9 Words That Define Bangladesh

Tea Time on the RooftopOur hearts have been grieving the tragic hostage situation that occurred over the weekend in Bangladesh. While we are relieved that our family, friends, and all who work for Pebble are fine, we are deeply saddened by the loss of lives, both foreigners and Bangladeshis.

This is not the Bangladesh we know. Memories of years spent in this warm and hospitable nation come flooding back: Complete strangers inviting us over for tea. Beggars asking how our boys were doing. Shopkeepers calling out their greetings as we passed by. Standing on the rooftop with the neighbors at night to see if the moon would signal another day of Ramadan or if the month of fasting would be over and the Eid celebration would be the next day. Neighbors inviting us to celebrate with them. One year we had seven men from seven different households in our apartment building drop by to invite us to a meal or tea later that day. Our hearts were fuller than our bellies that night because we, strangers of a different race and religion, were given a place at their table and loved.

The actions of a few do not define the essence of the many. Six terrorists do not get to define what this beautiful nation of nearly 163 million people stand for.

Like a rose bush that comes back stronger every time it is cut back, Bangladesh for me will always stand for—

Hope.

Beauty.

Tolerance.

Love.

Kindness.

Strength.

Innovation.

Creativity.

Respect.

It was a bittersweet July 4th for me as I celebrated our Independence Day with family and friends. I wonder what our nation would be like if we were as welcoming and tolerant. If even half of us would start living out of love instead of fear. Perhaps we would have less hostage situations, less racism and less police brutality.

Fear is a powerful thing. BUT. LOVE. IS. STRONGER!

Faces of Pebble – Rayhan

Executive Director

Rayhan – Executive Director – Admin Dept.

  • Loves to travel and eat fuchska (a Bangladeshi Street Food) with friends.
  • Hates when the rich use the poor as a tool to increase their wealth.
  • Glad to be part of a business that creates jobs for rural Bangladeshi women without any financial investment on their part. It is rewarding for him to know that these jobs create a huge, positive impact on the social structures of Bangladesh through the empowerment of the women of Bangladesh.
  • Rayhan is responsible for keeping Pebble on mission by hiring and managing competent, qualified staff and by promoting that mission in the business and social enterprise community within Bangladesh.
  • He is the voice of Pebble for Pebble’s distributors around the world.
  • Here he holds the Green Octopus Rattle, Pebble’s #1 Bestseller for nearly a decade.

“Loadshedding” and Lent

CandlelightLent is a bit foreign to me. It’s not something practiced in my home as a child. In fact, I was an adult before I really heard about it. The usual things I hear that people give up for Lent – coffee, chocolate, sweets, meat, Facebook, etc. don’t really jive for me. I’m glad if it works for them, but for me it has felt like a drudgery, reminiscent of periods of my life that brought more harm than good to my soul. I’ve tried, for a couple years now, to add something to my life during lent, instead of taking something away. This year caught me off guard and I realized that Lent had already started without my giving it a second thought. I don’t want to do something just to “do something”. It must have meaning or it won’t last more than a couple of days.

So the other day, during my morning coffee, I remembered a phase of our life in Bangladesh, when the power would go off every evening for about an hour.  At first it was source of great frustration, then we began to expect it and almost look forward to it. We would be forced to stop what we were doing, gather around in the dark and talk together as a family. No electronics. No work to distract. Just sit in the dark. Together. We would talk about what we missed from home and what we loved about our new host country. We would remember, laugh, share sadness and embrace hope.

I got to thinking about “load-shedding”, the term given to those periods of power outage. There was not enough electrical power for everyone, so section of the city would take turns doing without, so someone else could have power and the whole system would not become overtaxed. Why not practice load-shedding for lent? It might be a little quirky but I must say it is meaningful to me. Maybe it will last more than a couple of days. After all, if we give up anything at all, wouldn’t it be so much more meaningful if it actually helped someone else?

After dinner and dishes, we turn off the lights, set our electronic devices aside and light a few candles. The furnace is turned low so it won’t run and we sit in our quiet house and share stories. We remember the past. We go on rabbit trails in the present. We laugh. We tell more stories.

Then we shift our focus, because this whole “load-shedding” idea is not just about us having warm and happy memories. We talk about others who are carrying a load and need help to carry that load. Sitting in the quiet glow of a few candles, we pray for them. We carry their loads in our hearts. We love. We share. Stories from China, Korea, Bangladesh and Egypt surface. We remember that the world is big. We remember that God is good. We remember that human greed has corrupted the abundance that was meant to be. We remind ourselves that the story is not yet over, that there is still abundance to be had. And we set our hearts to live lives of generous hope.

-Marita Miller

Shelling Peas

DSC_8794Plip. Plop. The peas fell gently into the bowl as we stood in my tiny kitchen, backs to the rest of the house, hands busy manipulating fresh pea pods that had just come into season. Eager to taste the new crop that my helper had picked up in the market, I had busied myself shelling peas. “Sister, let me do that,” she had urged. “No, no,” I said, “I enjoy work.” So, we stood together in that tiny place and there she opened a tiny door into her huge heart.

Plop. Plip. Plop. I asked about her family and and soon learned that she had four children.
When her youngest was just a baby, her husband died and her in-laws threw her and her children out of their residence. Desperate, she returned home to live with her parents who helped with her children while she got by with whatever work she could find, cleaning and cooking for others. About this same time, one of her sons began to have seizures. There wasn’t much money for doctors, but she managed to get him some medicine that helped. Without the meds, he was having seizures every day while with the meds, it was only several times a month. Still, his condition prohibited him from attending school and she could not leave him alone. During the darkest hours of her life, she had no choice but to lock him in a room, alone, while she went to eke out a living to provide food for him and his siblings that night.  As he grew older and his condition worsened, her daughter stopped going to school in order to care for him, while she worked to keep food on the table. She rarely found steady work, just bits and pieces here and there. Yet, she was one of the lucky ones. Most Bangladeshi women in this situation either leave their children with their grandparents and move to the city to work under grueling conditions in a garment factory,  or end up selling their bodies – either out of utter desperation or by coercion. She fought and sacrificed in order to stay with her children. On countless nights she went to bed with an empty belly so they could have something in theirs. She took her son to the doctor whenever she could afford to and spent all that she had so he could have enough medicine to get through another month. Never before had I seen such a fierce and utterly deep love.

Some of you may be unconvinced, stuck on the part where she locked him in a room. You may be screaming, “Child Abuse!” and wondering where social services were. Exactly! Where were they? As broken and messed up as our system is here in the US, most of us have access to resources. No matter the horror story one finds herself in, there are resources to help, options to pursue. Abandoned women in Bangladesh do not have that luxury. Family may take them back in…or not often depending upon their own financial situation. Too often it is just them against a cruel world. And this woman fought back. The cruelty she endured somehow hasn’t warped her heart or embittered her spirit.

Tears overflowed her eyes and rolled gently down her brown cheeks as her story rolled out. Peas plopping into the bowl. My hands couldn’t keep up as my thoughts swirled and collided with each other in my tiny brain and I tried to comprehend it all. Her son, now a grown man, will never know life as a grown man. Too many years of not having the right treatment has left him scarred and broken. He will never carry on a normal conversation. Never run to the market to buy rice for dinner. He will never marry and bring a daughter-in-law into the home to care for her when she is older. He has to always have someone by his side. Her family is older now and can help. He wears a motorcycle helmet when he goes about, just in case he falls. She told me, with tears in her eyes, how he wasn’t sleeping at night after an especially tough episode and she had spent most of the night fanning him in an attempt to keep him comfortable.

She doesn’t waste her energy thinking about what could have been. She embraces each moment she has of her life. Always thinking about her precious children and now her beautiful new granddaughter.

I was honored to meet her whole family all one day. She served us tea and snacks in her tiny, two-room house. I felt as if I was in a castle and she was the queen. Surrounded by her beautiful family, the love was tangible.

I want to love like that. Not caught up in all the “what ifs”  but embracing the life that is in front of me. Fiercely. Gently. With everything I have.

Plip. Plop. Plip. I’ll never see peas the same way again.

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.

Learning to Breathe in Color

DSC_0466SQMy first glimpse of Bangladesh came at just past dawn. I was worn out from a grueling series of flights and yet eager and excited to experience a new country. It seemed as if thousands of curious eyes watched me, as I stepped out of the airport’s doors into a surging sweaty crowd all waiting for someone or something. My cart was piled high with suitcases, full of more goods than many of them would dream of owning. The grey skies, pregnant with rain oozed an oppressive humidity. I felt dizzy, my soul and body gasping for air. I was almost overcome by the sheer number of people and the blanket of heat that already had me drenched in sweat.

Soon, tucked safely into a van we escaped the busy pickup area and became one with the teeming traffic of Dhaka City. In spite of being in a city, we found ourselves surrounded by brilliant greens. Palm trees. Flowers. Staggering beauty. The color was alive – in the plants and faces, in the saris and lungis of pedestrians, all under a grey sultry canopy that seemed to be pressing down on me. I gasped for air again, hopelessly trying to take it all in.

As we drove, beautiful young women bordered the road, splashes of color, making their way up and down the street. Vibrant yellows and pinks framed against a backdrop of a green so green it left me speechless. This, then, was my first glimpse of the women: Strong brave women on their way to work at garment factories where their blood, sweat and tears, their hopes, dreams and futures would be woven into the seams that bind the garment industry together and cover our backs with bits of color.

These women are the women who changed my life, women I have never met yet they inspire me to take those baby steps of change that seem to grow by the decade until now I find myself back in my own culture, trying to mirror their courage and to some small extent, their sacrifices. These women have shown me that change does not come without effort or sacrifice. By now a number of these women of the garment factories have died from job-related injuries. Some, have moved on, married and care for their families in other ways.

The colors of these women still swirl through my mind as I explain to my sons why we make the lifestyle choices we do. What began over three years ago as a side business, is now our existence. The props of other incomes are gone. I was the first to give up my job and then my husband Austin followed when he resigned from his job at a graphic design firm. Equally exciting and terrifying! Are we crazy? Sometimes we joke about being the only link in this fair trade business not being paid a fair wage. Since starting Kahiniwalla nearly 4 years ago, we’ve tightened our personal budget more than we ever thought possible, finding creative ways to live more simply. Among other things we are slowly transforming our yard into a vegetable garden, we choose to make our meals from scratch and have even experimenting with preserving foods.

I pray about the smallest needs these days and I am at peace because of the stories that have been born from these prayers. I am reminded that, no matter how many things may be on my need list, I possess more than enough. Right here. Right now. Today, right where I live, I am learning to be content with less, to reduce my needs, to re-use, recycle and re-love things that others have cast away so that I can be a link in the chain that brings hope and change to over 6,000 women in rural Bangladesh.

Today, these women are wrapped in just as many colors as ever, and the world, if it could see, would gasp at the sheer beauty that Pebble is bringing about. Change is happening. And if I have to clip coupons, shop at thrift stores and say no to whatever I can live without, I will gladly do that. We are Storywalla, and there is a story to be told. And in that telling, I find my life has more, not less. There is a richness in my heart that I would not trade for more tangible goods. My soul is learning to breathe in color.

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.

 

The Princess

Riley and the Princess at the well

Riley and the Princess at the well

I don’t know how old she is but she carries herself with a wisdom and grace that reminds me of my 91 year old grandmother—she certainly has endured enough pain to be that old. In reality, she is considerably younger than I. The first time I saw her, her sweet face drew me in. It was as if I was looking at a rainbow with the sunshine of her smile framed by unspeakable pain reflected in her eyes. Yet she carried an air of grace and I knew that, in spite of the horrors that she had seen, she was more than a survivor.

To this day, I cannot tell her story without crying. Abandoned by her father at a young age, he would return to beat her for learning to read or for number of irrational reasons. Eventually he forced her into marriage to an unfaithful husband who continued the cycle of violence and eventual abandonment. Desperate and homeless, in a world of ruthless men who prey on the weak, she sold her blood to try to get by. When she had nothing left, she began to sell herself to men who viewed her scornfully as an object of pleasure. Eventually she married, and again it ended in abandonment and the added weighty responsibility of a baby girl to provide for. She found shelter and a bit of hope only to be followed by more abandonment and false promises accompanied by more abuse. Pregnant once again, she eventually gave birth to a son but never once was able to hold him or look into his eyes. The doctors told her that he had died but she suspected that he had been given to another family. In desperation and shame, she began to cut herself and continued on with her life, hopeless and disoriented. She eventually gave birth to another baby girl and just when life could not become more bleak, she discovered a place that was offering alternative employment for women like her. And that is where I met her.

Sacred Mark. A story of hope, a place of peace and dignity. Our family loved to visit whenever possible, during our time in Bangladesh. Since Austin worked closely with them to establish their branding and package design, we had many opportunities to spend time there. On one particular sunny day, my three energetic boys were running around the courtyard in their bare feet, thrilled to be out of the city. They were playing soccer with a beach ball that kept sailing over the wall or ending up in a tree. The women of Sacred Mark were quite entertained! When it was time to leave, I told our sons to go wash their feet at the outdoor water pump. My youngest did not want to have his feet washed and needed a little more coaxing. My friend hurried over, squatted down and helped him wash his feet.

In a culture where feet are a “dirty” part of the body, there is actually a traditional ritual that many perform when they accidentally touch someone’s feet. To show someone the bottom of your foot or shoe is an insult that is used not only personally but in political demonstrations as well. In Bangladeshi culture, to show respect to elders or invoke a blessing  from another, you squat down and touch their feet and yet, here was my friend, washing my wiggly five-year-old’s dirty feet. She had that beautiful smile on her face and a sparkle in her eyes. Anyone looking over the courtyard wall would have thought she was our servant. To me, she was a princess. She doesn’t have a castle; just a shack. She doesn’t have a beautiful gown; just some worn saris. She doesn’t have a car; just two strong feet and yet she is one of the most beautiful souls in the world. And that, in my estimation, makes her a princess.

(Sacred Mark soap can be purchased in the US from Global Girlfriend.)

 

If Only…

 

Building housing four garments factories collapses in Savar, Bangaldesh.

Building housing four garments factories collapses in Savar, Bangladesh.

 

These were the words running through my head this morning when I heard the awful news of the collapse of a huge building complex in Bangladesh. The eight story concrete building which fell like a house of cards, was home to four garment factories, a bank, and some shops. Nearly 100 people have died and 800 are reported to be injured. Tens of thousands of people have gathered outside; some are workers who were able to escape, others are family members, hoping against hope that their loved ones will make it out alive. Colorful saris have been tied together and are hanging from the edge of the wreckage, where some fortunate ones have been able to slip down to safety. Rescue workers are digging through the rubble, trying desperately to save remaining victims. Many bodies remain between the layers of concrete.

The tragedy is that these lives could have been spared. The previous day, cracks were noticed in the building and reported to officials who visited the building. They advised that it be inspected and warned workers not return to work. Many workers were hesitant to return to work, but were told by one of the factory managers that there was no problem, so they went to work. An hour later the building began its fast collapse.

My thought this morning was “If only there had been alternative employment for these women, in their local areas… they wouldn’t have left their families. They wouldn’t have given their lives so that the developed world can dress our families in the latest ‘affordable’ fashions. What a terrible price to pay! If only they would have had a safe, local production center, they would still have their lives before them. ”

That is what I love about Pebble! There are safe production centers located in more than 50 rural areas, where the women can walk to work and they are treated with dignity and paid a fair wage. In contrast, many women feel forced to leave their families and migrate to the city to work in a garment factory, where they work long, grueling hours in unsafe conditions. They are often harassed and end up living in slum-like conditions, with only a pittance to show for their labor. According to one report, they are paid an average of $.22/hour. That is not a typo. Twenty-two cents. Think about that the next time you find a deal on clothing. Check the label. Think about the lives of the people who made that piece of clothing. Ask yourself if it really is a deal.

There is a story behind everything. That hot steaming cup of coffee. The sugar in the cupboard. The bar of chocolate in the drawer. The clothes in the closet. This computer that I’m writing on. The car in the driveway. We live like kings and queens compared to most of the world. We are so far removed from the origins of most of the “things” that surround us, that we don’t know their stories. Perhaps we really don’t want to know?

Here at Kahiniwalla, we tell stories because they are important. Stories connect us. Sometimes they jar us awake, make us cry and inspire us to change. Stories fill us with hope, like a string of bright saris, tied together and waving in the breeze amid a pile of rubble. Hope that more lives will be saved. Hope that my choices can have an impact on lives around the world. Hope that happy endings are possible.

Take a look around you. There is a story behind everything. And don’t be so quick to think that the final chapter has been written. We can change some of those “if onlys” to a happy endings. We are all writers, you and I, in this story of life,with incredible power for change by the way we live our story and by the choices we make.

Live your story well, with no regret.