Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Amina Yabis and the Golden Buttons Cooperative

With certain individuals, you can feel the fire within their souls. They light up the room and make their presence felt. Perhaps it's how they carry themselves. Perhaps it's how others treat them. Or a combination of the two. Such is Amina Yabis, president of Cherry Buttons Cooperative. She's a force to be reckoned with.

In my service, I had several encounters with her. Amina is a firecracker and tireless worker. She's also the engine that drives the Cherry Buttons Cooperative. The cooperative started when several women decided that middlemen should no longer profit from their jellaba button-making. Since its foundation 10 years ago, the cooperative has reached markets throughout Morocco, in Europe and the United States. Their line of products has expanded to include jellaba button jewelry, scarves, blankets, natural dye rugs and so forth. It has since empowered over 200 families, opening avenues of economic opportunity. Furthermore, Amina has traveled throughout Morocco, giving workshops on natural dyes and how to form a cooperative, among other topics.

While the cooperative generates income, its sister Association, Golden Buttons Association, organizes community development activities. It had a hand in helping start 15 literacy classes in Sefrou. Perhaps most notably, Amina Yabis and the Association have raised self-awareness among girls through Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). This week-long camp invites inspiring female role models to show young, rural girls what life could be. I've touched upon some gender issues here in Morocco. And I firmly believe that there needs to be a public dialogue on females taking control of their lives.
Camp GLOW is one, but nevertheless important, piece of the movement.

*** This year, the camp will fall in early August. If you plan to donate, please do so by July 1st. Click: Scroll down to "Make A Secure Donation." Afterwards, VERY IMPORTANT, please send an email to, letting them know that your donation is for Camp GLOW. HAF is a U.S. 501c3 nonprofit organization and will send receipts for tax purposes to all donors. Every dollar you donate goes directly to the camp. Take a moment to make a difference!! ***

This July, Amina will be attending the Santa Fe Folk Art Festival, the largest international folk art market in the world. In addition, the Museum of International Folk Art is featuring the Cherry Buttons Cooperative in their exhibition entitled, "Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities." Read the following press release for more information.


Museum of International Folk Art

The ten women's cooperatives in the exhibition


Umoja Uaso Women's Group, Kenya, photograph by Aaron Kisner

(Santa Fe, NM, June 11, 2010)-Ten women's artisan cooperatives will be represented in the Museum of International Folk Art's Gallery of Conscience inaugural exhibition, Empowering Women. These co-ops are from Swaziland, South Africa, Nepal, Lao PDR, India, Peru, Bolivia, Morocco, Kenya, and Rwanda. You may read more about the exhibition here.

Swaziland: Phez'kwemkhono Bomake-Ncheka Cooperative

Today more than 50 local women work in the cooperative making baskets to earn money for their families and to provide support for the community's many AIDS orphans. Their earnings have transformed the lives of hundreds of AIDS orphans funding education, clothing, a soup kitchen, medicine, home-base care for the bedridden, and hospital services.

South Africa: Mapula Embroidery Project

With embroidery members of this collective call attention to the joys and hardships of their homeland. Scenes range from the nostalgic depicting animals and village life to current issues such as crime, AIDS, unemployment, to alcohol addiction. Maria Rengane, founder of the Mapula (Mother of Rain) Embroidery Project said; "I would like to spend all of the years of my life helping communities do things like this project for themselves. This is how you build a strong successful nation."

Nepal: Janakpur Women's Development Center

The women of the Mhathili culture were renowned for painting designs on the mud walls of their village homes for weddings, festivals, and other special occasions. When Claire Burkett, a New England college graduate arrived in the Nepalese lowlands in 1989, she thought if the women painted their beautiful, spontaneous images onto handmade paper, they could be sold to an outside market, and increase their socio-economic status. Today, more than forty women travel daily to the Janakpur Center, a huge step for women who were not allowed to leave their homes.

Lao PDR: OckPopTok

Ten years ago this coop was founded by a London fashion photographer and the daughter of a master weaver from the Mekong region of Lao Peoples Democratic Republic. OckPopTok means "East Meets West." OckPopTok has grown from a one-room weaving studio for local weavers to an internationally recognized heritage destination, gallery, retreat center and women's weaving collaborative for more than 200 artisans in three provinces and seven villages. This cooperative is as likely to sell wall hangings inspired by Mark Rothko as the traditional skirts woven with Laotian motifs.

India: Self-Employed Women's Association Trade Facilitation Center

SEWA includes more than 3,500 artisan shareholders in 80 villages in India's western state of Gujarat. The women - all skilled home-based embroidery and textile artisans - are the producers, managers, and owners of their collective livelihood. The women run every phase of the business and their success has translated into building a legacy of respect where previously they were known either by their father's or husband's name and are now known by their given name - part of the tradition these women want to pass on for their daughters.

Peru: Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco

Hand-woven textiles in the Peruvian Andes are an important social and ethnic marker and a significant part of the cultural heritage of the region. Nilda Callanaupa, granddaughter of a master weaver who herself was weaving by age seven, founded this coop in 2005 to preserve traditions that were dying out. Today the CTTC is in nine regions of Peru, each supporting its own cooperative structure and a state-of-the-art museum of Andean textiles and a weaving training center, the CTTC in Cusco has become a destination for tourists and community members alike.

Bolivia: Cheque Oitedie Cooperative

The 45 women in this cooperative plant and harvest the bromeliad and produce and market hand-woven and dyed fiber bags to an international market. The group's sales amount to more than 60% of the total community income and now they manage a collective bank account for the first time.

Morocco: Women's Button Cooperative of Sefrou

Amina Yabis, a typical Moroccan Muslim housewife and mother of four boys ran unsuccessfully for public office in 1997. This left her with a clear realization: women needed first to have access to the cash economy to be successful in public life. Over the next few years Amina organized more than 400 women from her province into a craft association called Golden Buttons. Economic success led to the formation in 2000 of the Women's Button Cooperative of Sefrou, a for-profit cooperative that was the fist of its kind organized by women. The cooperative has ventured into other crafts and training programs to expand opportunities for Moroccan women for successful engagement in public life.

Kenya: Umoja Uaso Women's Group

The beginning of the Umoja Uaso Women's Group in Kenya was not about art. It was about survival. Rebecca Lolosoli and 16 other home-less women founded the village of Umoja Uaso in 1990 as a refuge fro Samburu women who ere victims of rape, beatings, forced marriage, genital cutting, and other violent domestic crimes. Umoja, which means "unity" is now a safe have for women and girls fleeing abuse. The women of Umoja sell their tribe's elaborately beaded jewelry and crafts, both traditional and contemporary, to provide for themselves and their children. They have established a sickness and disability fund, a community center, and a school for their children.

Rwanda: Gahaya Links Cooperative

In 100 days of explosive ethnic violence in 1994, Rwandan Hutus murdered some one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, leving hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. Ephigenia Mukantabana lost 65 family members but has forgiven her family's killer and now works side-by-side the imprisoned man's wife as fellow members of a basket-weaving cooperative. Beginning with 20 women the company has now grown to a network of more than 4,000 weavers across the country, organized into 52 cooperatives. Ephigenia credits teaching her art to both Hutus and Tutsis as the balm that restored her shattered life. She says; "Art heals the hopeless soul. Weaving is hope for tomorrow."

Media Contacts

Suzanne Seriff, Ph.D
Sr. Lecturer, Dept. of Anthropology,
University of Texas at Austin
Guest Curator, "Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities"
512 459-3990


The Museum of International Folk Art houses the world's largest collection of international folk art, with the ongoing exhibition Multiple Visions: A Common Bond in the Girard Wing. Changing and traveling exhibitions are offered in the Bartlett Wing and exhibitions highlighting textiles are featured the Neutrogena Wing. Lloyd's Treasure Chestoffers visitors interactive displays about collections and how museums care for collections.

The Museum of International Folk Art is a Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.


Currently Appreciating:

**The long awaited start of building construction!! Mohammed and his team are laying down the bricks, literally!

**Association picnic at the beach. 33 women were able to come! It was a fun-filled day of sun, ocean, sand, laughing and delicious chicken.

**Escaping into good reads and movies.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Forgot To Add "Permit Fee" To The Budget

Since my site visit, the community has pressed me to work on the Childcare Project. They want to finish the Women's Center roof, creating a space for its activities and a daycare center. I still vividly remember that February afternoon in the mktoub. It was three against one. They demanded from me something that wasn't there. I didn't want to disappoint but didn't have the words to explain what was and wasn't. I left with tears streaming down my face.

Fortunately, Aicha and the others have, since then, patiently sat down with me. Understanding the basics of a strong proposal, we reworked the project vision. They redrafted project goals and objectives. The officers rallied for community contribution. In the end, the accounted for just under 55 percent of the total costs! Excellent. Such a steep investment represents the community's desire to see this project succeed.

From October 2009 to February 2010, we went back and forth with slightly different budgets as we weighted different funding options. They did all the heavy lifting to see this project take flight. I gave them the basic budget structure. The Association officers filled in the blanks. Actually, the consulted Mohammed Labidi for pricing figures. While I wish they independently completed this task, I do congratulate them on their resourcefulness. He knows construction material costs back and forth. We added some extra padding here and there in case prices rise beyond the normal upper limit.

Before submitting USAID's Small Project's Assistance (SPA) proposal, we knocked our brains to think of possible wrenches. Maybe the construction workers will cheat us out of some money?! It is common for construction workers to give verbal contracts, only to later say he did not promise such things and demand more money. No problem. We'll write up a contract. Maybe prices will rise in the summer, as Moroccan expats come back and start building?! Prices fluctuate seasonally. No problem. We'll buy everything upfront, keep receipts on both ends and simply bring materials in smaller amounts as needed. It seemed as if we turned over each stone.

USAID approved our grant February 2010. The ladies were overjoyed! As was I. The approved grant casted away those lurking dark clouds. Throughout my service, the women joked they would hold me hostage until the project funding came. I believe they were joking... if not only to a certain extent.

Since that time, the officers and I have been on a quest for three stamps- one from the rural commune, my souq town and Taroudant. Having the building permit gives us the necessary legal backing to finish the roof. This is an extremely new law but commonly ignored. Most people do not go through the laborious process. Instead, they pay a bribe and the municipality happily looks the other way. Aicha refuses to do so on the basis of principle. She warned me that people end up paying a lot more than they anticipated in bribes. Not having this permit means that every time a government official stops by, we have to pay an additional bribe.

Over two months have come and gone. We still don't have the permit. I have yet to fully comprehend why this is taking so long. It's three stamps on one sheet of paper. Those at the qiad's office have told me they wish to preserve my village as a village. Development should be strictly limited. But we do not plan to build on "new land." The first floor already exists. As a matter of fact, the periphery walls to the second floor exist too. They also told me that due to the recent flooding, they do not want to give building permits to non-critical buildings. Really? I walk around town and see plenty of people building second, third floors in places with no apparent flood damages. I don't understand. I refuse to understand.

I recounted this story to my friend Beth, who recently came for a Morocco visit. She simply laughed: "Joy, you should have written a budget line for 'building permit fee.'" Working in a private, non-profit, grant making organization, she has seen several budget proposals with the line item "bribes." (Shortly thereafter, Beth would tell them to rework their budget.) Apparently others anticipated dealing with government corruption. Why hadn't we? I can only imagine how that would have went down. After I pay them a small bribe, they write me a receipt, signed and stamped, for my SPA grant accounting purposes. Perhaps its better to take the high road and be patient.

Government corruption is not limited to Morocco. It reaches all corners of the world. The United States is no exception. Corruption thrives in the corridors of Washington. Just stroll down K Street. Privately financed campaigned have bread a culture of corruption and stunted the US's democracy ideal. Thankfully, states such as Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut have public campaign financing programs. They have cut ties with special interests. Candidates gather a number of contributions from voters and agree to abide by spending limits. Once elected, they are accountable to the voters who elected them and not that of the wealthy few. **Please visit OpenSecrets to see who's getting what and Public Campaign to learn more about the movement.**

One striking difference between US corruption and that of Morocco is that Moroccan corruption trickles down to the street level. Literally. On a recent bus ride, the driver lamented losing a total of 100 MAD at check points. As it turns out, this is nothing in comparison to a staagmate. She documented Moroccan female success stories in rural areas. During the film road trip, she lost approximately 400 MAD in bribes. That money will have to come out of her pocket as there are no receipts to justify its disappearance.

Someone once told me a joke about Morocco's corruption, while riding on the train from Marrakech to Rabat. The joke goes something like this:

There once was a policeman who was corrupt. The always stopped people and asked for bribes. One day, he realized that the sun was setting and he had nothing in his pocket. So the policeman said to himself, "I'm getting money from the next person who comes by." Shortly after, a man on a motor comes driving by. The police pulls him over. The man is wearing a helmet. And the policeman finds no good reason to fine him. So the policeman asks, "Aren't you scared driving by yourself so late in the day?" The man answers, "I am not alone. I have Allah and the Prophet with me." "Three people on one little motor?! You need to pay a fine!" exclaims the policeman.

We then had an interesting discussion about corruption- Morocco, United States and across the globe. I appreciate train rides for many reasons. Not only does it run more-or-less on schedule, I am privy to the male domain and their conversations. Before parting ways, my fellow passenger smiled and said how refreshing it was to meet a foreigner who wasn't ignorant of corruption in his home country. Some Americans and Europeans he'd met were quick to scold Moroccan officials on accepting bribes. Indeed, corruption's roots run deep. The problem is larger than I alone can tackle. Let's hope the Women's Center can still open doors to children come the fall.

Earlier this week, I ran into the qiad while talking to my gendarmes liaison. It took everything in me to refrain from punching him square in the forehead. If I were to replay our conversation, I would have been less polite and more abrasive: "Don't talk to me in French! My Darija is damn good! And STAMP THAT PERMIT ALREADY!!!!"

Instead, I held back. Mohammed Labidi, an influential figure in my village, says we'll start this Friday. Due to the stalled permit, he has visited the qiad's office several times. Let's hope he knows something more than I do.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Copper Crocheted Bracelets: More Trials and Lessons Learned

In March, I had blogged about the beginning of the Association's copper crocheted journey. This project had transformed from a wild idea to a beautiful result. Products grew from hilarious mistakes to marketable jewelry. We learned a lot along the way- the process of product development, method of translating ideas, developing a trainers of the trainers strategy, customer preferences, the importance of good finishing and the value of feedback. What I failed to foresee were the stylistic twists that lay ahead.

In November 2009, most of the women crocheted using double crochet. Fatima El Braga was first to experiment using single crochet. Aicha and Zohra followed suit. Lucky for them, these bracelets sold out at the AIWA Holiday Bazzar. Customers overwhelmingly liked the single stitched bracelets (as opposed to double). It gives the appearance of a much fuller and richer bracelet.

**Example of double crochet using copper wire.

**Example of single crochet using copper wire.

In the early months of 2010, the Association ladies took to heart previous feedback from the AIWA Holiday Bazzar and Mid-Service Medicals. The women overwhelmingly crocheted using single crochet. Single crochet proved to be much tougher on their fingers. However, the women persisted with enthusiasm. They saw the potential benefits in a well crocheted bracelet. Not only did these sell, the Association benefited from a higher profit margin than their line of beaded bracelets.

Production temporarily halted when the flooding rains came pouring down in February. As chance would have it, Ali and Donna were stuck in my little house for a couple weeks. I couldn't have asked for better company! We spent the long rainy days huddled in our sleeping bag cocoons, waiting for the new day's cake to finish baking and warming up with hot tea. In the meantime, I asked them for feedback on our copper bracelets. Many women were still struggling with the right sizing and making bracelet clasps. Ali suggested crocheting bangles. Thus, as cats and dogs fell from the sky, I tested Ali's new idea.

**My 2nd and 3rd trials. The first one turned out too big!

It didn't take me long to crochet a bangle to the standard diameter. I brought these to the Women's Center and received shrills of excitement. I was not the only one happy to avoid the problem of clasps! Thankfully, the ladies caught on quickly. Like me, they had a couple trials to figure out the right count to meet the standard measurement. Bangles ranged in terms of crochet cleanliness. However, I was proud that everyone's work showed improvement.

Fatima Essaki and I took these products to test at Marché Maroc Marrakech. My staagmates Rebecca and Tim organized an excellent day of workshops and profitable three-day craft fair. Copper crocheted bracelets were our most popular product!! Even those who did not buy, they walked over to touch, look and applaud the women's wire handiwork. Employees from Build-A-Nest suggested thinner bangles to be sold in groups. In this way, women with smaller wrists could sport our crocheted bangles. Of course! Why hadn't I thought of it before.

I took these (and other) comments to the Association officers. It would be only three weeks before the next craft fair. As before, Association members paid 10 MAD for 50 grams of copper wire. With the collected money, Amina and I went to the souq town to purchase more wire. The motor electricians showed me a darker shade, almost equal in thickness as the "golden" shade. How pretty would these two shades look together! I went ahead and wound half in the darker, "reddish" shade and half in the lighter, "golden" shade.

Half the ladies worked with the darker copper, while the others crocheted with the lighter shade. Each women crocheted four thin bangles. With a partner who used the opposite shade of copper, they swapped wire. That way everyone could add an touch of design to their bangle. Any remaining wire, they were free to crochet and experiment as they'd like. The women prepared a variety of bangles- thick and thin, round and flat- for May's craft fair in Rabat.

I brought up the notion of selling the thin bangles in groups- perhaps 3 or 5. The Association officers decided on groupings of three. We set a price incentive for customers to purchase not one but three. Individually, each bangle sells for 30 MAD. But buy three for 80 MAD! At Marché Maroc Rabat, customers had fun picking out their mini collection of three. We also struck luck with a respectable order to the States and potential partnerships in two boutiques here in Morocco!

The president and I spent a long day discussing how to divide up this order. With the year's success, some women were discontent with the distribution of wealth and work opportunity. Some pointed fingers at management. Some pointed fingers at production. I see these issues as multi-layered, complicated by the delicacies of small village dynamics. Passive anger boiled at the first general meeting mid-May. I am simply glad they had a forum to talk with each other, as opposed to all parties venting to their PCV.

Aicha and I talked about fairness. We also talked about differences in work quality. Aicha understands that this opportunity could open doors to more. The stakes are high for quality work. In the end, we told those with the best crochet work to make the thicker bangles. These bangles are approximately three cm in thickness. Sloppy work shows. Contrarily, less-than-perfect work is less apparent on the thin bangles, especially if the women carefully wrap the accent copper wire. Aicha adjusted the required amount from each women to smooth over differences in previous sales. This might be as fair as humanly possible.

To my delight, it was clear skies and smooth sailing. These women crocheted 40 bangles, without accidents, traffic jams or even panic attacks! I didn't handhold them, crocheting with and/or for them, as I had previously done. Several women surprised me with exceptionally beautiful work! This is the best collection of bangles I have seen from the Association. Now the bangles are on their way to America!

**Copper crocheted cuffs and thin bangles.

As always, there are still some kinks- most notably to standardize work and hide the wire's ends. I want my ladies to implement a quality control system similar to Ait Ourir's. There, a skilled worker is "buddied" with a less-skilled worker. The "training for the trainers" model is integrated into their everyday production. In addition, they have two women in charge of product quality. Currently, I do most of the product quality check. It's one hat too many I wear for the Association. Now that I am more familiar with everyone's work and personalities, I hope to use the long summer days to groom future quality drill sargents. Good thing I have five more months to dot the i's and cross the t's. In the meantime, I'm relaxing and enjoying the mini milestones they've reached.