Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fair Trading

Fair trade is a “people powered” movement towards global economic justice. The fair trade supply-chain model cuts out the vast network of middlemen, connecting the lives of consumers and producers more directly. Producers receive a living wage in their local context. Retailers buy from them directly. And shoppers are no longer blind to their dollar vote. For artisans, the fair trade business model also means a new found voice and price stability for their products.

This ideal motivated me to accept Peace Corps Morocco’s invitation and work with women’s artisan cooperatives, as detailed in the job description. Close the case studies, climb out from behind the computer and hang up the phone! I don’t need to interview and write about other people doing amazing work. Where’s my plane ticket? And who are my artisans? I came enthusiastic to see this concept in action. I wanted to open doors and let the world can hear their stories.

I’m now two years from that moment and wrapping up my work with a women’s Association. I’ve clocked countless hours crocheting alongside the women, improving their technique and introducing new ones. I brought samples of their products to Peace Corps trainings for feedback, sales and confidence-building. I jumped at opportunities to meet store owners and designers on their behalf, digging deep into Peace Corps’ meager living allowance. When it came time to attend craft fairs, I (almost literally) cornered them into coming. Swiya b swiya, ladies started showing a new found enthusiasm and courage to travel outside the village. Countless women approached me, eager to attend the next m3arid. I hustled in order to move the golden arrow of Economics. As I sit back now, I’m humbled by the realization of what I’ve given them in the grand scheme of things- a drop in the bucket. They’ve come a long way. However, they are still light years away from exporting to Fair Trade retailers such as Ten Thousand Villages. And that’s perfectly okay.

In the midst of this hustle and bustle, I tried to live as I preach. I wholeheartedly support the ideals of Fair Trade and want to give as much as I receive. The most fulfilling relationships are mutually beneficial. I bring the vegetables and coconut milk. You bring the rice and curry paste. She brings the brownies. Together, we feast like kings.

I found this equation rather simple in the States among trusted friends. I never took more than I could give. And my friends respected the same code. Loaned money is best immediately repaid. Sure, you can borrow my black shirt dress if can I wear your gray sweater? Both parties returned the respective borrowed items in a timely fashion and in their original condition. There's clarity in what's mine and what's yours. There's clarity in the terms and conditions surrounding such exchanges. We're culturally groomed to understand. No one wants to be that friend.

Coming to Morocco, I found these lines blurred. Living "tic for tac" became easier said than done. In the early months of service, I felt as if I was running up a huge debt to community members. They were patient and understanding. Countless women were eager to show me the ropes and provide perspective, as previous volunteers provided insight on my experience. I remember taking mid-morning walks around my village. Without fail, families opened their doors, inviting me for tea, snack and meals. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in this village, meant becoming a valued member of a family community. Love runs deep. My Moroccan counterparts were happy to tllay fiya (take care of me). Benevolent humanitarian? Perhaps "rockstar life" more accurately described my role.

However, Moroccans quickly came knocking on my door for favors, literally and figuratively. One by one, they pried to see how far they could get. "I'm short on money this month with my child's illness. Can you help?" "My head hurts and don't you can a suitcase full of medicine?" "Can I borrow your camera? I'm visiting my aunt this weekend." "My mother will die of cancer if I don't find the money to pay for her trip and medicine."

Some borrowed crochet hooks became forever lost. I lent Uno cards on several occasions. Sometimes, they returned battered and worn, until one day they too disappeared. I've given small sums of money, knowing quite well these debts will not be repaid. Neighborhood children often gather in my house for an informal, after school daycare. We spend many days playing games, coloring and painting. On several occasions, I unknowingly (but passively) allowed kids take home crayons, pens or toys. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my decision. "Okay. I've been taken advantage of. But next time!"

For many reasons, Moroccans don't count favors in this respect. I learned this early in my service one night, when I stayed over the Laifats's for snack, dinner and then bedtime. Several weeks prior, I visited their aunt in a neighboring village. I had taken photos and therefore printed them out upon request. Saida apologized for owing me money on the photos. I laughed. Although Peace Corps does not pay us like kings, I haven’t felt the pinch of this extra expense. I told her, “Look how many times I’ve come over and eat from you! That’s money and I’ll pay you in photos!” She looks surprised and confused. “Hshuma. It’s not like this.” she said, shaking her head. “Our house is your house. Come over, eat dinner, stay or don’t stay. Do as you like. You are always welcome. We don’t think like this.”

I do not wish to summarize my experience in crayons given and bread eaten. This equation is ridiculous and by no means the "take-away" of this Peace Corps service. I had to learn how to set boundaries and be comfortable with my decisions. Rather, this experience's beauty lies in the cross-cultural discussions on life, love, careers, religions, you name it. It rests in the times I called upon them frustrated after a bad day. And, as real friends do, returned the favor by being their shoulder to cry on. Vis versa, we're there to double joy in reaching life's milestones. I cannot tally up these experiences as expenses paid and expenses received on an Excel sheet. The accounting sheet is completely irrelevant.

Earlier this month, I have the joy of returning to my training community. I spent time with my host family and acquaintances, retracing familiar footsteps. I made house visits with host sister, Nouzha, after lftor (breaking of Ramadan fast). Thankfully, this time around, I had the language, self-confidence and comfort I lacked during training. At a family friend's house, the women exclaimed what an eclectic mix I am. Nouzha responded in agreement, “She's a Chinese-American, who can speak Darija like a true Houarian! She's become a Moroccan, one of us. You don’t find that everywhere." "True," I said, “But here’s my sister who, like her family, has opened doors to two very different Americans. You have loved both of us as their own. And we've loved you as family too. Hadi shi haja. That's something.”

Upon a cross-cultural collision, both parties enrich and broaden each other's lives. Deciphering precise fairness in the exchange's fine print discounts its significance. I've found that the beauty is the exchange itself and subsequent lessons learned. I'm blessed to have worked, lived and grown alongside them. And I'm equally humbled to know that they have taken something away. There's no numeric value I can assign to the good enjoyed as a result. Now that's what makes this experience a "fair trade."

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