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Crochet without Borders

Here's the latest letter from Melody.
-----Original Message-----
Subject: Emails from Africa

Hello Everyone,

It's hard to believe I have to leave here in two days. There's still so much to do, and besides, I'm just not ready, emotionally or in any other sense. Bernard keeps shaking his head regretfully and saying, "Not a long enough time this time." He's right. I wish I'd planned a longer stay. What was I thinking?


The workers have produced some really great jewelry, and we have begun choosing our final prototypes for the catalog. We want to include only pieces that are repeatable, but this is very hard to do when we never know which beads are going to be available at any given moment so that we'll be able to fill orders in a timely fashion. It seems that buying beads here is pot luck, no matter what you do. If you go to market, it's pot luck. If you order the beads, it's still pot luck since you either never get them or you get whatever the bead makers feel like making with what they have on hand at the time. If you advance the money so that they can get the actual materials they need to fill your order, I'm not sure what happens exactly, but the prospects aren't much better for getting exactly--or even nearly--what you ordered. Never mind getting the beads on time.

This is Africa. The biggest challenges have to do with the mindset. I already knew this, but I tend to forget it about ten times a day until, inevitably, something reminds me with a vengeance. For example, there's what I call the dead golden goose syndrome. Symptoms include a systematic undermining of one's own interests with such behaviors as tripling your prices for a single good sale today, thereby guaranteeing that the would-be buyer (who will almost certainly go to the region's largest bead market tomorrow and see those same beads for one-third the price) will never want to do business with you again. A potential lifetime of good sales right down the drain. No more golden eggs.

I told the golden egg story to our bead makers, and they really liked it, but I don't think they quite got it, since the head bead maker's wife showed up a few days later with beads that didn't even remotely resemble what I'd ordered and then tried to charge us not three but four times the market price for them. When I refused to buy them, she blithely informed me that I had paid that much for similar beads before, so why not now?

She had a point--I was laying golden eggs all over the place here when I first arrived, since I thought that the hike in fuel prices had caused bead prices to jump more than they really had. But I'm fresh out of gold now. Still, the old goose does have a little life left in her. I paid her 50% over market value for the beads since the town bead makers have a certifiable firewood problem, namely that they have to truck it in from the hinterlands at great expense. This makes it difficult for them to compete with the villagers' prices. So we give them a break when we can.

It's so tempting at times to restrict our buying to the markets and to the one or two bead makers who have been able to get with the program; who actually make what we order and deliver it more or less on time. I have to remind myself that to do so would be to forget our real purpose here. The people who have the most trouble conforming to Western ways of doing business are precisely the people who need our help the most. The others are more likely to find their own way. But it can be very frustrating at times. I know all too well that customers in the U.S. are highly unlikely to keep buying from us if the orders they receive are different from what they saw in the catalog, or if those orders take six months to arrive. Some cooperation on the part of the bead makers is crucial. But many simply can't comprehend the need for it. So we get what we can from them and try to fill in the gaps at market.

The producers, on the other hand, are responding very well. We've been pleased to notice that, in general, at least, they don't seem to be blowing their money on frivolous things as soon as they get it. Sometimes they even give us change for larger bills so that we can dole out their daily pay in the correct denominations. We're very pleased about this. We started them at well over the minimum daily wage, and we have decided to give raises before I go to those who have demonstrated the most willingness to follow orders well and to work hard. They deserve it, and I hope it will serve as an extra incentive for the others.

Helen had her naming ceremony on Saturday at dawn. She is now Manye Seyelor (Assistant to the Queen...namely me) Nana Terku Banahene IV. If I am not here, she is recognized as being authorized to act in my place. Manye Mamiya honored us the next day by visiting us to see where we are working and what we have been producing. Of course, we were expected to cover her travel a little. Oh well. It's part of doing business here. I actually budgeted for a little of that, though not enough.

Last night my pre-departure melancholy began setting in. I sat outside and let go of the daily stuff that swirls around in my brain all the time now, letting myself just be, soaking up Africa. The warm, balmy air that moistens the skin, sensitizing it to any slight stirring of a breeze. The distant wailing of dogs and the gruff, throaty croaking of bullfrogs. The light, tantalizingly brief aroma of something floral that finds its way through the heavier scents of heated palm oil and wood smoke. The thick, pure darkness, unrelieved by streetlights and neon. The rustling of palm fronds against the side of our house.

Our house. Bernard and I signed the lease yesterday, and everything felt suddenly very real. I'll be leaving my clothes here this time, along with some other things I'll need when I return. My sweat-kerchiefs. My fan. The flip-flops I wear around the property. Our not-so-fierce guard dog, Domelivo. My friend Bernard. And a good portion of my heart.

See you all soon.



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