Saturday, May 15, 2010

Letter from Siham Craftlink

To our surprise the vehicle that we were being driven in came to an abrupt halt. There at the beginning of a narrow track were two rickshaw carts waiting to transport the “Aussies” the last couple of kilometres along a narrow track to visit the Bagdha Hemp Project in Agailjhara, in South Western Bangladesh. Where do we put our legs? What do we hang onto as the driver/ rider pulls us along behind his bicycle over the bumpy track? We didn’t have much time to think about it as we were soon on our way, with the “Aussies” hysterically laughing.

Driving across numerous waterways

We alighted as graciously as possible to be greeted by the leader of this group. We were taken to a little building, the walls made of tin sheeting to see a sea of beautiful faces and the click clack of knitting needles. About forty women were sitting on grass matting on the floor and although they watched our movements carefully, the ladies didn’t miss a beat with the click clack of the needles. The day we visited, the ladies were very busy making items for the Body Shop in the United Kingdom.

Group of ladies

Bagdha Hemp project started in 1982 with 18 people. It was then that Shahjahan Miah, a Project Development Officer from Mennonite Central Committee Job Creation programme began employing very poor women from Bagdha Village. Since hemp was very readily available in this area, Shahjaha initially started to teach the women how to make rope and twine.
Making hemp twine

Hands at work
Today there are 91 regular workers and also 91 seasonal workers employed. The number working at any one time depends on the orders received. Many of the women work from their homes , but visit the centre every couple of days to receive new supplies and drop off their work.

The variety of products has also grown greatly beyond the initial rope and twine. There are hemp bags, wash cloths, hemp hair ties and hemp angel decorations to name a few. Siham Craftlink provides a selection of these items in its wholesale range. Within the Bagdha Hemp Project, there is also a woodworking component and we may be purchasing some salad bowls and toys in the future. In the display room adjacent to where the women were working, I saw some interesting Bamboo chimes. Mmmm , couldn’t resist them and they have been ordered and will be a arriving in June ( in a very big sea shipment)

Hemp twine and completed products

 Artisan making hemp body washers
We were told that before this project was established, some of the women and their families ate the stem of the lotus plant as their main sustenance. Today the women are able to provide food for their families as well as pay for their childrens education. Anima Badda shared with me ( through an interpreter) that she was married at 12 years and her husband had no income. A neighbour asked Bagdha to give her work. She was accepted and although she had only basic skill, this improved over time and now she is one of the most skilled workers at this project. Today her son attends university and her daughter is a graduate. As Anima said, her life has completely changed because of Bagdha. She had no hope in life before.

Pam interviewing Anima Badda

Before the hemp twine reaches the stage where the ladies can knit and crochet amazing items, there are several processes involved. The hemp fibres are cleaned through a very large metal comb. This is very physical work as the bundle is repeatedly “thrown” into the comb. It takes about 2 hours to clean 5 kgs of hemp fibre.

Hemp being cleaned with large metal comb

It was fascinating seeing the twine developing from a handful of hemp fibre. In an area outside, there are 6 bamboo posts with holes which is used for the spinning. It is helpful to look at the photos here. As the twine is being processed the ladies walk backwards until 50 metres length of hemp twine has been reached. The twine can be 2,4 or 6 ply. The twine is then boiled to prevent shrinkage.

Walking backwards as twine gets longer and longer

The ladies looked so happy. One lady said, “everyone is my friend". The ladies are grateful to have the opportunity to change their life circumstances around. The same lady said, ”without work I wouldn’t be able to live".

I would have liked to stay longer watching the creative magic of these gentle ladies but it was already late afternoon and we had another project, Jabopar to visit. And of course another rickshaw cart ride! That story is for another day.

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