by Brandi Nuse-Villegas
As we go about our Christmas shopping this year, why not do something different? Instead of just shopping for the best deal, spend your money on items that will not only delight the recipient, but also help those in need in our world.
A year ago, I got to meet some incredible women in Northern Uganda, East Africa. This household of Congolese women and girls, and some of their boys, decided to all dress in vibrant red when they welcomed a friend and me to their home. We were invited to join in their worship, their play, and other daily activities, and my breath was taken away by their joy, their passion, their playfulness, and their atmosphere–shaking, singing, and dancing as they praised God. They shared their stories of very painful realities and redemption, while they exuded gratefulness.
I also watched them as they took long, thin strips of old calendar pages and fashioned these into beads, which were added to growing piles and strings around them. The beads, which were then fashioned into thoughtfully designed necklaces, were one piece of a creative, life-giving alternative to a more heartbreaking way of life.
The women were part of a ministry called Zion Project, which was started in Gulu, Uganda to help war-affected women and girls and their children. These amazing Congolese women had been trafficked into Gulu from Congo by Ugandan soldiers and then abandoned, without legal status, financial support, or a grasp of the local languages. In order to survive and provide for their children, the women were forced into prostitution. Then the women came to the Zion Project house to live, where they were given care and a means of financial provision with the paper beads. They received compensation for making the beads and profits from sales went to keeping the house going.
I treasure a necklace that was draped onto my neck as a gift by the housemother, Mama Miriam, when I was in Gulu. I also purchased many other necklaces to bring back here to others.
Products With Purpose
Like Zion Project, there are a large, growing number of organizations and businesses that have gone online, and local, offering a myriad of fantastic, well made products that have a great significance and a story behind them.
These groups are offering products that were made under fair business practices, with fair pay, and with the intention of empowering people vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. The products actually are helping to end the very real global and national problem of slavery, which currently holds 27 million people in the world, including the U.S. By buying their products, the people employed/ supported by these businesses are given an opportunity to emerge from poverty, and be freed from those who would take advantage of their situation to manipulate them into some form slavery, including sex trafficking. It also provides competition, and a message, to businesses that buy and sell products with no regard to how the workers are treated. Not only that, but the items I’ve come across are great products–often unique, and exceptional in quality.
Fairly made products are not limited to handicrafts, but are available in a growing range of categories including clothing, rugs, travel mugs, scissors, soccer balls, backpacks, baby supplies, Bible covers, skin care products, original artwork, coffee, chocolate, and more. Many products are really cool, like “Punjammies”, Indian styled sleepwear. I want to invite and encourage readers to depart from the typical this Christmas (and throughout the year) and shop with these businesses for your gifts.
Where to Find Them?
One could simply look for the product they want with the term “fair trade” in their internet search.
However, in order to put many of these online shops together to make it easier to shop fair trade, I recently started a website called Global Love Shopping . I’m pleased to find that that others have done the same, such as Shoptostopslavery.com and Freetoshop.com. Many online stores like Global Exchange, sell a variety of products from different groups with easy search features. We also have the benefit of a local store featuring empowering products called World Handicrafts on G Street in Reedley.
You can even find many fair trade products in local stores—just keep a look out for coffee, chocolate, and other products that have a “fair trade label.” I first came across these shops several years ago as I searched for shoes that I could confidently say were made with fair business practices. I was inspired by the Bible to seek out products that did not encourage exploitation, but empowered people. During my search I came across Tom’s Shoes, which gives a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair purchased, a business that I’m glad to see become very popular. I encourage you, as you shop, to check out the stories and the purpose behind each shop.
Since I left Gulu, the Zion Project house transitioned into a place for girls placed there by their mothers in order to keep their daughters from being abused and forced into prostitution as they were. Over the past year, I have received reports of the girls going to school for the first time, constantly excited, and thriving.
Founder Sarita Henrickson said that Zion Project has the opportunity to grow in reaching out in Jesus’ love to more Congolese women who have been opening themselves to a new life, and leaving prostitution, even before they had any other way to keep themselves fed. The women have been participating in a group counseling program. Zion Project recently reorganized and extended the paper bead business to provide jobs for these women who still live in their own houses. Recently, they also launched an online store to make their business accessible to a larger audience and make business more viable for a larger group of women.
Many organizations, such as World Vision, are offering a creative way to donate through gift catalogs, where you can give money for specific needs, such as warm clothing for a child, or chicks or a goat to support a family. A list of organizations I support that have such gift catalogs are on my website. See if the organization you support has one as well.
I hope that as people explore and familiarize themselves with these groups and their products, the exposure will not only shape our shopping habits, but will shape our perspectives, our minds, and our lives. I look forward to hearing more stories and seeing people partner together in creative ways to help one another thrive. You can also keep your eyes open for handmade products made here, that support the people in our own communities.