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Textiles to Textbooks–How Purses Built A School

Tribal textiles collage

I used to be a speed shopper—grabbing what caught my eye without giving much thought to how, where or by whom it was made.

But as I resurrected my former green self from college days and became involved in fair trade, my shopping rate has slowed to a snail’s pace.  I want to know as much as I can about what I’m buying so I diligently read labels and ask questions before I hand over my money.

tribal textiles2

Biking past hand-painted fabric drying in the sun.

Is it made in a place known for sweat shops? Were animals or the earth harmed to make it? How much of what I’m paying gets back to the original producer?  Questions not easily answered by reading labels.

So when I was thinking about starting my fair trade business, I knew I wanted to include as much information about the product and its makers as I could find.  Since there are still plenty of speed shoppers out there anxious to make a quick buy, I try to keep it short and sweet.

But for you folks who want more—and because I don’t want to short-change the craftsmanship and humanity behind the products—I’ll be regularly featuring in these posts one of the artisan groups who create the products I sell.

First up is Tribal Textiles, makers of our hand-painted Crescent handbags. Based in Zambia, Tribal Textiles mixes traditional African art with contemporary designs, drawing inspiration from the stunning Zambian wildlife and surroundings.

hand painted fabric

Hand painting the fabric.

The designs on each piece of fabric the bags are made from are drawn and painted by local Zambians in a rich palette of hand-mixed colors. Tribal Textiles provides training, a good working environment and sustainable employment in an area where jobs are scarce.

The bags begin with cutting, sewing & fraying 100% cotton fabric. The designs are drawn directly on the material using natural pigment colors, a highly skilled technique taking years to perfect.  The fabric is then “cooked” in an industrial oven to bake the colors in, washed, and hung in the sun to dry.

Building a school for Malimba.

Making the bricks.

Gillie Lightfoot founded the company in 1991 and now employs over 100 Zambians, many of whom live in the small rural village of Malimba.   At that time, Malimba’s children had to walk 6 km a day to the nearest school.

Wanting to help the community further, Gillie established the Malimba Community School Fund using proceeds from the sale of Tribal Textiles’ products. With money provided by the Fund and 20,000 bricks handmade by the villagers, an elementary school was constructed 10 years ago.

Malima school

Taking a break from learning for a meal.

When one of her valued employees died, Gillie created a charity in her memory.  Donations from the charity built a kitchen and dining room for the school where the World Food Program provides one nutritious meal a day for all the students.

The school now educates 160 children ranging in age from 5 to 17 years old. As many as 38% of them are orphans.  They have no chance for a better future without the start in life that Malimba Community School offers.

Thanks to its success, the school was incorporated into the Zambian education system which now supports its day-to-day operations.  This frees up the Malimba Community School Fund to focus on other areas. It supports the volunteer teachers in gaining formal teaching qualifications, provides supplementary teaching aids and sponsors sports, arts, and literature activities for the children.

So when you buy one of Tribal Textiles’ beautiful bags, do it knowing it brings a beautiful life to the children of Malimba.

Crescent bags collage


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