaterSlumdog Millionaire, or The Dark Side of Chocolate. Do a search and find countless sites working tirelessly to stem the tide. Take a survey to discover how some of how unwittingly you may benefit from slavery. Pick some spring flowers and put them on your windowsill as a reminder of those who lost their lives in the industry. Say a prayer for those still trapped. The options are endless. There are at least 30 people enslaved. Pick one thing. A place to start. A place where you dig your feet in and tell the world that there are no more disposable people.