Interview with Katie Doyle of the Virunga Artisans, art and business venture in Central Africa improving living conditions while funding mountain gorilla conservation

 

First of a regular series, this interview spotlights a group or individual which people with Synchronized Chaos find interesting for some reason. People bringing about positive change in their communities, people innovating something new in some field of human experience, people with a compelling story. This month we focus on the Virunga Artisans, an international business cooperative marketing the craftsmanship of skilled weavers and carvers in central Africa’s Virunga montane forest region. This interview explores the opportunities and complexities of adapting products and business models for a world market and provides readers a glimpse of the cross-cultural learning process. Also, we intend to provide a wider audience for works of art which also serve as practical household objects. Many works of art challenge boundaries and dichotomies and blend purposes and styles – and these baskets and carvings bridge the gap between the pragmatic and the ‘artistic’ and show that even practical human activities can be seen as ‘art’ when approached with a high level of skill, craftsmanship, and innovation.

         

Virunga’s history and products are available here: http://www.virungaart.com

 Entrepreneurs Richard Cunningham and Katie Doyle regularly traveled through central Africa’s mountain highlands, but nothing prepared them for encountering one of the last remaining mountain gorillas.

            “The experience of sitting just a few feet away from a 500-pound silverback and his family, and making that connection with our closest relatives, was truly a life changing experience,” describes Doyle.

            According to the International Gorilla Conservation Program, the mountainous forested park encompassing parts of Uganda, D.R. Congo, and Rwanda provides a home for the world’s roughly 700 still-existing mountain gorillas.

            On the park’s border lie several country villages with skilled weavers, carvers, and coffee and tea farmers. Within the past few years, Cunningham and Doyle helped to create an international business venture, the Virunga Artisans (named for the Virunga/Bwindi highland areas.)

            The Virunga venture provides extra capital and international marketing for the baskets and other useful household products produced by the region’s people, offers profitable alternatives to developing land within the gorilla reserve, and allows a percentage of profits to fund continued gorilla preservation. <!–more–>

            Virunga Arts products have spread around the United States mostly through word of mouth and personal connections, and are now featured in galleries and specialty stores far from the project’s U.S. headquarters in Orinda, California.

            I discovered Virunga’s product line in a Pleasanton art gallery this past spring, and became intrigued by the story of how the project got started – through the grassroots efforts and creative thinking of individual people from various parts of the world.

            I believe the Virunga project represents a workable, rational, profitable and sustainable business model, and that their baskets, carvings, and other projects could benefit from being marketed as quality ordinary household products as well as works of art. Items people would consider buying when they need a jewelry basket or table centerpiece, tea, coffee, or something to decorate a living room – and found in regular department stores and not restricted to the upscale boutique market.

            Through email and through an introduction by the gallery owner, I’ve conducted an interview with Katie Doyle, one of Virunga’s founders. She shared some unique, interesting, and generally positive stories about the business’ startup phase and overall success.

 

            What was the process of setting up Virunga like? Were the local people receptive to the idea of producing their baskets for a world market? Has it been difficult to expand the scope of the business?

 

            Sorry for the delay…good news is we are very busy!

The process of setting up VA was positive.  The people, especially the women, were very excited about making money. Some of the women in Uganda had never held money before.  The carvers were a little more apprehensive, as folks had come and made promises but never delivered.

 

Do you have any interesting anecdotes about the people involved in the project, about your experiences becoming familiar with East African culture, about the story of Virunga? What has it been like working with people on the other side of the world? Was it easy/difficult/interesting to bridge the cultures?

 

It has been very challenging working with people on the other side of the world.  We had no idea what we were getting into, as there is no culture of commerce at all in this region.  They have so little, that explaining the need for consistent sizes, quality, or colors didn’t seem to mean anything to them at first.

 

Cultural differences.  One of our key goals is to for the artisans to be able to make a decent living while maintaining the integrity of local economic and social values.  We want to respect and encourage the local culture, just help them have better lives.  But it is challenging, as our worlds are so far apart.

 

[Once they made a whole set of orange baskets] when we had ordered many other colors (none orange) and when we asked why they said it was because they had orange dye. And they couldn’t understand what the problem was…we still got our baskets [and they’d be useful regardless of color!]

 

It is like peeling an onion, the more you know…the more you don’t know.  Why don’t the women come to the hut to make baskets and why don’t girls go to school every day?  Answer: they have no underpants or sanitary products!  So then we had panties made for all the women and girls so they could make baskets and go to school.  Why didn’t they fill an order that we sent?  Answer: they have to harvest the crops that month, and with no electricity they couldn’t work at night.  Yet they won’t tell you that in advance.

 

Also, [it’s been challenging] trying to explain about our web site and the internet. We’re used to the idea that people see a photo and expect to receive something which looks close to that, but the concept at first seemed to go right over the artisans’ heads.  There is now one computer in Nkuringo but it has no internet access, so they still don’t really know what we are talking about…except now they trust us as we have been true to our word about providing long term buyers.

 

What has been the most personally interesting, or gratifying aspect of working with Virunga? What would you say has been your greatest success, and your greatest challenge so far?

 

[We all have] great positive stories also about how Virunga Artisans has changed the local people’s lives. One woman bought a cow, many bought chickens and started egg businesses, one bought an ax and saw (her husband might watch out!), many bought pencils and uniforms for their girls to go to school for the first time….all so rewarding for us.

 

The women have gone from looking at their feet when we first met them with no hope, to dancing and singing for us in a very formal ceremony each time…now optimistic about the future.

 

The most gratifying has been seeing the change. Women are now very positive…and the carvers are changing from surly teenagers to highly productive young men, several with cell phones. 

 

How is Virunga able to be competitive in the slowing Western economy? What special features do your products have that continue to attract customers? How do you generate interest/help get the word out about the project?

 

There’s been a very positive response to our story here in the US.  Great woman-to-woman connection between the artisans and the largely female consumers.

 

And people such as Manda Heron, owner of the Bodytime chain, totally embracing our project, carrying all of our products even though her store sells primarily soaps and lotions.  And she has sold them all!  She put up a 36”poster of the Kinigi weavers in her windows and this was the most successful promotion they had ever had.  So her loving what we were doing…and being willing to support our products…ended up being a real positive for her too. 

 

And the wonderful people I have met, like Manda, and folks involved in the Fair Trade Federation all seem to be really nice with their hearts in the right place…very different from my corporate experience.

[Both Katie Doyle and her husband Richard Cunningham have MBAs and experience with the Western corporate world.]

 

We generate interest through personal connections primarily. A friend of a friend who has a store, connections at the African Wildlife Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund (used to be on their national council), Fair Trade Federation, and the Global Philanthropy Forum (they used our large baskets as centerpieces this year.

 

There has been a bit of a slowdown for us due to the economy and our prices are increasing due to fuel.  But if folks are going to spend money they seem to support the Virunga Artisans because we have the highest quality at a good price…and we “do good” …makes them feel like mini philanthropists.

 

[Note: To give Synchronized Chaos readers an idea, the baskets are available online for cheaper prices (around $20/$30 each) than I have seen in the galleries.]

 

Are the local people interested in gorilla preservation? What is their attitude towards wildlife and nature? Do they visit the gorilla refuge and park?

 

Most of our artists have not seen the gorillas, except if they have come out of the park to raid their crops in Uganda. That doesn’t happen too much in Rwanda.  The weavers don’t really want to go, but we are paying to have the carvers visit them a few at a time.  They are very interested in gorilla conservation, especially when they see that they can make money from tourists.

 

I am aware of the 17% increase in local gorilla populations recently – please share more about what’s happening ecologically and the successes with wildlife.

 

You can find out a lot more about mountain gorilla conservation at AWF.org under species “gorillas.” With such a dense population it is challenging work to protect the gorillas. We are finding that the greatest threat is human interaction and disease transmission (more info at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project’s website, MGVP.org).  The tourists who have brought in the revenues to keep them alive are now themselves the greatest threat. 

 

MGVP is developing a ‘one health concept’ to include care and attention for people and animals and gorillas…very innovative.  Of course it is totally different in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as people and animals are threatened mainly by charcoal warlords showing their power and the soldiers getting way too close to the gorillas.

 

[Editor’s note: According to the MGVP website, mountain gorillas are the only great ape species whose numbers are actually growing. Although still seriously endangered, their numbers have grown from around 248 to around 360 just in Rwanda alone.]

 

Thanks for your time, and for the detailed answers and information you provided about the Virunga Artisans project! Glad to hear of a grassroots business model for developing a region’s resources for the benefit of humans as well as local wildlife that has proved profitable and successful.

Michelle Meijs’ Dreamscape Images

Michelle Meijs combines traditional and digital media. She creates the initial drawings with pencil on paper and the circulism shading technique, then the image is scanned and replicated with a graphics pen & tablet. She has no formal art training, so is self-taught and learns through trial & error. At the moment, she’s exploring other media such as watercolors and gauche, and will take her drawings to a new stage in the future.  A few of her works have been featured in a graphics novel, and on a music CD album cover.

Michelle was born in Jamaica, but has resided in Curacao since 1990. She had her first art exhibition here in Curacao last November, and is now preparing new works for an “Island Theme” show.

You may find Michelle’s art and contact/purchase information here: http://www.thenightvisions.net

"State of Polarity"

"State of Polarity"

"The Healing"

"The Healing"

"Hope"

"Hope"

 

 

Synchronized Chaos’ August Submissions

 

Sparkle
by Inez Romanescu
 
 
Eyes of desire
Radiating love so strong
It tans my skin
Warms chilled bones
Too selfish of me
To keep for myself
 
A flowerless man
Rejected and declined
Tries to capture
Food and comfort
Ultimately to find
Joy in that look
 
Men lit by monitors
Feeds of convenience
Unnourished
Posting ads on sites
Desperately searching
For ocular glow
 
Little girl abused
Grown up broken, now
Self-exploiting
Sassy cynic, still
Vulnerable to that look
If she finds it
 
I’ve done nothing
More deserving than they
But your love lit here
I, made diamond bright
Reflect facets for those
Needing a sparkle

 

— Inez Romanescu

 

your coat of sugar is long gone
that trail of poison is so evident, don’t make me tell you another time
i can’t have succubus
i can’t have judah
i can’t have cling-on
i can’t have slime
gnash your teeth all you like you are
not going to infiltrate my life
go wrap those claws around another specimen
we are done here

and here is another little short sample:

i am falling like an empire
i am starting to enjoy that sensation of falling. leaves
rain love
these things are good
and they fall
i will ride a sun beam
all the way the bottom

and here is a little piece that i wrote about gender:

i want to wear lipstick 
and blush and eye liner
and thick gobs of mascara
really caked on
then wipe it all off and
scream:
fuck your beauty standards i am
fabulous with out face paint
i want to wear baby doll dresses
under trenchcoats with
a top hat
and 3 days stubble
commando of course
i like my hair short so
when i go out in my tight tight jeans and
pretty scarves and ambiguous shoes
 people see me from
behind they don’t really
know what to expect they
could think im a dyke
or a girly man
or something else
or or or.
i like it this way
blurry
i like it this way
hard to define
someone on the bus
said what is he
haha
what are you

— D.B. Smith, free verse poet

 

But boy,
i sense your presence but why don’t you see me?
i feel like crying, yet my eyes are dry.
You always said no one was there,
But i was,
acting as a shadow,
walking behind you..

A photo can say a thousand things
your face always has me stoned,
and i was always, as usual, lost for words.
But i believe a photo could show a story of who we were,
but do you still remember me? (i hoped)
 

Father, father were you ever there?
i sense your presence everywhere.
I tried to dream of you, really hard.
But sometimes they say,
people try to hard,
yet get nowhere

I wished, there was a bridge between you and me.
That i don’t have to be dead to cross over.

Surrounded by people but truly so alone
People going and coming,
Losing myself bit by bit,
in this world full of ugliness
Its no wonder why people nod and agree.
why dying could be a bliss.

BUT THEY SAY.
Time can heal a broken heart,
time can nurse a wound as well.

but why couldn’t time allow me to forget you?
& time should also,
let me be at rest,
and let this pain,
slowly walk away.

 Dreams were dreamt
yet they were dashed,
since everyone knew no one was perfect,
why bother?

 Fiona Soh – writer from Singapore, her work is available here: http://community.livejournal.com/poetssociety/3373882.html

Odysseus

Dorothy Hickson

Odysseus, come lash me to the mast
That burns priapic on the deck – make taut
The ropes; secure me ’til the danger’s past.
I have no safeword; every word is fraught.

 

Faintly begin the raptor maiden moans –
Now keep the rudder straight, and rowers pull!
Lest sunken wrecks and coral-coated bones
Scuttle my ragged clause and hole your hull.

 

The deafened seamen toil fore and aft
Past monstrous hybrids singing, each to us –
It’s too late to reverse this fragile craft,
So lash me to your mast, Odysseus!

 

I need the Sirens’ music in my ears
More than I need to be the one who steers
.

 

Dorothy Hickson is a writer and yoga junkie living in Columbia Heights, D.C. She has a day-job proofreading radio transcripts and scribbles madly on the subway. You can go to www.dorothyhickson.com/tumult.html for a few more scraps of her writing. She is currently seeking a publisher for her first novel.

 

 

Fran Laniado is a graduate of Bard College. She’s had several day jobs, but writing is her passion. Her work has appeared in publications including Verse Noir, Pure Talent Online, OperaOnline.us, and New Works Review. She is honored to be a part of Synchronized Chaos.


The Smell of Onions

 

 Fran Laniado

     

Fran Laniado is a graduate of Bard College. She’s had several day jobs, but writing is her passion. Her work has appeared in publications including Verse Noir, Pure Talent Online, OperaOnline.us, and New Works Review. She is honored to be a part of Sychronized Chaos.
      

Lucia hated onions. She hadn’t always. She could faintly remember a time in her childhood, when the smell of her mother cooking onions was a comforting, pleasant sensation. But it had been warm then. The onions were not cold but spiced with the secrets of her mother’s recipe. That had been when she was a child. When she still saw them as food- as a mere vegetable and not the bane of her existence.

             Her hatred had developed over the course of the past eighteen months, working with them; unloading them from the picker’s crates and loading them into the boxes in which they would be shipped to the markets. Working twelve to fourteen hours a day, her eyes had finally stopped tearing up, but the smell had seeped into all of her clothing. It had invaded her pores. No matter how much she scrubbed in the tiny cold shower that her employer provided her and Pedro with, she couldn’t rid herself of the subtlest remnants of its reek.

Continue reading

Creating Abundance through Imagination


We’ve received a great variety of submissions so far and have nearly 12-15 artists’ work to include in the August issue. Thanks to everyone who has submitted or contributed in any other way – and we accept submissions at any time to my email address, cedeptula@sbcglobal.net for this or upcoming issues.

Many of our artists sell prints of their work online, or are in the process of finding publishers and agents for longer written works. We will provide links and information regarding this once the webzine goes up, and we strongly encourage you to contact our artists regarding purchasing their work.

We also own the www.synchchaos.org domain and will redirect people here soon.
In terms of putting our title into action, discovering a theme from all of the ‘random’ works submitted…that of course is up to readers and contributors also, but what I’ve noticed is a trend towards creative uses of various materials and sources from which to draw inspiration. Emily Chimiak’s scientific background informs her evocative paintings, reflecting the internal thermal molecular movement of objects around us. Fran Laniado’s short story is inspired by the hardships and disorientation, yet strong sense of family love and loyalty of Mexican migrant workers – and the plot concept hit her during an academic lecture she attended. Siiri Kohonen’s combined digital images reflect shapes, colors, and images from daily life which he finds interesting or surprising and picks out to modify and explore. Artists are innovating new sources for creative inspiration, and new ways to draw upon familiar ones.

This concept is refreshing now with the media and our daily experiences with the economic downturn sending us constant messages of fear regarding terrorism, environmental crises, wars, shortages, financial crises, etc where we are tempted to give up, to shrink our creativity and focus just on protecting ourselves.

However, the international artists in August’s Synchronized Chaos issue have shown, through a wide variety of projects, that the everyday moments, natural and human-made phenomena, tragedies, and challenges facing our world can be transformed through art and curiosity into positive opportunities for growth and invention. The Virunga Artisans, a group of basket weavers and carvers in east/central Africa profiled in this issue, represent a path towards wildlife conservation that also encourages dignified creative work for the area’s locals. They offer a creative alternative to the binary thinking which so often gets people stuck: animals OR people, progress OR traditional culture, etc and illustrate an innovative, rather than paralyzing, response to the fears of mountain gorilla extinction or of facing dire poverty in the region.

Perhaps inspiring people to choose creative growth rather than self-shrinkage in the face of personal, societal, and ecological fears and challenges is one of the crucial functions of art. Perhaps it is our writers, our painters, our playwrights, our graphic designers, our scientists and dreamers and inventors who can encourage us to transform our fear into an impetus for useful adaptation to a new era. And perhaps it is they who can lead the way in inspiring a more compassionate, inclusive future by promoting the creative ability to imagine another’s perspective, to put ourselves in another living creature’s place.

I take this opportunity to thank everyone who has already contributed to August’s feast of creative abundance, and encourage people to continue submitting for future issues and to pull themselves up a chair and enjoy the banquet!

— Cristina Deptula, Creative Facilitator

 

Synchronized Chaos Webzine coming very soon!

Hello interested webzine readers – our Synchronized Chaos site should be up very soon. Our webdesigner, Tabitha Smith (www.tabithagracesmith.com) is currently customizing the site. Please comment and let me know if any of you are interested in assisting with updating the website once it goes up and I will have you added as a site admin.

Such a great variety of submissions – looking forward to the July/August issue! We’ve received rhymed/metered and free verse poetry, prose, and visual art, and I’ve written up an interview with someone from the Virunga Artisans, a fair trade art/household goods business cooperative in central Africa. This has become truly an international project, as our first round of artists hail from every continent except Antarctica and Australia (so far.)

Very grateful for and humbled by the time and effort people have put into crafting quality submissions for Synchronized Chaos, and by contributors’ willingness to share the interesting, unique stories behind their work. I encourage any literary agent or publishing house editor who may come across this magazine to consider the artists here for publication. Many of our contributors have larger works completed or in progress for which they seek representation or publication, and I can certainly vouch for their talent and dedication.

As always, the most valuable and rewarding aspect of helping put Synchronized Chaos together has been developing relationships with highly talented and creative people. It is a privilege to have the chance to meet and talk with each of the contributors and I wish them well in their further artistic and other pursuits.

Every field of work or study can be pursued with creativity and ingenuity, whether the work is traditionally considered ‘art’ or not – and I hope perusing the other works in this magazine will provide additional inspiration and support for the creative endeavors of our contributors and readers.

A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on to canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is, in itself, a living thing. — William Dobell

Thank you again for helping in the creation of Synchronized Chaos, which has become a living thing in itself through the process of combining our joint efforts.

an interdisciplinary art, literary, science, cultural, and travel writing webzine