Category Archives: Quarterly Reports


“At each moment, in every instant, I am in search of myself,
I search the grasses, twisting around my fingers, and the clear tent of the sky. 
I gallop the untamed winds of my own wild steppe,
and sit with crossed legs upon the vagrant white clouds. 
…I exist in unnumbered places, I go everywhere,
wandering and withering away in my search for embodiment. 
I am formed in the stars’ different watches, 
and find myself in the world’s different people.”
-from “In Search of Myself,” G. Mend-Ooyo, Mongolian poet
To my faithful blog readers:

For now, I think this is the last entry in my online Watson journal. Thank you for following me across continents and through the ups and downs of the past year. It truly meant so much just to know that I had a network of interested friends listening from afar. Even though I’m finished with my year, I will always welcome questions or further interest in discussing any aspect of my experience— the organizations I worked with, the countries I went to, my challenges and triumphs, the Watson, and my thoughts on why crafts and women’s craft organizations are important. Feel free to contact me anytime. I’m still more than eager to have good conversations about these topics, with friends old and new.

The next step for me is moving back east at the beginning of October, where I will start a job with the Fair Trade Federation in Wilmington, DE. I’m so excited for this opportunity to extend the interests that fueled my Watson exploration in a new context. In some ways, this will be a return to familiarity, living in the same area where I went to college; in other ways, of course, I’m entering uncharted territory. I hope to remember the Watson spirit of constant adventure even as I start the 9-to-5.

Without further ado, here’s my final report.

Dear Watson Headquarters,

It’s strange and nice to be writing to you for the first time with a picture of you in my mind that’s based on actually encountering you in person. Having spoken face-to-face, however, doesn’t make it easier to sum up my experiences in this final Watson report. I often feel like I learned too many things last year and haven’t learned how to express them yet.

Maybe I can start with numbers: during the 365 days of my Watson journey, I traveled on 27 ½ flights (the midair u-turn and emergency landing fiasco in Ethiopia counts as half a flight), passing through 11 countries outside of the U.S. I enjoyed the hospitality of 20 homes where I slept on beds and couches and floors. I learned words in 10 languages: Spanish, K’iche, Arabic, Siwi, Luganda, Bahasa Indonesia, Javanese, Balinese, Mongolian and Kazakh. I went through 4 cameras and 4 journals. I got parasites/food poisoning 0 times (Triumph! I have the best stomach ever.) I spent $5,682.60 on plane tickets and will give $3,874 back unspent.

The world’s too small for walls.” -Berlin Wall graffiti

“People are just people/They shouldn’t make you nervous.” – Regina Spektor

In the past month I’ve been struggling to develop a pithy message that I can deliver to people who ask me how my year was. I don’t think that saying I discovered a new faith in humanity quite sums it up. It’s more like I discovered that I can connect meaningfully with people who are different from me in nearly every regard. Along with that recognition, which struck me over and over and delighted me each time, I let go of a fear of people that is all too often built into our understanding of the world and our place in it.

In summary

My Watson adventures started in Guatemala, where I first began to understand the enormous role that serendipity would play in my life this year. I stumbled across Oxlajuj B’atz’, an educational organization that embraced me as a member of their equipo, listening to my voice at staff meetings and incorporating my interests and skills into their education projects with Mayan women’s artisan groups. I spent time fighting to understand the shackles of dependency and fear– made worse by aid attempts– that hold women down in the blustery village of Xeabaj II. I found hope in the passion and buoyant resolve of my co-workers at OB. I loved the colors of Guatemalan textiles and the fierce pride and love that inspires women to wear huipiles that take months to make by hand.

In Egypt, I split my time between the chaos of the metropolis and the relative peace of the desert oases. I was overwhelmed by gratitude (and sometimes just overwhelmed) at being welcomed into homes in Siwa where I could interact with women in the indoor environments where they shed their full-body coverings and come into their own. I danced at weddings and joked in Siwi about embroidering my own wedding gown. I discovered, during the fledgling days of the revolution, a sense of solidarity with the Egyptian people that defined global citizenship for me in a new and exciting way. People most often ask about my experiences during the revolution, but the quieter moments made just as much of an impression on me: hiking to the top of windswept dunes, drinking tea, smoking hookah and reading at a cafe in Cairo, scuba-diving among the proliferation of underwater life in the Red Sea, or hunting for perfect basket-making palm fronds in the date gardens outside Siwa.

In Uganda, I studied baskets and barkcloth and natural dyes, enjoying the creation of crafts that are essentially harvested from the land. I delighted in the bold colors of Kampala and the feeling of my bare toes wriggling in the dark earth of the garden. I spent a lot of time riding minibus-taxis around the city and getting stuck in traffic jams. I danced and played ultimate and finished a triathlon and made amazing friends. I met with artists, activists, children, single mothers, businesspeople and academics, all of whom believed that crafts could be a key to their own empowerment and to solving Uganda’s development challenges.

Fair trade in the archipelago: Indonesia

World Fair Trade Day celebration in Bali

Helping out with Forum Fair Trade Indonesia’s project of documenting artisan stories allowed me to visit batik artists and plant-fiber weavers in Java, cashew growers and backstrap-loom weavers in Sulawesi, potters in Lombok and woodcarvers in Bali. Rather than growing roots in Indonesia, I traveled extensively, met many people, and listened to many stories. Even going to seven islands and seeing places that few tourists see, though, I experienced only a tiny portion of the many worlds encompassed by the vast Indonesian archipelago.

Despite the short period of time I spent in each location, I met people who are etched indelibly in my memory. Tia, the amazingly dynamic leader of a village on Makassar Island in Buton, Sulawesi, was one such unforgettable individual.  “Before, women didn’t go to trainings outside our homes– or if we did go, we followed the 4 d’s: datang (come), duduk (sit), denar (listen), diam (silence).” Tia helped the women of her village, who are skilled weavers, to organize a successful cooperative and community education projects, and emerged as a forceful leader whose ideas are changing the way women contribute to and participate in their community.

The seaweed harvest in Buton, Sulawesi

One place where I did feel a sense of rootedness and of home was in the house of Nani Lestari, the 24-year-old leader of the Berkah Lestari cooperative in the Javanese villageof Imogiri. Nani, despite her youth, is a master batik artist who can reproduce traditional masterpieces as well as designs of her own imagination. Nani taught me that to be a fine batik artist, you must find a quiet place that will allow you to make lines that are straight and true. At the cooperative I made a batik piece with a combination of motifs: traditional sido asih and a contemporary take on parang, the motif of kings.

My time with the Berkah Lestari cooperative included many hours spent listening to giggling and gossip and tinny American pop music playing from cell-phone speakers with the young apprentices. There were other hours, though, in which we were quiet with our tjantings (wax pens), in which I found the inner and outer peace to draw straight, even wax lines and rows of evenly spaced tiny dots. Like moments I experienced earlier in Guatemala, Egypt, and Uganda, I found the practice of batik meditative. The patience and attention needed for crafting, for me, provide the space for creative expression.

A key-maker's painted cart in Jogja.

Working with successful, well-developed fair trade companies like Apikri and Mitra Bali gave me the chance to reflect on best practices that truly help to overturn exploitative dynamics within trade. Thinking critically about the interviews that I conducted with artisans along with my own observation of fair trade in practice, I developed a set of best practices. These included: building networks for communication and material transactions; recognizing that sometimes craft production is not enough; institutionalizing systems of ensuring accountability to one’s principles. Working with larger companies in Indonesia allowed me the chance to zoom out from individual craftswomen’s experiences and think about systems that would support economic security for many individuals.

I don’t regret my approach to getting to know Indonesia, but I learned that traveling to many places is sometimes not as meaningful as working to understand and feel a part of one community. Leaving Indonesia for Mongolia felt significantly less painful than other uprootings, and in some ways I missed that sweet sorrow of parting.

Every hour is adventure hour: Mongolia

My 31 days in Mongolialeft me no time to do anything except seize the day. I wanted Mongolia to be a culmination, like a final exam testing my ability to make connections and go adventuring and live a big bold life. Sometimes, especially in the first days while I was trying to make sense of the Cyrillic alphabet and the border between actual tradition and tradition manufactured for tourists, I felt a certain panic that I wouldn’t be able to live up to my lofty expectations. By this point in my year, however, I was good at talking myself down from these panic moments and coaching myself into excitement and patience. My mantra became Every hour is adventure hour. Adventure came in all shapes and sizes: petting a roaming yak, hiking along a precipitous slope, paying for a taxi in chocolate, learning Mongolian vodka toasts around a campfire, drinking a bowl of melted sheep fat.

I decided to approach Mongolia with a different strategy for connecting with craftswomen, too: instead of attempting to explain my interest in grassroots development and women’s cooperatives, I introduced myself as an artist interested in textile traditions. This approach worked surprisingly well, and I was thrilled with how many craft techniques I was able to learn and how many goals I accomplished in a short time.

That is not to say my time in Mongolia was without challenges; I spent much of the first week dealing with the shattering of my pre-conceived notions. I arrived in Ulaanbaatar with a fantasy in my mind about women’s cooperatives among nomadic families. I imagined women making traditional felt slippers in a fire-warmed ger during the hours before going to sleep, supplementing their families’ income as herders and bringing financial stability while supporting the survival of the nomadic lifestyle itself. In reality, nomad craft cooperatives do not exist (as far as I know, anyway) and slippers are not traditional inMongolia. Traditional felt is for utilitarian purposes like making the walls and floors of a ger, and therefore is not particularly well suited for making trendy hair clips for foreign tourists. Craft cooperatives sprang up in newly sedentary communities when nomadic families gave up their herding and moved to urban areas in pursuit of opportunity and a respite from living constantly at the mercy of the harsh Mongolian seasons. Seeking a better and easier life, many instead find vast ger districts on the fringes of the city, where jobs, social services, and infrastructure are hard to come by. Even as Mongolians continue to flock to towns and cities, they often lament the loss of their deep connection to the land.

Mongolian horses on the steppe

With funding and training from Scandinavian NGOs and artists, Mongolia started to develop contemporary feltcraft in the last twenty-five years. My instructor in the art of contemporary feltmaking was a woman named Bayanduuren, whose studio is a cozy basement space in a Soviet apartment block that has ceilings so low I kept banging my head on the water pipes. Working with sheep wool, my first experience with animal fibers, was rewarding in an unexpected way. Bayanduuren told me that the wool of a dead sheep is useless. To make felt you need energy, she said; you need to connect with the life inside the fibers. Bayanduuren believes that in order to be a good felt maker, you have to give something of yourself: the heat of your hands and the will of your heart. After I finished my first felt piece, a scarf, she paid me this compliment: “Because you love it, because your heart loves it and your hands love it, you are a good felt maker.”

Switching gears after my contemporary felt lessons, I left the capital and ventured into the countryside, to a little town called Altanbulag where I worked side by side with women (and two men!) learning felt quilting and eating mutton noodle soup every day for every meal. Last, I flew on an exorbitantly expensive plane to Bayan-Ulgii, the far western aimag of Mongolia, which is a stronghold of Kazakh culture. Embroiderers in Bayan-Ulgii export many of their finished products back toKazakhstan, where demand for traditional products is high but few craftswomen remain who can produce the old designs. Like in Ulaanbaatar, the recent influx of herding families moving to town seeking opportunity means there are plenty of women skilled at embroidery and looking for employment.

I learned traditional Kazakh embroidery from a woman named Ina, who also hosted me in her family’s beautifully decorated ger– which might now be my favorite room in the world. Living with Ina, her husband Kaderbek, and their family for a week gave me the opportunity to try delicacies like sheep’s head, slurp my way through many a greasy meal of buuz (meat dumplings), drink bowls of airag (the cold, creamy, refreshing, bubbly, sour fermented horse milk that is a Mongolian specialty), bathe in a Kazakh sauna, and see golden hunting eagles in the yards of gers, as commonplace as dogs.

Taking a fishing break.

Before arriving in Mongolia, I heard horror stories about the public transit that, of course, made me eager to test my mettle on a long-haul bus trip. The bus ride to Khuvsgul (billed at 20 to 24 hours) was as harrowing/exciting as promised. It started out comfortably, actually: with individual seats, a functional AC/heating system, and  a TV playing kung fu movies. Just after dark, the TV started playing Mongolian karaoke. Unlike the karaoke that I’m accustomed to, in which one person screeches out a pop ballad, there was no microphone and no stage. Everyone sang together, blending their voices to create a sound more like hymn-singing than karaoke. Every Mongolian on the bus seemed to know these songs, from my seatmate, a superfashionable teenager, to the grandfather across the aisle.

Our first flat tire came on a bathroom break in the middle of the midnight steppe, when we heard the loud pop of a blown-out tire. After a few confused minutes of milling around in the darkness, we were ushered into a tiny roadside cafe. The cafe was built of logs, with artificial flower bouquets planted in not-artificial wall sconces made of bracket fungus, two little sets of antlers on either side of the quilt-insulated door… the lightbulb on its electric cord was strung through the snarling mouth of a taxidermied boar’s head mounted above the door. We drank cups of salty milk tea dipped from a vat heating on the wood stove, and tried to sleep with our heads on the tables. The next day, after the third flat tire, the bus just gave up and quit functioning altogether. 48 hours after departing UB, we finally arrived at our destination by the lake. I enjoyed my five days of hiking at Khuvsgul Nuur all the more for the many hours I spent waiting to arrive.

Drinking airag upon the wild steppe.

I spent most of my year in places renowned for their hospitality, but Mongolia set a new bar for generosity and graciousness. In the Mongolian countryside, personal possession is sometimes nearly irrelevant. If a traveler stops at a ger, he or she is offered food and tea without question. Sharing is understood not just as a courtesy but as a means of survival, the glue holding a nomadic society together. I was fascinated by this totally different approach to community, ownership, and survival. Mongolia is becoming influenced more and more by capitalism and westernization, but I’m still intrigued by the ramifications of this hospitality for the country’s future development.

Mongoliaand its nomads felt like the perfect place and way to finish this year: footloose and independent, with food and shelter in my pack and a whole lot of open horizon before me; hiking along a sparsely populated path with only the meh-eh-eh-ing goats for company. I also fell in love with the Mongolian landscape. The clarity of the air after months in steamy Indonesia was a blessing, and like Mongolians, I tried to develop my own sense of connection to the land. I felt nomadic, and I felt at home in that feeling.

Crafting community

I came into this year unsure what I was going to learn about crafts and community and the women who connect these two ideas through their everyday livelihoods. I wanted to learn  muscle memory and technical dexterity and best practices and hope. I wanted to learn what kind of contributions I could make to women’s craft initiatives, and what kind of belonging I would feel as a outsider wanting to learn skills associated with a specific place and tradition. Looking back, I am still amazed and gratified at the generosity of craftswomen in every country I visited, and their willingness to patiently instruct me. Their grace in accepting my hesitant communication, my uneven stitches, and my botched formalities has touched me deeply.

Some friendships are born of conversation, but some are born of silence, of hours of amiable companionship with busy hands. I also love the hours I spent in silent uncomprehension, content to occupy the space of community without having the language skills to enter into community’s conversation. I discovered that I am pretty good at hanging out with mothers and grandmothers, women much older than I who hold the dying secrets of craft tradition in their minds. I am less good (despite much practice) at sitting endlessly on hard floors, a task that women around the world seem to have mastered effortlessly.

In imagining my project, I saw craft production as a vehicle for other kinds of connection. I discovered the truth in that idea: with busy hands, women are still free to use their minds and their voices, often in collective, sharing stories, gossip, advice, and dreams. The hours of sitting on hard floors working with my hands created a space in which I got to be part of that sharing.


At Khuvsgul Nuur

Every time I wrote a quarterly report, I also wrote a letter to myself and mailed it to the US. Opening those letters when I got home brought back a flood of memory and uncertainty, the thrilling and daunting promise of the unknown that characterized my thoughts about the future during much of my fellowship. They also include some truths that I hope I am able to hold on to as I leave the extraordinarily nourishing context of my Watson year. Including:

The next adventure is as close as I will it to be.

Live up to my opportunities.

Every place has its own beauty.

My tendency to smile a lot is one of my best attributes.

It was wonderful to discover that my interest in craftswomen, and the contexts in which they work, could in fact span a year of exploration and grow constantly over the course of that year. I was thrilled by finding answers to my questions and by the steady stream of new questions and desire for greater understanding that filled my mind. At one point I wrote in my journal, “It’s a great feeling to know that I was right to dream in that direction… It makes me want to keep thinking up crazy dreams and finding ways to happen them. It makes me believe in passion, not only in its existence but in the necessity of it, its integral part of this life I’m living and the life I truly want.” Days that, individually, sometimes seemed mundane, useless, frustrating, and wrong-headed, took on meaning because they were strung together by passion.


SFO --> MSP. The home stretch.

I came back to the place I call home after a year in which I felt at home in many different places. Over the course of the year I felt a complicated relationship with the United States and my role as a representative. My experience in disadvantaged communities made me so grateful for the opportunities I have been granted, especially as a woman. Yet I was often uncomfortable with the culture associated with the idea of America. I confronted bizarre ideas about my home country, from the imaginations of people who know Americafrom TV: Your country is completely paved and skyscrapered, right? A place where there are no dirt roads, a place without poverty. Your bodies are all soft and white. You would never have potholes like this in America. Do you have rivers in your country? Do you have farms?

Answering these questions made me think hard about the places I inhabited this year and their relation to the place that I call home. I realize now that most of us in the US are so disconnected from the actual processes and struggles that ensure our survival: we are cushioned by our affluence to such an extent that we are removed from the realities of producing our basic needs. To be free of the fear of not having enough to survive is a wonderful thing. To be free of the knowledge that our survival costs something, that our existence comes only by the work of human hands and the use of finite resources, is a very dangerous thing. Humility is more important than I ever imagined– a value that we often devalue, unwisely.

Somehow, my education in crafts also taught me that a banana or a t-shirt or a gas-powered flame should not be assumed and are not guaranteed. Perhaps the value of my education in basketry and weaving and batik, these slow, tedious, humble, painstaking processes, is the recognition that enormous effort goes into my sustenance and survival. Even when I do buy shirts off the rack at Target and plastic-wrapped food at a supersized grocery store, I want to carry the knowledge of that effort and make decisions informed by knowing.

“Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.” – Dear Sugar

Meeting the other Watson fellows, talking with them into the early morning hours and dancing exuberantly with them in conga lines helped me piece together bits of the what-the-past-year-means puzzle. It helps me to know that my Watson experiences will continue to pay dividends and will continue to unfold. I’m sure that there are some experiences and lessons from this year that I won’t understand for many years to come. It helps to know that the spirit of the Watson will come to me in moments of future deliberation.

Most of all, I am so grateful for this experience and feel so lucky to have lived this dream for twelve months of my life.

Gracias. Shukran. Weebale nyo. Terima kasih. Bayarlaa. Thank you. 


quarterly report 3

Three more months have passed! Unbelievable.

By the way, here’s my address in Indonesia! Postal love is always appreciated:

Madeline Kreider Carlson
+62 85333043919
Poste Restante
Kantor Pos
Ubud 80571
Bali, Indonesia

Quarterly Report 3

I sat cross-legged on a straw mat in Joyce’s living room, enclosed by turquoise walls and under the watchful eyes of the Virgin Mary icon, who is surrounded by flowers in her privileged place in the corner. Joyce sat beside me, periodically glancing at my progress, her expert fingers working the coils of an enormous raffia and banana fiber basket that she’s preparing as a product sample.

“Usually, girls learn to weave baskets from their mothers when they are young,” she said. “While sitting together, we tell little stories to teach them different lessons about life.” She told me one such fable—the lesson is about being diligent and having respect for one’s elders.

“But my daughter doesn’t know how to weave a basket! She was so busy always with her homework.”

It’s a story that’s become familiar to me over the course of this year: the children of skilled women artisans grow up preferring store-bought clothes to hand-woven huipiles or study banking instead of basket-weaving. My desire to learn crafts is often met with surprise—why is this well educated young foreigner interested in these outdated arts? In Uganda, I spent my Wednesdays in Joyce’s home on the outskirts of Kampala. Joyce is a master basket weaver who has traveled the U.S. on several Ten Thousand Villages artisan tours, and regularly trains women in basket technique.

“You’re a good student!” she tells me, and we both smile (I secretly burst with pride).

Many people were puzzled by why I chose Uganda as a place to study crafts. Admittedly, if you’re shopping for craft souvenirs, you’re much better off in Kenya or Tanzania, where tourism is more developed and, therefore, market opportunities for craftspeople are more abundant. Kampala’s craft market has wooden masks from the Congo, purses from Tanzania, woodcarvings from Kenya, and even batik dresses from Thailand and chintzy jewelry from China. But I was intrigued by the attempts to carve out Uganda’s niche in regional craft production, now that tourism is bouncing back from a devastating lull during decades of political instability and entrepreneurs are working to develop a domestic market for locally made products.

I went to Uganda to learn how to make baskets and investigate the production of barkcloth. I managed to succeed in both of those goals, and along the way I had the good fortune to meet and connect with people involved with crafts from so many angles and backgrounds. The list of wonderful artists, activists, NGO workers, entrepreneurs, academics, artisans, Ugandans and a couple foreigners who I met and interviewed is overwhelming, but included: Betty Kinene, founder and owner of the fair trade company Uganda Crafts 2000. Liz Ssenoba, head of the African Women Art Association, who engaged me in a fascinating cross-cultural conversation about our experiences in rural women’s empowerment (I contributed my perspective from Guatemala). Dr. Venny Nakazibwe, dean of the Makerere University School of Fine Arts, who is a barkcloth research pioneer. Harriet and everyone else at Paper Craft, a small business utilizing discarded glass, paper, and plant materials to make recycled stationery and jewelry. Ralph Schenk, co-owner of Banana Boat, a chain of high-end craft boutiques that operates using fair trade principles to support small and innovative producers. Ivan Yakuze, an artist who uses barkcloth and found objects, whose art, rich with symbolism, resonated with me in a rare way. And so many others! I found a wealth of teachers and inspirations in Kampala.

I never intended to spend 2 ½ months living in Kampala, but something—many things—about the capital city kept me there. I made wonderful friends among my ultimate frisbee teammates, and was continually inspired and excited by the network of artist-activists that I tapped into. I was also really happy with my living situation– after living on my own for a month, I moved in with Grace, a middle-aged woman who works with the craft division of the National Association of Women’s Organisations of Uganda (NAWOU, another fair trade producer). The first time I met Grace, I arrived at noon and was immediately offered half of her lunch. This instance of generosity perfectly characterizes Grace’s warm acceptance of me into her home. I lived with Grace, Hanifa, Bene, and Bene’s adorable one-year-old daughter Patricia for six weeks. This multi-generational household of women became my Ugandan family, and Grace’s house in Bunamwaya Nfufu, a village eight kilometers outside of Kampala in the green semi-urban ring surrounding the city, quickly came to feel like my home.

I love this picture of Hanifa and Patricia.

I learned so much from experiencing daily life in Grace’s house! I developed a taste for g-nut sauce, matoke, and dodo greens, and accompanied Grace to services at the local Catholic church. Grace told me about the two micro-credit circles she’s involved in—one associated with church and one among several of her close female friends—which provide an unofficial but highly effective source of financial security and aid that helps fund medical treatment, weddings, home improvements and other big expenses that would otherwise be difficult to pay for on one’s one. I helped plant corn and beans in the garden, and felt the warm satisfaction of community belonging while laughing and getting muddy with my friends and neighbors in the sunshine. My housemates Hanifa and Bene both left their villages and families and came toKampala in search of better economic opportunities; their stories exemplify a broader trend of flight to the city from disadvantaged rural areas.

Kampala certainly has challenges: high unemployment, rising basic commodity prices, overpopulated slums lacking basic infrastructure that crowd the abandoned train tracks. But K’la also has more educated people, job opportunities, and gender equality than anywhere else in Uganda. Recognizing the disparities between life in Kampala and in the rural countryside, which is home to the 85% of the population that make their living through small-scale agriculture, my trips to Masaka, Rubona, and Gulu were really important to my understanding of Uganda.

Masaka is the region that produces the best barkcloth—one clearly unique Ugandan craft, an element of Bugandamaterial culture that’s recognized by UNESCO as an intangible world heritage tradition in need of conservation. (The Buganda tribe historically ruled central Uganda and still constitutes an important political entity.) Ugandan barkcloth is made from the mutuba tree, a species that thrives when inter-planted with other crops. Before the advent of commercial cotton and silk fabric, barkcloth was used for clothing and to wrap bodies for burial (a practice that continues now). I visited a mutuba plantation at KasotaPrimary Schoolin Masaka, and got to see the process (because I was a muzungu guest, I was even allowed to try pounding the bark with a heavy ridged wooden mallet—usually a job strictly for men!). Barkcloth “extraction” involves constant human care and attention; trees are pruned from a young age and after the bark is removed, the exposed tree is wrapped with banana leaves or cow dung to protect it from the elements.

Today, a loose community of diverse individuals has taken up the task of barkcloth conservation, and is imagining new uses for this completely natural and very sustainable material. They’re fighting against tough odds: mutuba trees are being cut down for firewood and to clear land for the cultivation of cash crops, and a local stigma against barkcloth exists because of a preference for cheap, modern materials and a lingering association of the barkcloth with death. A number of women are key players in advocating barkcloth conservation: along with Dr. Venny, I met Sara Katebalirwe, an entrepreneur and designer whose innovations have helped increase the quality and durability of barkcloth goods, and who has almost single-handedly helped barkcloth enter the realm of fashion cachet. In Masaka town, I met Margaret, who creates tailored gomesi (formal dresses) and other ceremonial wear for the local market, a truly remarkable feat of overcoming stigma. Margaret’s approach is to advertise barkcloth as a special, meaningful symbol of Baganda pride and heritage.

Wisdom: “Train a Woman, a Nation Trained”

Rubona is in western Uganda, a village nestled in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains along the road between Fort Portal and Kasese. The 200 women members of the Rubona Basket Weavers Association are well-known for their distinctive, beautiful naturally dyed baskets, made with raffia, millet straw, and banana fiber. I visited their workshop and spent a day learning how to prepare natural dyes from roots, flowers, and leaves—recipes that have been reclaimed in the last ten years after nearly suffering extinction because of artificial dyes imported from India. Rubona’s business is thriving, and I was especially impressed by their approach to design innovation. Unlike many craft producers whose ideas for new designs come from their foreign marketers, the Rubona basket designs come directly from the basketweavers. Each month Rubona holds a design contest for all the basketweavers, and creators of the top designs win prizes, usually practical items. In this way, Rubona encourages design innovation and creativity and actively promotes the sustainability of its image as an innovative business.

I also traveled to Gulu with Fred Mutebi, a well-known artist who is committed to promoting the role of art, creative expression, and innovative collaborative thinking as integral parts of local development through his NGO, Let Art Talk. In Gulu, which only recently achieved peace, I saw Internally Displaced Persons’ camps where reportedly 90% of the population was forced to live to escape kidnappings and brutal attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Gulu today is still reeling from the violence, the total derailment of its economy and disintegration of its social fabric that resulted from twenty years of NGO-dependent life in severely overcrowded camps. I observed as Fred led a group of local leaders and schoolchildren in creating a “talking mural” around the idea of resettlement, and was inspired by how people came to life through the process of collaborative artistic creation.

As in Egypt, I was impressed by the lessons that ordinary Ugandans taught me about environmental consciousness. In Uganda, climate change is an acute, pressing issue affecting food security for thousands of people. I met Ugandan villagers with minimal formal education who articulated the effects of climate change powerfully and succinctly, and acknowledged humans’ responsibility for precipitating this environmental crisis. I wish that such consciousness were as widespread in the U.S., and am challenged to consider the kinds of environmentalism and sensitivity to community that we lose in the march toward first-world development.

And now, Indonesia! In my first few days I was utterly overwhelmed by South Bali’s mass tourism. Now I’m happily living in a very Balinese neighborhood in Denpasar, where I’m working in the office of Forum Fair Trade Indonesia (FFTI) by day and strolling on the beach, exploring by bicycle, and sampling new culinary delights by night. I’m trying to dig below the surface of this island that, in some ways, has been marketed and packaged so elegantly for consumption. I’m still far from being able to draw conclusions about the paradoxical combination of foreigners on holiday wearing Bintang beer tshirts, the visual poetry of ceremonial processions, shrines on every corner and offerings in every doorstep, and the silenced history of violence and repression that clashes with Bali’s image as idyllic island paradise. Tourism and neoliberal growth are a blessing to some, but may be a curse to the majority, and I am excited to investigate the place of crafts, the potential of fair trade, and the notion of “tradition” in this complex place.

I never managed to adequately capture the colorful chaos of downtown Kampala.

During the last few months, I feel like I’ve hit my stride as a Watson adventurer: confident in my ability to make connections and improvise plans as needed, comfortable with the unknown, more relaxed and patient about the inevitable setbacks and frustrations that come my way, and really enjoying this rare, absolute freedom and independence. I have learned that I am enormously adaptable and capable of making my own happiness in any number of situations. I have learned that I trust people, perhaps sometimes too much and too easily. I am more certain than ever that the best thing about this Watson year is the opportunity to meet and befriend so many people representing such amazingly different life stories and perspectives.  As I write this, friends in Kampala are plotting new routes to and from their workplaces to avoid the clouds of tear gas blooming in the city’s streets, a response to opposition protests against inflation and high basic commodity prices. Friends in Cairo are getting involved with community mural projects for kids. Friends in Xeabaj II are gaining fresh confidence in their cooperative enterprise as their improved products begin to sell at Oxlajuj B’atz’’s new fair trade store. I’m grateful for the chance to move in the world right now, to sense the currents that are shaping the present and the future, and to continue conversations and relationships with the friends I’ve made along the way.

I’ve recently been wishing I had a more concrete idea of what I’m going to do with this year: all the accumulated insights, experiences, epiphanies, lingering questions, and contacts that I’ve made. In Uganda I found several small projects with miniscule budgets, guided by highly motivated and passionate people who are trying to take on every social issue at once. Often they showed me amazing hospitality when I visited their projects, and I felt as though I had so little to offer them in return– not money, supplies, or expertise, not even a lasting presence. Learning to face those situations with grace is a task that I’m still struggling with. I find myself at times feeling overwhelmed, small, and powerless to positively affect the adverse conditions I witness around me. I hope I can turn those feelings into a determination to keep thinking about how I can use my incredible experiences.

quarterly report 2

I’m safely in Kampala, Uganda, and I finally made myself sit down to piece together some of my thoughts from the past three months for my (late) Quarterly Report– somehow I’ve finished half of my Watson year already! Yeah, it’s long, but you should read it anyway! More thoughts on my experiences in the last three weeks to come…

Quarterly Report 2

Halfway—it’s hard to wrap my head around. The last three months have been an amazing and rich time, full of experiences I never dreamed of having: everything from watching giant kites soar in celebration of Día de los Santos to watching desert rally racing to attending two Siwan weddings to witnessing a revolution in the making. I’ve learned how to weave brocada patterns, make recycled paper beads, stitch traditional Siwan embroidery designs, and make palm-leaf baskets. I’ve flown from Guatemala City to Miami to London to Cairo, back to London, and finally here to Kampala by way of Addis Ababa.

My last few weeks in Guatemala were full and wonderful. I traveled to Baja Verapaz with two of my great friends, facilitators at Oxlajuj B’atz’, to participate in a Mayan healing and medicinal plants workshop. I felt confident and passionate presenting the results of my interview study in Xeabaj II, though the group’s response reminded me that there are no quick solutions to the enormous challenges they face. Most of all, I felt contented, comfortable and at home—and that feeling helped me realize that it was time to move on.

After a lovely long weekend with friends in London (including a trip to the British Museum that spurred my interest in Ugandan barkcloth!), I arrived in Egypt feeling ready to dive into a new adventure. My first day in Cairo, I got an email from an old friend asking me if I wanted to come with her to Siwa, Egypt’s westernmost oasis, that day. I only hesitated for a second before saying yes. What a lucky decision that was!

Siwa Oasis is a huge expanse of palm and olive trees, home to 23,000 people of mostly Berber origin who speak Siwi. Until about 30 years ago the town had little contact with the outside world. Women play a very limited public role—after marriage, it is rare for them to go shopping or work outside the home. As Siwa changes rapidly and the lucrative allure of  tourism increases, many people delight in the influx of motorbikes, cell phones, and other consumer goods, while just as many people lament the erosion of cultural integrity. (Sometimes, people lament the erosion of cultural integrity while riding motorbikes and talking on cell phones.) For me, the combination of conflicts between cultural integrity and capitalist development progress narratives, along with the unique position of women in Siwan society, inspired endless questions and curiosity. I was also completely captivated by the Great Sand Sea’s endless dunes stretching for miles—I’ve always loved wilderness, and this was an entirely new landscape of inspiration. I made contacts with several organizations—a community development and cultural heritage preservation association, and an artisan training center for young women. My three-day trip became an eight-day odyssey, and when I finally left for Cairo, I promised to return to Siwa to follow up with the organizations and learn more about Siwan culture.

Back in Cairo, I was excited to be offered an internship at Fair Trade Egypt, a well-established fair trade organization that markets products from more than twenty producers throughout Egypt. In my afternoons with FTE, I learned the story of each of their groups and got a glimpse of the coordinated effort needed to run a successful fair trade business. I also studied Egyptian colloquial Arabic and spent lots of time wandering around endlessly fascinating Cairo. By the time my family arrived for the holidays, however, I was ready for a break. Sitting in an office in front of a computer all afternoon didn’t fulfill me; I felt disconnected from craftswomen and unsatisfied with my project’s progress. I hadn’t made anything with my hands in a month. I was making good friends, but I didn’t feel as though I had found a community. And while I love Cairo and all its complexity and mass of humanity, I was feeling worn down by the sheer amount of energy needed to get around and accomplish basic errands.

With time to reflect while soaking up the awe-inspiring creations of the ancient Egyptians, I decided to go back to Siwa. Outside of Cairo, I was even more aware of the challenge of accomplishing my project and connecting with people across a language barrier. While I know enough Arabic to get around, I am frustratingly unable to make nuanced conversation. Even breaking my thoughts into simple questions proved difficult. Not knowing a language is a humbling experience—I often felt stupid and paralyzed because my level of fluency was, at best, that of a small child (probably more like the family pet….). It took me some time, but I realized that there are other ways to connect with people and make friends. My acquaintances are remarkably hospitable people, but I realized that I had to reciprocate their generosity by finding ways to share about myself. I started bringing my Siwan embroidery and photos of my family and friends everywhere with me, to illustrate my project and provide conversation starters.

I found it much easier to make connections with artisans in Siwa’s small-town environment: I attended workshops for Siwan women who were learning to design patterns and make ceramics using local clay; I hung out with other young unmarried women at the artisan training center; and I learned traditional Siwan embroidery and palm-leaf basketry in the homes of my friends’ families. I made wonderful friends, and talked to lots of thoughtful people who are working to build consciousness about the value of balance between the indigenous way of life and sustainable forms of development and modernization.

In Siwa I was amazed every time someone eagerly agreed to teach me their craft. I think I’m able to make such connections with women because I’m interested not just in buying, or admiring, or even studying their handiwork, but in learning how to make it myself. Women opened their homes and their lives to me, the strange foreigner with incomprehensible hair, often sharing meals and stories as well as their expertise. Despite my strangeness, my desire to learn enabled me to participate in an exchange of knowledge that, for generations, has taken place between female family members. I am so happy and grateful for people’s willingness to accept me entering into that space.

However, there were times when I had a hard time accepting elements of Siwan and Egyptian culture. I missed the strong, dynamic, outspoken women who were such forceful public leaders in Guatemala, and struggled with accepting that Siwa is a place where women play very little public role and have few educational opportunities. But my confusion and doubt was productive—after experiencing the domestic space where Siwan women do lead, I began to think in new ways about how they are community actors. I had to revise some of my expectations in order to get to the point of appreciating this, but this year is about learning different ways to understand community.

The environmentalist aspect of my project continues to be on the periphery of my explorations—though I did have the opportunity to visit two inspiring projects, one in Guatemala City and one in Cairo, which both utilize recycled craft techniques to support successful income generation projects for women. In Siwa, I also gained some insight into a holistic environmentalism that predates the current obsession with eco-consumerism (a trend I find problematic to begin with). The traditional Siwan lifestyle relies on a symbiosis with the environment, in which people use available resources to sustain their existence in startlingly resourceful ways (I’ve never seen so many uses for the various parts of a palm tree!). The health and survival of the community is directly linked to the careful stewardship of the environment. I admired my Siwan friends’ respect, even reverence, for their natural surroundings and the richness of the oasis’s resources. One of the goals of my project is to dig around buzzwords like ‘sustainability’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and learn what these concepts mean to people who may think about the world in a very different way from me. In Siwa, I was able to push my understanding of both of these ideas, to encompass new kinds of social relations and forms of community.

In Egypt, I talked to many people about their thoughts on their country, government and future. As the tide of unrest rose in Tunisia, these conversations became more frequent and more intense. I listened as my friends’ words changed tone, from wistful admiration of the Tunisian protesters to pride in the bravery of growing numbers of Egyptians who took to the street, standing up to the repressive state security forces. I gathered that many, many Egyptians, representing a diverse cross-section of Egyptian society, are tired of the rampant corruption that saps the government of integrity and effectiveness, tired of police brutality, fed up with lack of freedom of expression and assembly. They’re very, very frustrated by the absence of response to the poverty, joblessness and lack of education that keep Egypt from realizing its potential.

As the revolution unfolded, I realized with some surprise how personally and emotionally invested I feel in the developments in Egypt, how inspired I am by witnessing some of that struggle, in a country that is not my own. But maybe Egypt is a little bit my own, or maybe some part of me belongs to Egypt. As I move from place to place, I feel more and more like I’m carrying pieces of places with me. Guatemala, Egypt, now Uganda— my mind is full of people and places that are alive to me in a way that no news broadcast can convey. This year has given me more faith in humanity, more reason to believe in social change, more empathy and interest in the stories and lives behind international headlines.

Now in Uganda, I am feeling for the third time that flood of sensation and information that accompanies my arrival in a new country—an almost breathless feeling as my mind races to process my past experiences and absorb the new ones. I’m excited for more questions, more doubts, more adventures that are impossible to anticipate now… but no more State Department warnings, please!

quarterly report 1

On Monday morning, in transit from my homestay in rural Quiejel to the Día de los Santos kite festival in Sumpango, I stopped at an internet cafe to send my first Quarterly Report to Watson HQ. Which means my year is 1/4 over. What?!

Other things happening very soon, all meriting exclamation points:

November 8-12: trip to Rabinal to learn about medicinal plants, natural dyes, and new weaving techniques!

November 17: flight outta Guate!

November 18-22: long weekend in London!

November 23: arrive in Cairo!!

Here’s my report; some of it will probably sound familiar because I took it from this blog.

On July 30th, I set off to begin my Watson odyssey in the highlands of Guatemala, home of a vibrant backstrap-loom weaving tradition. Though I had dreamed and hoped and worked and planned for this adventure for so long, in those first days I felt nervous, overwhelmed and daunted by the prospect of a whole year on my own. Partly because Guatemala was a late addition to my Watson itinerary and partly because I wanted to start my year by embracing independence and spontaneity, I arrived with little concrete idea of how I would spend my time here. I spent my first few weeks visiting weaving cooperatives, getting my bearings, and talking to lots of people about my project. Those weeks were really important for me: they were filled with the thrill of exploring a new place and attempting to process a flood of new information, constantly questioning how best to pursue my project, and learning to deal with uncertainty.

In the course of this questioning and exploring, I connected with Oxlajuj B’atz’, an organization that provides educational opportunities for Mayan women’s artisan groups. (Oxlajuj B’atz’ means “Thirteen Threads” in Kaqchikel; I’ll refer to it as OB.) There are a huge number of women’s artisan groups in Guatemala; I chose to work with OB because they partner with small, less-established cooperative groups, but provide well structured programs responding to the needs articulated by these groups. The OB staff warmly and graciously invited me to participate in their work; I visited women’s cooperatives in small rural communities to observe workshops on gender equality, medicinal plants, hooked rug production, and product pricing; I attended meetings to discuss curriculum development and effective methods of monitoring and evaluating projects; I read and gave feedback on strategic plans and business models. I never expected to learn so much about responsible nonprofit management!

Reto, which means challenge, was one of the first new vocabulary words I learned when I started work with OB. There are endless challenges in fighting the ycles of oppression and dependency that Mayan women face: an ethnically stratified society, history of genocide and conflict, restrictive gender norms and family roles, devastating natural disasters. I’ve been so impressed by the foresight, commitment to democratic organization, and dedication of the OB staff. They don’t take any shortcuts, analyze every obstacle, and are so conscientious of the ever-present goal of fostering independence and self-sufficiency in the artisan groups. Their passion and thoughtfulness are visible in their pedagogy, the way they treat the women and each other. I have always gravitated toward communities of strong women, and the OB staff members have filled that space for me, providing me with a space of companionship, camaraderie, and like-minded interest in sustainable grassroots development. I’m so grateful that they welcomed me and encouraged me to stretch myself through involvement in their programs, while remaining very flexible and cognizant of my project goals. Despite setbacks and delays to my project caused by the whims of rainy season weather and the inherent frustrations of working in remote communities, I’m very happy I made the decision to work with OB. They opened doors for me to visit places and meet people that I never would have found on my own.

It’s easy to describe what I’ve learned about crafts: I can now weave on a backstrap loom, and I even learned a simple form of brocada weaving, the enormously time-consuming technique that produces the amazing patterns that make Guatemalan textiles famous. (I also learned rug-hooking—it’s funny to have learned that American folk art technique here). Weaving has been lovely. Although learning this new skill takes practice, the motions that once felt stilted and awkward have begun to feel smooth and natural. My weaving lessons have reinforced what I already knew about myself: that I love to make things with my hands. Processes that would be tedious for some people are for me an opportunity to engage my body while letting my mind go. In the Mayan belief system, backstrap weaving has always been women’s work, associated with the processes of birth and creation. I now understand the deep satisfaction and the suggestive metaphorical power of making a pile of sticks come alive into a loom, and a length of fragile thread become cloth. For me, learning to weave has also been a way of feeling connected to the Mayan women around me–through direct relationships with my weaving teachers, and an indirect sense of understanding with the thousands of women who keep the backstrap weaving tradition very much alive.

Partly because of lack of opportunity but more because of my own decisions, I haven’t pursued the idea of environmental consciousness connected with craft as much as I imagined I would. Though the vast majority of weavings produced in Guatemala today use synthetically dyed thread that is definitely not environmentally friendly, there are a few weaving groups that use natural dyes, and I had the opportunity to visit one such cooperative. Many natural dye formulas used in the past have been forgotten, and I was interested to find out that the natural dye recipes that this cooperative now uses were taught by an American textile artist. This group’s decision to use natural dyes stemmed more from an economic incentive to differentiate their product than from pure environmental consciousness. Before I leave Guatemala, I am excited to visit another natural dye group and hopefully a group working in Guatemala City’s dump to transform trash into jewelry.

What I’ve learned about crafts and community is a little more complicated and harder to pin down. Reading over my project proposal recently, I was struck by the optimistic and idealistic way that I described craft production as a catalyst for positive change for women and their communities. Though I definitely haven’t lost that optimism (I hope I never will!) my perspective has been tempered and complicated by a more concrete understanding of the realities of craftswomen’s lives. For women who have had limited or no formal education, weaving and embroidery are often the only skills they can draw on. The market is flooded with textiles, driving prices so low that the sale price barely covers materials, let alone a fair compensation for labor. Membership in a weaving organization is not necessarily empowering, either personally or economically, on its own. Some groups struggle with lack of organization and infighting, and others have trouble finding a market in which to sell their products. Struggle is the norm. There is hope, however, and I think OB’s tailored educational programs give their groups an edge that will help them propel themselves toward their goals.

As part of my work with OB I had the unique opportunity to help with an asset-mapping project in a small community, Xeabaj II, which was displaced five years ago by Hurricane Stan and has since been struggling to achieve economic sustainability. I find the idea of community asset-mapping fascinating as a development strategy: the idea being that every community, no matter how impoverished, has strengths and resources that they can draw upon in order to build for the future. As part of this process, I individually interviewed all 14 women in the artisan group that OB works with. Through conducting these interviews and staying in the women’s homes, I was granted the privilege of experiencing their lives. And despite the poverty and the challenges, I did find resources. For example: hard work, perseverance, an incredible resiliency after trauma; an intensely communitarian mindset that was foreign to my Western perspective, in which individual interests are truly subsumed by concern for the family and the community more broadly; an incredible hospitality and generosity which I experienced as a guest in their homes; a determination to live joyfully even in the face of adversity. And, through weaving and wearing their unique, amazing traje indigena, women are proudly sustaining their cultural heritage. I’m witnessing firsthand how women can be natural community developers, thinking in terms of their children and families—though often sacrificing their own dreams and goals to provide for the future.

It often takes some time for me to fully realize the personal changes and growth that I undergo as a result of meaningful new experiences, so I imagine that it will take a while to understand how this Watson year is changing me. Already, though, I notice that I’ve become more comfortable and in tune with both my introverted side and my extraverted side. I’ve discovered that being on my own can be deeply satisfying, and that I am pretty good company for myself. At times when I question my path, I’ve learned to rely on my own reflection and thought processes instead of immediately asking for the advice of others. At the same time, I’ve bolstered my confidence in my ability to interact with people: strangers, people of other cultures, people who speak languages that are unintelligible to me, people who have very different visions of the world. I’ve grown in my appreciation of how other people contribute to my life and happiness. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how meaningful and uplifting even the smallest interactions can be.

Three months: the days and weeks have passed quickly, and I’m realizing how much I need to savor this wonder-filled year of my life. I’m so grateful to feel the incredible joy of learning every single day, and being challenged (intellectually, artistically, emotionally) by engaging myself with the world. I’m trying to push myself beyond fulfilling my project goals: to also take advantage of my amazing freedom and independence to imagine my ideal life, and then try to live it one day at a time. Seek out and revel in natural beauty. Fuel my own creativity. Make time for art. Eat delicious and healthy food. Write. Indulge in daydreams. Above all, I am trying to embrace the beauty of this experience, which to me appears to be that I came to Guatemala to study women’s craft organizations, but am learning so much more along the way: how to fry perfect plantains, how to make (admittedly less-than-perfect) tortillas. I’m becoming a connoisseur of all kinds of transportation, from tuk tuks to chicken buses to the bumpy backs of pickup trucks. I’m learning that the sight of volcanoes rising out of the mist never fails to make me catch my breath. Qué rica, esta vida!