Our business is so much more then accessories, it’s about the stories and the people behind our handmade products. This week on the Mushmina blog we bring you the story of a dynamic group of artisans that Katie and I have worked with for almost ten years. These ladies continue to amaze me! Read on for the secret ingredient that makes The Khenifra Women’s Cooperative so successful. xo Heather

 

Khenifra Treasures –Beads of Trust and Hope

Surrounded on all sides by the majestic Atlas Mountains in Northern-Central Morocco, is the inconspicuous, sleepy town of Khenifra.

This rugged community, however, has a force within its soul that perhaps sets it apart from other Moroccan rural settings. That power, is fueled by a small, ingenious group of women with two goals-to provide for their families and trust and respect each other. This flourishing mantra is behind the thriving success of their unique women’s cooperative.

The idea all began on a whim in 2009 when a savvy and determined Peace Corps Volunteer, Linda Zahava, took note of the unusual and interesting embroidery and button-making talent of the local women in the village where she had been assigned to do her work as a small business development volunteer.

These women were skilled button makers of the traditional Moroccan ‘djellaba’, the long, beautifully flowing gown that both women and men wear for all sorts of occasions in this incredibly diverse country. The women were accustomed to working independently from home; creating and producing beautiful buttons for sale.

The concept, however, of working together as an association towards a group goal was entirely new. Most of the women were uneducated. Running a successful co-op and business would be challenging as the majority of the association members, to this day, only hold a primary school education.

Linda had a revelation when she saw these gorgeously intricate, detailed colored beads. Why not make them into unique, vibrantly colored necklaces? Little did she know that this idea would take off and become what it has today.

How did this incredible collaboration begin with the button makers, the prolific Peace Corps Volunteer and the fab Mushmina sisters? How did it evolve into a thriving, internationally successful women’s co-op?  And how is it possible that after so many years, this connection is still going strong?

It was a perfect storm, of sorts-Heather and Katie were seeking a Peace Corps-led focus group for product development in which they could invest and explore at the start of their small but mighty Mushmina story in 2009.

In true Mushmina fashion, Katie and Heather trekked down a rural backroad to Khenifra to meet at Linda’s modest house and in true Moroccan fashion, over tea and local bread, they placed a hopeful order (with Katie’s trusted color palate). It was a match meant to be.

The cooperative’s first meetings were chaotic; a mishmash of disorganized, yet enthusiastic pandemonium. In fact, at the very first meeting, over 100 women showed up and Latifa, who is president of the association today, had to stand on a table and shout to get everyone’s attention.

Slowly but surely, the group gathered momentum in establishing and maintaining its goals. Linda guided the group in electing and explaining the roles officers, managing a business and creating a thriving product.

The trust, however, was something that could not be taught.

Faith in each other is what makes this group special and a commitment to one another and their goal is what has continued to help the co-op prosper over the years.

There have been roadblocks, one might say, in this quest for collaboration. Imagine trying to run a business with 17 people. All whom have vastly different ideas? When the sparse women’s center in Khenifra was suddenly closed where the group faithfully held their Sunday co-op meetings, Heather, Linda and the ladies would meet at a café rooftop overlooking the outline of the pink-hued town of Khenifra. Not holding a meeting was not an option.

There has always been an inventiveness and freshness to this co-op of talented artisans that is both ingenious and unmatched. And all those tremendously varying ideas? They would turn into enormously clever results. In fact, the Khenifra ladies and Katie continue to dream up imaginative and visionary new pieces all the time. With buttons.

The Khenifra co-op has successfully traveled several times for trade shows in the United States. They have necklace orders flying off their shelves. In fact, they even have back orders.

Almost 10 years later, this co-op is still going strong. These relationships are still thriving. These professional alliances are still persevering. The beautiful beaded necklaces, ever-changing and evolving, are still hugely successful. These women are still empowered and providing for their families. These friendships are still blooming. And all because of some tiny buttons, a hopeful idea, a great deal of trust and a tremendous amount of talent and hard work.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Shop the Khenifra collection on www.mushmina.com.

This summer we are also bringing back the popular ‘Khenifra Cluster Bead Necklace’; a fabulous chunky, labor-intensive chocker-style piece full of handmade buttons. We’re always adding innovative, cool ideas to our collections and we’ve included metal beads (rock on!) as well as a new variety of vibrant colors to these fave necklaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we honor the brave and talented women of the world. Today we would like to give a shout out to Mushmina blogger and copywriter, Tara Fraiture whose birthday happens to be on International Women’s Day, March 8th. Tara tells the story of her days as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, how she organized a bike race on the sand with Fulani ladies, and why she loves telling stories about ’empowering her tribe, women.’ Read on….

 

Sands of Cameroon-Grains of My Heart

I was a 23-year-old, wide-eyed Peace Corps Volunteer in remote Far North Cameroon, Central Africa. Close to Lake Chad, villagers survived on dried fish and millet grains; this was the endless sandy drifts of the Sub-Saharan African desert where even coveted cooking gas was in short supply. Locals cooked over open fires outside and inhabitants lived in basic, mud-brick structures. This was my home for two years.

My parents jokingly told me after the end of my Peace Corps service that they hadn’t expected me to last two weeks. I might have actually agreed with them; I even surprised myself. Living with no running water, a dubious pit latrine that worked in addition as an even more questionable outdoor shower + frequent electricity outages was, let’s just say, rough.

 

 

I learned quickly to wash my long, thick hair (a small victory) with just a small bucket of well water; I became a seasoned expert at the ‘bucket bath’. I didn’t have much to eat besides stale bread, egg salad sandwiches and I’d stock up on Nigerian pasta-a real treat was sautéed tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Powdered milk was a must for my instant coffee and millet beer was a hush-hush moonshine secret, served in huts just outside of the village outskirts.

The seemingly ceaseless dry season was stiflingly hot and humid and the rainy season hit like a smack in the face and the bumpy, pot-hole ridden roads were easily washed out. This would leave a relatively easy (albeit harrowing) drive on a desolate dirt passage to a several hour, harrowing trek. The roads would become rushing rivers. There is nothing, I recall, to this day, like an African rainstorm. It comes down like a herd of trampling of elephants; no mercy, no relief.

Yet through all of these severe circumstances, I thrived. This tiny, isolated, strictly Muslim village, Bogo, welcomed me like a long-lost sister and daughter. These historically nomadic Fulani people of the far north province became my support, my friends, my dear family.

The relationships that I developed and fostered; those were the real lessons of the Peace Corps. They are the memories that remain with me today, over 20 years later. These friendships, the bonding; realizing that there wasn’t much difference between myself and a young Muslim village woman from this itty-bitty village in far-flung Cameroon, three days travel from the capital of Yaoundé.

 

My best friend and colleague, Leila and I-we came from different worlds, literally across the globe from one another. But really, we were alike. We had the same cheeky sense of humor. Perhaps even the same raucous laugh. The same gift of gab. The same hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families. For our futures. We were, deep down, sisters.

The mud-brick ‘house’ where I lived was in a compound that was cared for by an elderly couple; Asta and Nouhou. Asta was nearly blind and Nouhou hobbled around with a makeshift cane fashioned from the sturdy branch of a baobab tree.

 

I immediately became like a granddaughter to them. I would spend my evening hours sitting, laughing, talking, and chatting with the pair. No use at all speaking French in Bogo; particularly with the women and children. I did all of my work in the local Fulani language. Asta and Nouhou became my teachers. The villagers, neighbors, vendors, were all my teachers. The children who came to my house daily became my teachers.

It was those human connections that became the ones that mattered the most. These are the memories that still resonate today.

International Women’s Day happens to be on my birthday, March 8th. The first year I was in Bogo, I organized a bike race for the local women. On the sand. Because why not?!? Traditional Fulani women, gracefully tall and elegant, dressed in brightly colored ‘pagne’ or African wraps, on bikes. It was the best moment ever. Many of these women had never been on a bike before. We laughed till we cried. It was such a wonderful day.

Since then, working with women’s groups and co-ops has been something that I inevitably gravitate towards. After all, women and children are often marginalized in developing countries. And I have lived in many developing countries. I therefore feel a pull towards writing about empowering my tribe, women.

I want to tell the stories of women; those who are most often not heard. I can be their voice. I share these stories with my three daughters. I feel grateful to work for Mushmina; a company so dedicated to working with women’s groups and so focused on empowering women that this often becomes the focal point. The story is just as important as the product. And luckily, the products are beautiful. But the women who make our products are really the heart of who we are. And for me, this is what I envisioned for myself, years ago as a young woman in Central Africa. Those heart connections.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

www.mushmina.com

 

 

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Ahmed Ghezawe journeyed three long hours from rural Bejaad, Central Morocco to his destination of Rabat. His goal was the second annual rug exposition of Morocco; a massive white tent, held in the capital, with hundreds of stands, vendors, visitors, and of course, rugs as far as the eye could see.

It is, though, so much more than rugs. These textiles have a story. Each piece is carefully made by a strong woman. Often, under difficult conditions-tiny spaces, no electricity, frigid rooms in the cold winter, sweltering spaces in the heat of the summer. But still, these hearty weavers persist. Their calloused fingers and hands work tirelessly and rhythmically in motion, day after day, week after week, month after month.

In this gargantuan Bedouin-style tent, rows and rows of rugs-wool, cotton, silk, chenille. Colossal rugs and miniature ones. Gorgeous wool shags and tightly-knit kilims. Naturally-dyed throws and brightly colored patterned carpets.

The mecca of Moroccan rugs; all the way from Chefchaouen in heavily-Spanish influenced northern Morocco down to Marrakech and beyond into the High Atlas region of the south. Distinctly different, vibrant rugs from this incredibly unique country. The people of Morocco reflect this diversity. And their art; these rugs represent this fascinating range of singularity in its people.

Along with Ahmed on this trek came Zohra, one of the committed weavers of ‘Association Beni Zemmour’; a women’s co-op of talented rug makers aptly named after the famous rug-weaving region around the holy town of Bejaad.

The dedicated pair brought with them a van filled with carefully hand-woven rugs. And hearts brimming with hope. Their main goal was to find influential contacts with whom they could find networking opportunities. If they could possibly sell some of their beautiful rugs at the same time, it would be an added bonus.

Most of the stands at the rug expo were women’s co-ops; a rare opportunity for women to showcase their group work and trade in a typically traditional country where it is often seen as taboo for women to work. It is a unique chance for women to work towards a sliver of independence and empowerment.

For Ahmed in his role as mentor to these female weavers, his journey started many years before and is forever linked to ours at Mushmina. Ahmed was Heather O’Neill’s counterpart (or professional mentor and government-assigned aid) years before when Heather was a Peace Corps Volunteer….in Bejaad, Morocco.

Heather describes Ahmed back then, “He started from scratch with the women’s rug-weaving co-op. But he had a vision from the start. He was committed and hard-working. But most of all, he believed in the women and their ability to grow professionally. It’s not often that one finds a male leader like this in Morocco.”

She continues, “I was so fortunate to be mentored by Ahmed. He was an incredible teacher to me. But what he has done with the co-op is so much more than me. He has taken it from a room with no electricity to a large showroom, where visitors come and see the women working. He facilitates professional training sessions. He supports these women’s families by helping their sons receive certification courses in electricity and plumbing classes. These are young people who would not normally have the opportunity to learn a trade.”

This partnership between Heather and Ahmed was recognizably meant to be. A professional collaboration that has lasted for years and is based on respect, a vision for the future, and the hopes of others.

When I had the good fortune to meet Ahmed, it was very clear that both he and Zohra care deeply about Heather. Ironically, I barely speak Darija (the local language in Bejaad) and Ahmed’s French is quite basic. (Zohra speaks no French at all.) So we reverted to animated hand gestures, quite a bit of smiling, and much laughter. I find, funny enough, that these are the most heart-felt interviews.

It is quite rare, to be honest, to find a Moroccan man so incredibly invested in the professional growth of rural Moroccan women and their trade. Ahmed is a trailblazer himself; breaking down barriers of traditional cultural norms.

Ahmed kept touching his heart when he talked about Heather. He described working with her with such fondness that it was as if he were describing his own daughter. He told me how devoted Heather was to her job. How she would go into every house and get to know every neighbor and every woman with whom she worked. She was special, he explained to me. These relationships took time.

Relationships and family are incredibly essential to Moroccans. And perfectly apropos, Ahmed showed up at the rug exposition with his 5-year old grandson, Yahya. Moroccans are so deeply connected to their families. It didn’t seem at all odd that the entire time I was sitting with Ahmed and Zohra, Yahya was running circles around us; clambering joyfully all over his grandfather. Ahmed wasn’t bothered at all. Work and family. So closely connected.

BeniZammourStand

It’s superbly fitting that in explaining his work to me, Ahmed wrapped up our chat with this gem, “The association is made up of seven women. Six ladies. And then me.” And then he laughed. A long, hearty, self-depricating chuckle. Zohra giggled as I burst out laughing.

I left the rug expo, a few more rugs in tow, satisfied and happy. And now as I gaze upon these brightly colored pieces of art proudly laid on my tile floors, I know a little more of their story. And the women who carefully created them. And I am determined to know more.

 

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

 

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3 Things That Feed My Soul

January 21, 2018

It has been a while since I posted a ‘Super Soul Sunday’ blog post, this Sunday I’m feeling inspired. This month I have been making a conscious effort to listen to positive messages, to reconnect with what really feeds my soul, and to carve out personal time to connect to ‘spirit.’

Today I’d like to share 3 things that feed my soul.

1. Positive Conversations. Did you know that Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday conversations with the world’s top thought leaders are now available on podcast?! Download these Super Soul Sunday podcasts for free to your smartphones. Podcasts are a game changer for me because some days I spend hours in the car driving across Morocco’s landscape to meet with Mushmina artisans. These half hour conversations are thought provoking and uplifting and help set the tone for my day.  I also love Hay House podcasts. Every spring Hay House broadcasts a ‘World Summit,’ hour long conversations with spiritual leaders. Highly recommend!

2. Spending time in nature. I take a walk everyday if I can to feel the sun on my face. Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter’s California landscapes remind me of Morocco. Maybe that is why I always liked his work even before I came to North Africa. The bright Moroccan sun and vegetation are similar to a California landscape. Something is calling me to paint again this year, another way I feed my soul!

3. Connecting with my tribe. My tribe is my sister, my mother, my girlfriends in the US and abroad who have become like family to me. I love hearing what exciting things they are up to, Women’s March posters they have made together,  stories and struggles and triumphs we share.

Do something that feeds your soul today.  Happy Sunday!

xo Heather

Mushmina,Co Founder

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On a scorching hot, dusty day in 2004, in the rural town of Boujad in Central Morocco, former Peace Corps Volunteer and Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill had a life-changing, eureka moment. She witnessed a group of female weavers, seated in a circle, waiting patiently for their carefully hand-crafted rugs to be sold by an unknown middleman.

Heather recalls, “I just knew there had to be something better for women in this position. These incredibly talented artisans put their whole lives into these gorgeous rugs, day in and day out, and they were gaining so little in return. The men buying the rugs to, in turn, sell them at another souk (market), were the ones making the real profit. I realized then that I could make a huge difference. I always knew that I would gravitate towards development and helping others. But I then recognized that it would become a lifelong mission and much more than a job. I had an obligation. It became my calling.”

 

Many years before, as close sisters in suburban New Jersey, Heather and her younger sister Katie knew they were destined to have their own custom fashion and accessories business together. Katie would eventually become the creative and artistic designer of Mushmina; specializing in her trademark mastery of African hand-crafted accessories. Katie’s expertise in distinctive metal-smithing and textiles places her in a unique field in which women are not typically found. Heather would be the connecting force behind this inspiring business with her knowledge of business and materials sourcing and her interest in working in developing nations. The two sisters; yin and yang, best friends, and now business partners and creative collaborators were fated for Mushmina.

Heather and Katie’s mindful plan was slowly coming together. Heather had successfully completed two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco teaching small business skills to local women. Katie was a flourishing designer in New York City. Fast-forward a few more years to 2009, the sisters returned to Morocco with a business plan in their backpacks. Heather has remained in Morocco ever since. Katie continues to live in the US, but threatens (lovingly) to move to Morocco as well. After all, they are a team.

This month, in honor of Small Business Saturday, which always held on the Saturday after American Thanksgiving, the sisters have chosen to tell the story of a particularly inspirational Moroccan female small business owner.  Zohra’s story below is one of perseverance, determination and plenty of heart. Read on….

 

Zohra Mellouk, native Moroccan and founder of Souss Saffron, a USDA-certified organic co-op that cultivates “natural products of the Moroccan earth”-saffron, argan oil, and prickly pear seed oil, (as well as many other chemical-free products) has a similar story of dedication and epiphany when it comes to realizing her lifelong ambition of helping women in need.

Souss Saffron’s name comes from the rugged, agrarian Souss region in mid-Southern Morocco, just below the High Atlas Mountains.

Zohra grew up in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco; she was one of eight children and had everything could possibly need as a young girl. However, her father’s story always inspired Zohra-he had come to Casablanca as a 15-year-old youth, traveling 700 km on foot from his tiny, Berber village in the Sirwa Mountains of southern Morocco. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and the wish of making a better life for himself. And that he did.

Zohra never forgot this. As a child, visiting her father’s family in Tinfat, a village so small that it inevitably blends into other miniscule hamlets in these rural mountains; the nearest large town being 180 km away in Touradant, Zohra said she witnessed “suffering on a huge scale due to unemployment and lack of schooling. But it was the women-the girls, mothers, and grandmothers who always touched me the most. I wanted to do something to give back to them. Because they were the cords that held our community together.”

Later on in life and ironically, after her retirement from a successful career in business, Zohra finally intended to bring her dream to fruition. She briefly thought of opening a guesthouse, but then, a genius idea practically dropped into her lap. Why not use what was already there, already part of the land, embedded in the people, distinctive in their livelihood? And even better, why not work with the women from her parental village? Those who needed employment, education and empowerment the most?

At first, Zohra approached a (male) cousin who immediately belittled her idea. Employ women? Of course not, he told her. Zohra then had a lightening bolt moment. She quickly realized, “We have everything already here that is essential for producing these gifts of the earth; we just need the work force. Women in this region already know how to cultivate these natural products; they have been practically doing it since they were walking, as well as caring for entire households. All they need is a little training in Western regulations. The rhythm is already there. The work ethic was put in place many years before. The experience is there now. We just need to put it into motion.”

Starting with just twelve women in 2011, Zohra now heads over 160 experienced female cultivators today in her successful co-op. The women work at home in the mornings and with Souss Saffron in the afternoons. During the height of saffron cultivation, (October-November), every able-bodied person works and reaps the benefits of the busy season. “What’s not important is the paperwork, what is necessary is that everyone has a job. A purpose. Our youngest female member is 18 and our oldest is (she thinks) 90. Everyone joins in.”

And her biggest challenge? Zohra feels personally responsible for changing as many girls’ lives as possible through education. “I feel a desperate need to send the girls of this co-op to school. The level of poverty and misery in rural villages is astounding. To keep young girls in school through their secondary education and possibly even on afterwards is my ultimate goal. At the moment, we have ten girls at a boarding school in Taroudant. This is huge accomplishment for our small cooperative. There is nothing for them in the villages unless they have been to school. More and more, their families, and even the girl’s fathers, are realizing this.”

Zohra still spends her rare moments of free time, pondering how to create more revenue; the goal being to ultimately employ additional women and send more of their young daughters to school. These thoughts keep her up at night. It’s not for her that she does this. In fact, she is incredibly humble when she talks about her business. She talks about it for the women that she is helping; not for herself. She talks about the future for the women she is supporting, not for herself.

This is what small business owners do; and particularly ones whose missions are linked to free trade and sustainability-they spend their whole lives envisioning and carrying out their dreams-they live, sleep, and breathe this hope. They don’t actually dream for themselves but for others who are less fortunate. Heather and Katie had a goal of helping women and men by empowering and leading talented groups of artisans throughout Morocco. As much as it’s a job for them and a source of income for these two sisters, it’s so much more-it’s a devotion, a duty, and a necessity. Zohra had this same relentless fire within her-to encourage Moroccan women to be independent using the resources that they know best-their land, their earth, their hands.

There is a well-known Moroccan expression, in the local language of Darija, that translates to “Drop by drop, we fill the river” (Nqta b nqta kay hml l’oued). Perhaps for Katie and Heather, this could be measured in the thick fibers of a vibrant Moroccan rug, lovingly woven by master weavers whom the Mushmina sisters have meticulously employed and empowered. And maybe for Zohra, this can be determined by delicate twines of vivid orange-yellow saffron, tenderly cultivated by her co-op of tenacious women in Zohra’s ancestral village.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger

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