At a glance, the multi-colored wallets and handbags on sale at the bookstore may not look extraordinary, but for the Gambian women who made them, they are a commodity of social and economic change. On sale for the first time today, the bags and wallets were each handcrafted by one person. The name of the woman who made the bag is handwritten on a piece of paper inside.
Delivered to Carleton directly from the town of Njau, in the tiny West African country of The Gambia, the purses and wallets are constructed from the humblest of textiles, garbage bags. With the average Gambian worker making less than $800 annually and the country’s lack of sanitation infrastructure, the streets serve as the repository for garbage.
In 1998, a Peace Corps initiative taught women in the region how to clean, cut, and sew used garbage bags into wallets and over-the-shoulder purses. After the Peace Corps left the project two years later, a Swedish aid organization specializing in saving abandoned Peace Corps projects helped stabilize a co-op for women who learned the trade.
“The co-op in Njau gave the women a place to work and offered long term stability for the project,” Colin Bottles ’09 said. Bottles worked in The Gambia in 2007 and helps distribute the bags in the United States. “Since it’s a co-op, when you buy a bag, you are buying from an individual woman. Therefore the vast majority of the income goes to the specific woman who made your bag.”
The co-op is not just a common space for the women to work, but it provides a humble education in business and personal investment. To participate in the co-op, women must save a portion of their income, which is stored safely in individual safe deposit boxes. With their profits, participants can purchase agricultural land near the co-op and grow crops independently. Bottles said the program provides an empowering social club for Gambian women, and enables self sufficiency. Besides the native Gambian who oversees the co-op, all positions of leadership in the group are democratically elected.
For women—who receive limited education and business opportunity—the skill provides the only available means to independently generate income for their families.
With firm constructs in The Gambia regarding women’s social independence, men often ostracized women for participating in the program. After ten years though, the co-op has only grown. In the first year, six women participated; today that number has grown to almost 70.
“Money talks, you can’t deny how well these women are doing with the business, and now it’s totally accepted in Njau,” Bottles said, “the program is about facilitating equitable and responsible development, and that’s what’s happening.”
Bottles has been distributing the bags and wallets in the Twin Cities, after making a bulk purchase from the co-op this summer. Megan Meyer ’07 told Bottles about the co-op after volunteering in nearby Bwiam, and the two have been soliciting possible sellers in the United States. Currently two businesses, Cool Planet in Minneapolis and Trade Winds in St. Paul, have agreed to purchase and sell the bags, with the Carleton Bookstore currently selling on consignment. The future of the bags at Carleton will depend on how well they sell.
“If we get a good reaction we will buy another round [of bags] outright,” David Schlosser, Director of the Carleton Bookstore, said Thursday, “we will have to see how they sell.”
The wallets and over the shoulder bags are on sale on the lower level of the Carleton bookstore for $9.99.
Although students may feel pessimistic about what she can do, Rankin is the first to say that she will not be able to accomplish anything on her own. “In order for us to make any positive changes at Carleton, we need to hear from the student, first and foremost. That’s why it’s so important that you guys get out there and take this survey in the spring. We just won’t get anywhere without you.”