Charlie Davies, once a fleet street fashion editor, has been living in the Sahel region of Africa since 2007. She has set up her own company, SAHEL design, in order to discover and celebrate the traditional crafts of the area. Her heart is to use it to help relieve poverty in ways that are sustainable and respectful of culture.
Charlie Davies with her family in Burkina Faso in 2011.
The Sahel area, just below the Sahara, is among the poorest and most underdeveloped in the world and includes countries such as Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso. It also suffers from low rainfall year after year.
Here in the UK we are used to this part of Africa being highlighted in the news regularly – indeed both Oxfam and the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection have recently said that it is a "race against time to avert food crisis in the Sahel: [there are] over 15 million people at risk".
Here Charlie shares some of her experiences of living in an area of the world that is in such a desperate state, and why she believes so much in the work she is doing.
"This is the most difficult year in the region for a long time and people are worried. From my well-fed Western viewpoint, no year in the Sahel looks easy. It amazes me that people survive at all in this harsh environment, where your entire food supply depends on three months of rainfall a year.
"Last year the rains weren't great, and then there was a deluge of birds that came and stripped entire crops in places. Some people got some, others got nothing. No-one got enough for the year. This June, all eyes will be on the skies and faces on the ground in prayer as another bad harvest will be catastrophic.
"In a good year the price for a sack of millet in the market is 8,000 cfa (about £12). It's about 25,000 now, and that's if you can get it at all. Many families depend on one or two members who have paid work – a skilled labourer in Ouagadougou earns 1,000 cfa a day – to support the family. With an average of 6.6 children per woman in Burkina Faso that's a lot of mouths to feed.
"As white foreigners we are constantly being asked for money, for food, for medicine. It is the hardest thing about living where we are. Knowing when it is right to help and when it is better to say no. Remaining compassionate when you are weary.
"I hate poverty, and what it does to people and a culture. Art and beauty are luxuries that are usually the first to go in times of need. Desperate people will do anything to earn a crust – it doesn't have to be immoral to be soul-destroying. Who wouldn't turn down the offer of a couple of hundred thousand cfa for their ancestral land or churn out cheap tourist souvenirs if it meant they could feed their kids?
"I believe in authentic trade (as opposed to 'pity purchases') as a means of relieving poverty. Instead of trying to come up with ideas that I can pay Africans to make for me, I am trying instead to look at how I can serve them by finding ways of making their work more profitable.
"Too often as missionaries the message of the gospel gets mixed up with our identity as Westerners, and we forget to learn about who people are in our eagerness to help them. So I have spent a lot of time sitting at the feet of local artisans, learning about their culture instead.
Charlie with local leather workers.
"Not only do I now have good relationships with a number of people in different villages, I have discovered some quality craftsmanship that is worth preserving not only for the sake of cultural heritage but because it is a marketable skill that will help them out of poverty.
"There are people with artistic heritage, passion, skill and talent to offer who are struggling to survive because we aren't recognising them for who they are. That's what I'm trying to do with SAHEL design. It's about discovering, celebrating and reviving traditional craft techniques, people and communities."
"I blog about my findings at www.SAHELdesign.com and put photos up of product ideas that I develop and make with local artisans. At the moment I am working mainly with a family of horse reins makers and a group of spinners and weavers.
"Through the SAHEL design website I hope to attract orders from retailers for products, as well as raise an interest in local artisanal culture and a respect for African craftspeople. It's about time that Africa and African craft left the charity shop and got taken seriously.
"I have also set up an online shop, www.jamshop.org.uk, where I sell SAHEL design products as well as things that I buy directly from independent local jewellers and tailors. All the profits from the SAHEL design products sold go back into community projects. So far they've funded the building of a weaving centre and a medical visit for the children in the reins makers' village. The next goal is water pumps in both villages. It's about respecting, serving and liberating people in the name of Jesus."
April 27th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Claire Musters