The first time Heather and I spoke on the phone, I was immediately struck by the radiance and warmth of her voice. It glowed through our conversation and I knew right away that I had come across someone special.

Heather, I discovered soon after, is the heartstrings of Mushmina and so much more.

 

Running a successful small business is one thing. However, running a flourishing small business, as a strong female CEO, with a mindful mission from Morocco is an entirely different situation. All of these challenges could bring even a strong person down. Heather, despite these obstacles, chooses to ‘run into the storm’ as she has described to me in the past. And she is one storm-strong woman.

Heather describes successfully owning a business in Morocco as ‘rolling with it, no matter how crazy things may be.’ She is a firm believer in karma and the universe backing her up. And she should; her work ethic and her incredible human spirit are unmatchable.

On top of it all, Heather is a loving mother to two wee people-Hiba, four years and Youssef, one year. And she is as hands on as a mama could be-I often call her and she’s been out for a nature walk with her kids. Or she brings the gang with her to our informal meetings at my house. Which I love!

The pressure, however, of being a thriving small business owner and an effective mother, can be stressful. Particularly working from home; where chaos can reign with two little ones.  However, Heather manages to find the light in the chaos. She claims that flexibility is the key to positivity. She explains earnestly, ‘To me, this has so much value. I love that each day is different and I can take a sick day with my daughter if I need to.’ She continues, ‘Hiba loves to play in the workshop next to me and tries on all the latest clothing and bags. My son goes right for my toolbox. It does get a little chaotic but I have a wonderful helper and a door that I can shut when necessary; this is how I find my sanity. I also work at midnight when everyone else is asleep.’

Peace seems to seek out Heather. This girl just doesn’t get flustered! I’ve called her more times that not when a product order has been lost in the Moroccan mail (it happens quite often) or Hiba has dumped applesauce all over Youssef’s head. And she goes with the flow! She frequently tells me that the universe has its way of sorting things out.

She’s also pretty darn humble. She’ll be the first to give credit to her fab sis and Co-Founder, Katie, as well as the incredible team of Mushmina artisans. As well as her family and husband, Mohamed. Her nature is one of caring for others.

 

At the same time, this Mama rocks the fashion accessories world with her innovative, creative, supportive mission. But Heather is no wallflower! She says she has learned to be assertive and firm living in Morocco and running a business here. She explains, ‘You have to have boundaries. There is a balance in being patient but also being productive. Things take more time here, but I have found a rhythm.’ She laughs good-naturedly. ‘Most of the time.’

 

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Heather’s connection to Morocco and its people is exceptionally remarkable. The best part is that it comes so naturally to her. Heather learned Darija, one of the local languages of Morocco, when she was a Small Business Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003-2005 in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. As she fittingly describes, ‘People’s heads turn when they hear that I can speak the language and also that I am an experienced negotiator.’ Clearly, the respect is there.

Working closely and diligently with women’s groups, co-ops, and artisans inherently allowed her to easily pick up the language fluently. Heather’s bond with those with whom she comes in contact is extraordinary. While most expats do not speak Darija, Heather defies the odds and does all of her work in the language. Watching and listening to her work is an art-a fascinating, back-and-forth of gentle grit and perseverance. Yet she manages to have a kindness and warmth to her that is incredibly affable and approachable.

The close link that Heather has with her long-term team of loyal artisans is palpable. Trust and relationships take time to develop here in Morocco and Heather has dedicated years of her time to this labor of love, Mushmina. She has earned respect, appreciation, and most importantly, affection and admiration from her body of artists. As she often says, ‘I learn from them as much as they learn from me.’

This mutual admiration and respect comes from years of getting to know her artisans and their families, a key part of Moroccan culture. Heather describes it best-‘My leadership style is very personal. I am particularly invested in our team, I know their families and they know mine. This is also how business is done in Morocco and I love this about my adopted home.’

 

 

After I spoke to Heather on the phone for the first time, we decided to meet in Casablanca. We realized quickly that our vision was similar. We both were former Peace Corps Volunteers, gravitating towards empowering and supporting women in particular.

As soon as I walked into the café where we had arranged to meet, Heather’s charmingly genuine smile greeted me from across the bustling Moroccan tearoom. I knew at that moment, I was meeting my future boss. Even more essentially, my steadfast friend.

Perhaps one might agree that Heather is in fact, the thread of Mushmina. And if the universe has its way of sorting things out, then I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be a part of Heather’s cosmos.

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger among other things

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morocco is buzzing with festive, colorful Ramadan preparation; the Islamic holiday that follows the lunar pattern and begins today. For my family and I whom arrived last summer to Rabat, it’s our first Ramadan in Morocco, and we are sharing the excitement and flurry of our adopted home.

This past Sunday as my girls, my husband Sacha and I drove to a family outing through the bustling downtown streets of Rabat, we came upon the most strikingly beautiful mural on the side of an unassuming, crumbling apartment complex. I had been meaning to photograph this particular fascinating fresco for a couple weeks as part of a recent uniquely popular international annual street art festival in Rabat called Jidar, Toiles Des Rues, or Roofs of the Roads. I was drawn to this specific mural with her message of female empowerment and spirit!

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Mural by Peruvian artist, Decertor

 

As we slowly pulled up to the gargantuan wall painting, I caught my breath. She did not disappoint. I was mesmerized. And sitting underneath this gorgeous collage of vibrant color was a gaggle of men ranging in ages from early 20’s to mid 60’s. All joyfully eating juicy slices of fresh watermelon, chatting, talking, laughing with each other. I greeted them cheerfully in my broken Darija and immediately, their reaction was one of warmth and inclusion. Without missing a beat, they handed me a piece of the fruit. I gladly accepted. It’s watermelon season here in Morocco!

Soon after, my middle daughter curiously popped out of the car and was immediately gifted a tasty segment of sweet watermelon. And then my third daughter appeared. My husband patiently parked the car and he joined the fun along with my oldest girl. We all stood there, laughing, conversing in Darija, Arabic and French, and relishing the moment. All thanks to a mural and some watermelon.

Reflecting on that spontaneous incident afterwards with our girls in the car, my youngest daughter, only eight, pointed out that Moroccans are ‘so friendly and they love watermelon as much as I do.’ And that’s just the point. Moroccans are some of the friendliest people in the world. And they will immediately share, no matter how little they have. This is the simple beauty of the Ramadan season.

Ramadan is intended to be a time set aside for self-reflection; particularly gratitude for all that one has in life. It is also an occasion to give back to those who are less fortunate. For Moroccans and Muslims around the world, Ramadan is about family, love and peace. And for my family, it will always be about a slice of watermelon and an extraordinary painting in the simplest of settings. Ramadan Kareem!

 

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

In honor of May Day, ‘International Workers Day’ Mushmina is pleased to share with you the story of an amazing training center dedicated to the employment and empowerment of women. Read on for Tara’s interview with the American born founder who created a beacon of hope for disadvantaged women in Marrakech.

xo Heather

Sister Center- Soul of Marrakech

My oldest daughter, Mia and I pull up in our battered, sputtering taxi to the The Amal Women’s Training Center and I feel an immediate calm come over me-the Center is a tiny oasis of peace and sisterhood in the heart of the charming pandemonium of Marrakech.

I had heard of Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen and the Amal Center and I was immediately drawn to its story of training underprivileged women to cook and find work in the restaurant industry. The center is truly an institution of change and inspiration.

What better way to reach people’s hearts than with delicious Moroccan-European fusion food? From heavenly tagines to tempting tartes aux fruits, everything is home-made daily with the freshest of ingredients and lovingly prepared with heart.

Nora tells her profound story to us over the most divine fresh juice smoothies. Perfect on a hot spring day in southern Morocco.

Her parents moved to Morocco from California in the 70’s and Nora grew up in a mix of Moroccan and American cultures. Her roots are now permanently in Morocco.

Moving back to Morocco and down to Marrakech after her studies in the States with her husband and two small children, Nora started to wonder about the street women who begged on the roads daily, many with babies and small children-who were they? What were their stories? And how did they get to this place of such despair? As she went on to explain to us, ‘Beggars have become such a part of our landscape. They are sadly normalized and we have become indifferent to their suffering. I see it, though, as the opened wounds of society.’

Nora then met a young woman, Amina * who was 28 years old, the exact same age as she was at the time. A young street mother of two. It was at that moment that Nora had an epiphany. ‘I decided that I needed to know her story. There is such a cynicism and mistrust towards beggars in our world.’

Nora went to see where the young woman slept with her children and was stunned. As she speaks to me, her voice cracks with emotion, ‘We have created a world where we can buy a juice for 30 dh (about $3) and we don’t even drink it all and we leave the rest. Yet there are people out there who sleep on cardboard boxes, who don’t have shoes, whose children go to sleep hungry for lack of that 30 dh. This can’t be.’

However, after living a life on the streets, it is often a challenge to adapt to a different lifestyle. And change was just not possible for Amina without motivation from Amina herself, as well as proper training. As Nora puts it, ‘I’m not a social worker. I was not equipped to help at this level. I hadn’t really made a sustainable difference in Amina’s life. I had used compassion, but I really needed to use my intellect in a smarter way.’

Nora realized that she wanted to help women who displayed a continued, authentic desire to better their lives and she needed to find a trade that would allow them to enter the work force and find success. She explains, ‘Very quickly, it became clear that these women were agents of their own lives and the leaders of their empowerment journey.’

She began with a tiny, yet genius pilot project. Baking American-style sweets at the school where her husband taught. She then chose two women who demonstrated both a will to better their situation and genuine need. Nora then taught them basic recipes such as cheesecake, cupcakes and brownies. Nora explains, ‘Keep in mind that these women were illiterate. But they took the recipes, tried them one time, and they were so, so good. It was like they were born to bake and be entrepreneurs. It was magical.’

The project was an instant hit and soon the women were earning 1,200 dh/month each, which is about $130. Nothing for some but an absolute fortune for these women.

This was the tiny seed that eventually flourished into the Amal Women’s Training Center, which opened in April of 2013. Amal, meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic, is a place of promise for hundreds of women who would not normally have a chance. These women represent the force of going against the grain of an embedded stereotype.

The center targets women with two essential traits: self-motivation and vulnerability. Widows, divorcées, single mothers, orphans, and women below the poverty level, ages 18-35 years.

The goal of the center is for its graduates to enter into the formal economy with an official work contract. To provide stability and sustainability. The Amal team has created a large network of employers in the restaurant business in Marrakech. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

Nora had hoped she could help a few women when she first created her vision. Little did she know that today, the center has graduated over 170 trained chefs and utilizes 25 full-time employees in the restaurant and catering service. Now that’s sisterhood.

There is so much joy here; the center is bursting with the thriving force of this strong tribe of women. Nora finds herself truly humbled by the women’s strength and determination, and hopes that the Center will continue to open doors through the love and comfort of scrumptious food.

* Amina’s name has been changed to protect her privacy

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

 

The Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant in Marrakech is open from 12-4 pm daily for lunch, dinner with a reservation, and also offers cooking and baking classes. yum!

Amal Gueliz
Rue Allal Ben Ahmed et Rue Ibn Sina
Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

http://amalnonprofit.org/

 

 

 

The Evolution of the Mushmina Hobo –From Couch To Camel

Mushmina Spring 2018 (9)

Flashback to almost 10 years ago and the beating heart of Mushmina was just beginning to flourish. Heather and Katie knew they had something special; the custom Mushmina Hobo handbag; the essence of their unique small business. This was Katie’s epiphany-why not take gorgeous, striking fabrics inspired by Moroccan tiles and upholstery and turn the textiles into stunning, vibrant bags? Who says you can’t turn a couch into a stunning bag!?! No one had ever done it before. And the classic Mushmina Hobo was born.

Although the soul of this rockin’ bag stays the same; the ingenious idea behind the creation and the Mushmina mindful mission is still firmly in place today.  But this innovative product has evolved with time, changing with Katie and Heather’s whimsical, playful imagination. As the sisters have grown, adapted, matured and thrived, so too, have their Hobo bags. But the heart of this bag, as is the heart of Mushmina, is fiercely everlasting.

So what’s the story here?

Mohammedia is a town where you if blink on the auto-route, you might miss it. Not exactly a stop on the tourist circuit for international travelers here in Morocco.

Nestled, however, in the midst of this working class town, is a cozy enclave of buildings. At the focal point of these bustling structures is Mehdi’s textile factory; the producers of Mushmina’s signature fabrics. The creative process, however, is one that began many years before.

In the dawning years of Mushmina, Heather and Katie would source imaginative, vibrant fabrics from all over Morocco for their distinctive handbags. Drawing inspiration from traditional and vividly colorful upholstery (typical in Moroccan homes), the sisters would search in hundreds of shops in Casablanca, Khouribga, and beyond for the quintessential 3-4 textiles per collection. The quality lining of the handbags required the same endless trips to fabric shops. It was exhausting and incredibly time-consuming.

As Mushmina grew and expanded, so did its clientele, and after a few years, requests started coming in for larger quantities of fabrics from wholesalers. Great for business, bad for tired feet! It was becoming impossible to continue trekking into textile stores (no matter how much they loved it!).

Lo and behold, the sisters were introduced to this small, custom textile factory in sleepy Mohammedia, north of Casablanca. It was, a perfect match, one could say. Katie had brilliantly envisioned and designed (by hand) their first pattern…a Camel Repeat. Heather chuckles heartily and explains, ‘Any other wholesale factory would have laughed at the idea; putting camels on upholstery!’ But it was perfectly, quirky, heart-felt Mushmina, with a touch of Morocco.

And yes, Mehdi laughed. But in the best of ways. In fact, Mehdi and his loyal team immediately meshed flawlessly with the Mushmina sisters. Mehdi himself, having a great appreciation for hip, quirky new styles and global trends, heads his squad of loyal staff: Mostafa, talented designer, imports the Mushmina creation after it has been intricately worked on by Mehdi’s design team in Marrakech. Then Mostafa attentively places the design into a special textile program that relays it to the looms. Rachida and Malika, technician assistants, are the eagle eyes, so to speak, to be sure that the looms are working at their optimum. A small but fiercely clever and accomplished team.

Walking into the building, you feel the energy and purr of the machines at once. The jacquard looms are gargantuan, hypnotically pushing out gorgeous custom fabric. Katie will often stand meticulously at the looms and play with the color options as Malika, trusted staff, aids her to deftly switch out the threads. Shades of vibrant colors, shiny or matte, large prints or tiny ones, the Mushmina sisters have done it all. It’s a fine dance to find perfection.

So where does Katie find her revelation? The ingenious process is typically galvanized in Morocco; energized by stunningly diverse landscapes, vivid mosaic tiles, intricate wrought iron detailing, electrifying upholstery and of course, fabulous carpets of every look and fiber. Occasionally, she finds illumination in the simplest of places…on Heather’s sunny rooftop or late at night in the colorful, funky Mushmina studio. Katie incredibly still hand-draws all of the handbag patterns to this day.

Heather and Katie have, in the past, created everything from whimsical Beni fabrics (inspired by the bold, linear designs of the famous Beni Ourain carpets), to light-hearted camel prints with cheerful backgrounds. The Beni fabrics were such a popular, classic pattern that the sisters are bringing them back this fall. Stay tuned for this upbeat collection. Always inspired, continually evolving, forever fierce and fashion forward. The sisters even did a 1970’s-inspired hot pink print called ‘Wildflowers’. Playful, occasionally mischievous, true Mushmina.

Beni Black

Mushmina has proudly collaborated with QVC USA, inspirited by striking Moroccan vistas, blooming pomegranate farms, vibrantly fragrant jasmine flowers and the ceaseless Mediterranean Sea, which borders much of this incredible land.

One often says here that Morocco is a never-ending land of awakenings, complete with endless possibilities for inspiration. Our signature Mushmina Hobos have emerged, over the years, as a symbol of the resourceful, spirited vision of this small business. And spunky camel patterns to boot.

Our latest fabulously charming collection will air on QVC Germany this Friday April 20th @3pm EDT. The sisters are thrilled with this line. The custom textile available in four bold colors, is called ‘The Gardenia’, and is already a hit with pre-sales. Keep an eye out for more details.

Mushmina Spring 2018 (2)

What would you like to see u do next? Have a cool, unique fabric idea? Email katie@mushmina.com

 

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger (among other things!)

www.mushmina.com

 

Images from Mushmina’s 2018 Spring Photoshoot, @Kasbah Tamadot
Model Ghizlane Safsaf  /Photographer Ingrid Pullar

 

 

Spirited Wanderers

March 21, 2018

This month in honor of ‘International Women’s Month’ the Mushmina blog brings you the story of Aurelia Tazi, the woman who walked 372 miles to the Sahara Desert with her three daughters. We are inspired by the amazing journey of this determined mama. Read on…

Spirited Wanderers

Aurelia Tazi’s free spirit radiates from her as we meander into, of all places, a Starbucks in the city of Casablanca for our interview. My daughter, Zoë, 11-years-old, and my keen assistant, spots her immediately. ‘Mumma, she looks just like she does in the movie!’ Zoë exclaims excitedly. And she does. I think I am just as eager as my daughter.

I see Aurélia’s dazzling red shoes first. She is dressed like a gorgeous, brightly colored bohemian flower; long flowing dreadlocks are the finishing touch. Her warm smile, though, reaching all the way to her friendly eyes, is what greets us.

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My collaborator is timid at first. I brought Zoë with me, though, for a purpose. Aurélia’s three fiercely independent daughters Yoko, Maya and Lila, ages eight, six and four, are as much the heart of this story as she is. And therefore, I need a child’s perspective. My girl, Z, is a gifted writer and dreamer herself. I am happy to let her do the interviewing. She jumps at the chance to drive to Casa with me.

So who is this wonderful, quirky family and what is their story?

Aurélia is a non-conformist French native who has lived in Marrakech since marrying an equally unconventional Moroccan, Sadek in 2004. The couple owns a plant nursery where their precocious girls run free and life is perfectly whimsical.

This trailblazing woman did something astonishing-she decided to walk from Marrakech through the rugged High Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the Western Sahara Desert and the famed Dunes of Lihoudi. With her three young girls and their trusty dog, Loulou. And a cheeky mule named Gypsy. Alone. Filming their documentary, ‘Wild Mama’ (translated from French and subtitled in English) along the way.

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600 kilometers or 372 miles. Two months of intense, harsh conditions and incredibly rural, precipitous countryside. Days of not seeing anything but the great blue sky, innumerable puffy white clouds and beyond. Approximately 60 days of pastoral scenes and uncommonly gracious, kind people in distant villages along the way.

Why embark on this epic trek?

Humanity and tenacity. As Aurélia explains to me over a cozy coffee and cheesecake, ‘There is compassion everywhere you look in our world. In the most remote of Berber villages, these lovely people who have the least will give the most. We were welcomed into these homes and immediately treated like family. It was important for me that my girls see kindness in the littlest of things.’ She continues earnestly, ‘I was determined to show my girls that they are strong. I wanted them to see that they can do whatever in life they want, if they have conviction and self-confidence. They wanted to come on this journey with me.’

She goes on, ‘Just look at what they have done here on this walk. If they can do this, they can accomplish anything!’

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I feel honored to be there, listening to Aurélia’s story. With my own daughter. For Mushmina, this is what we seek-real stories of regular people doing extraordinary things in this incredible country. It is part of our mission this year, to share these stories with you.

Back to Zoë’s first professional interview. Within five minutes, my bold, pioneer girl is chatting and giggling with Aurélia’s equally individualistic daughters. They immediately connect. I wonder, fascinated at their quick bond. And I swiftly connect with the lovely Aurélia. It’s easy as she is so incredibly affable and open.

Zoë has meticulously prepared her questions on the day of our big interview and she even has a recording device with her. This is the real thing for her. I am thrilled to give my girl the chance to feel empowered.

She discovers that Lila, Aurélia’s oldest daughter, is the most comfortable answering questions. Lila talks enthusiastically about working together with her sisters on their adventure and her delight in seeing the wide, open mountain range as she fearlessly trekked on their journey.

Zoë immediately asks Maya about her love of their lush garden at home in Marrakech; which Maya, wise beyond her lovely six years, misses terribly. Maya is shy at first, but Zoë soon puts her at ease. Soon, Maya is laughing and giggling and cautiously telling her story.

Lastly, wee Yoko, just four years old at the time, is a free thinker like her Maman. Yoko clearly provided the humor on this incredible expedition, and Zoë is able to pull that joy out of her during our interview.

I realize, though, as I begin to chat with Aurélia, that I have placed her on an unobtainable pedestal. Before I had heard of her riveting story, I decided that she must be the perfect person. The ideal mother. I mean, what woman in their right mind decides to walk alone across a rugged mountain range with three young girls?!? I have three girls. Let’s just say, I would never….I might just duck and roll gleefully off the side of mountain on the first day. On purpose. To get away from my kids yelling at each other.

Then, I have an epiphany as I am watching this gorgeously honest, raw documentary. Aurélia is just as flawed as you and I. She is not the perfect mother and this is what makes her beautiful. There are moments when her children scream and yell in frustration on camera and Aurélia is clearly overwhelmed. It shows a vulnerability and humanness that brings tears to my eyes. I am oddly relieved watching her struggle with her girls; it makes me feel less alone in my trials with my own daughters.

Zoë and I traveled to Casablanca to interview a fierce, groundbreaking family about their amazing odyssey. We walked away from that intimate conversation with some lifelong friends. Along with a whole lot of inspiration from a captivatingly tenacious mother and her three irresistibly bold daughters.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Want to watch her documentary? We do too! Follow Aurelia on her website, www.aureliatazi.com for news about the public release.

 

 

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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

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Halima’s house in Bejaad is modest and tiny; we gingerly walk up the narrow staircase into her small living room and on into her workspace where she has carefully cleared out an area for our visit.

As we make our way up the stone stairs into her humble abode, her lively children run up and down the stairs around us. The street below is busy and bustling with little ones playing, neighbors chatting, and curious by-standers gazing at us, wondering whom we were.

Halima is a master weaver in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. She is the head contact for a small but mighty group of female weavers in this quiet town; known for its beautiful, unique rugs. For female weavers here and all over Morocco, these carpets symbolize a tiny slice of independence.

Just as importantly, though, Halima is Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill’s loyal friend. Their friendship has evolved from Heather’s starting days in Morocco as a galvanized, determined Peace Corps Volunteer almost 15 years ago. She has also been Heather’s most trusted rug weaver and much-needed informal ‘consultant’ ever since.

 

Halima, whose infectious smile lights up a room and whose eyes twinkle with clever humor and intelligence, is an example of the strength and inspiration of the small but Herculean business of the Mushmina sisters, Heather and Katie.

Halima’s calm temperament and warmth radiates from her when she hugs me and welcomes us into her home.

Halima has not had it easy, however. As a woman, mother and wife in a tiny traditional Moroccan working-class town, it is often seen as taboo for a woman to be earning a salary. Finding a balance is difficult. Maintaining a busy home, where most women still wash laundry by hand and toil in front of teensy gas stoves for hours, as well as caring for her three young children, takes up most of her time.

Halima’s work ethic is unmatchable; her energy and vigor are unstoppable; her motivation is ceaseless. She has something inside her that is different-she takes initiative with her trade. She wants more for herself. She demands better for her children.

Halima’s heartwarming story is a fascinating one. An incredible woman who never had the opportunity to go to school as an uncle suddenly passed away and she was sent to care for the family, Halima speaks no French; typical of most rural Moroccan people. Luckily for me, Heather flawlessly translates Halima’s heartfelt story for us from Darija, the local language.

And then there is her actual physical weaving. Halima, like most Moroccan weavers (most are female, as it’s an ideal trade handed down from mother to daughter), has the family loom in her cramped kitchen. The lighting is dim and the elements can be brutal; summers are stifling hot and winters are brutally frigid. Heating and cooling systems are unthinkably too expensive.

Luckily, Halima is still young and her eyes and hands haven’t failed her. But she weaves at night after her incredibly long work hours at home are finished. Inevitably, the day will come. Her mother sadly had to give up weaving because it was too hard on her vision.

Weavers depend on their knowing hands for their work; these are their tools. Halima’s hands are her lifeline; soft and calloused from years of physical toiling at her basic wooden loom. Her loom, a simple wooden structure with two beaten-up, rudimentary cans placed precariously on either side as well as a spoon tied right in the middle for balance, is the heart of her income.

The ancestral wooden looms on which these women weave, amazingly, have not changed over the years. Although electrical looms exist, they are not used as a result of cost and maintenance.

 

While we talk and work and she shows us her gorgeous weaving, her children periodically come in and out of the room, asking questions, scrambling all over her. She handles them like a pro; not skipping a beat in continuing our work and caring for them.

We watch her as she weaves rhythmically, mesmorized.

Halima’s talent is quite magical. As Moroccan weavers do, their trade is innately in them-she doesn’t use any conventional tools. Halima uses her hands and her arms to measure the rugs. The rest, is almost divination-all of the stunning symbols that make the Bejaddi rugs so famous throughout Morocco and beyond, come from within Halima. Her patterns are so exact, so perfect, such excellent quality, one might think that they are factory-produced. This is a real, pure, raw gift.

Astonishingly, weavers work with their textiles facing outward from the loom; the women have to essentially do everything backwards. It is intricate, difficult work. When I ask Halima where she finds her inspiration, she tells me that her revelations come to her in various ways. It can be as simple as the outline of a grain. Or the peaks of the majestic Atlas Mountains. Nature and agricultural motifs are often woven into Moroccan textiles. Each region has its own trademark patterns.

 

We got a sneak peak of creative director, Katie working closely with Halima on designs that will later be sewn into Mushmina’s trademark handbags.

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As the afternoon wanes and the evening appears out of nowhere, we stop our work for a tea. The pocket-sized room, all of a sudden, is cold. We fill ourselves with minty, heavily sweetened Moroccan tea, cakes and toasty flat bread. And when our bellies are satisfied and our hearts are warmed, we hit the road. Feeling grateful to have been enlightened by this incredible woman. And to have shared a little bit of her world.

-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.

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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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