Connecting with artisans in Egypt

Sometimes life sends you to places that you hadn’t quite planned, hadn’t even really considered, but says go do something interesting there. So I went to Egypt!

  Women artisans celebrating their new bonds of friendships and their accomplishments together from the program.

Women artisans celebrating their new bonds of friendships and their accomplishments together from the program.

Together with my dear friend, soul sister, fellow creative, and empowering trainer Sharmila Karamchandani, this summer we were invited by the wonderful DC-based non-profit Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS) to design and deliver a customized four-day training on product innovation, quality, and marketing to artisans in Cairo. This was in partnership with CEOSS, an Egyptian-based development non-profit, with the support of the US Embassy’s Young Entrepreneurs Program Grant. 

 Sharmila Karamchandani (co-trainer), Ivana Smucker (Director of Programs at HANDS), Amir Roshdy (Programs Supervisor at CEOSS), and me.

Sharmila Karamchandani (co-trainer), Ivana Smucker (Director of Programs at HANDS), Amir Roshdy (Programs Supervisor at CEOSS), and me.

Sharmila and I have known each other for six years, having worked together at Empowered Women International, a non-profit that provides entrepreneurship training and mentorship to immigrant, refugee and low-income women to turn their ideas into successful businesses. She’s a creative multipotentialite – a design educator at the college level, founder of Khush Designs specializing in customized projects, and an artist whose experimentation and command of multiple media is evident in her range of artwork. We were beyond excited for this dream opportunity.

To discover in more detail what the artisans’ particular needs and challenges were, their range of handcrafts, and the cultural context in which we would be working, we met several times with Ivana Smucker, Director of Programs at HANDS.

The program and activities we designed had to be engaging. Everything was to be translated. It had to meet them where they were as artisans and entrepreneurs. It was customized and unique to them. And here’s what happened:

  What's your handmade craft telling you? An activity about seeing, feeling, and describing their handmade craft, and about story and connection. Then sharing with each other and they didn't want to stop.

What's your handmade craft telling you? An activity about seeing, feeling, and describing their handmade craft, and about story and connection. Then sharing with each other and they didn't want to stop.

Their potential as creatives was tapped for developing new and improving on their handmade products. 

Their own voice and unique story in connecting with their handmade products was validated. 

  Woman artisans who sew, embroider, and crochet unique handmade clothing and accessories for their local market.

Woman artisans who sew, embroider, and crochet unique handmade clothing and accessories for their local market.

Their understanding of how creating a step-by-step checklist in producing their products was an ‘ah-ha’ moment – for improving on their time and efforts, their skills, and ensuring greater quality control. 

  Coffee pod jewelry, can top purses, rolled paper jewelry and place mats, and recycled decorative paper, all innovative handmade products.

Coffee pod jewelry, can top purses, rolled paper jewelry and place mats, and recycled decorative paper, all innovative handmade products.

Their ingenuity for finding creative ways to recycle found materials, reuse leftover materials in their production process, and discovering creative ways to salvage imperfect products was a highlight.

And more – a daughter takes all the leftover items from her mother’s handcrafts and makes new, smaller handcrafts (below); a woman takes leftover fabric clothing from her community and remakes them into child and infant clothing; another doesn’t waste even the tiniest of threads from her embroidery, instead stuffing them inside small pillows. A few of them even started discussing how they could reuse each other’s leftover materials in their own products. That was powerful. 

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It was honestly a wild success, beyond anyone’s expectations. It was a combination of all the right elements that made it so. First, accolades go to the CEOSS staff for organizing everything on their end, especially Amir and Remon, and for the honest guidance and support of Ivana Smucker and Jennifer Cate, Executive Director of HANDS.

Then for our phenomenal interpreter Ragaa Ezat, our cultural bridge.

  Ragaa (center), with two artisan participants, made all the difference in the world during the training. She conveyed our collective voices and intensions, our hearts and ideas across Arabic and English. We were all so grateful!

Ragaa (center), with two artisan participants, made all the difference in the world during the training. She conveyed our collective voices and intensions, our hearts and ideas across Arabic and English. We were all so grateful!

And most importantly, all the artisans who showed up. They felt heard. They were seen. They felt valued as artisans and women with ideas. They learned new things about their handmade craft and about themselves. 

  Woodcrafter, candlemaker, and string artist – these phenomenal women were stars. Engy (center) said at the end that she had endless inspiration now.

Woodcrafter, candlemaker, and string artist – these phenomenal women were stars. Engy (center) said at the end that she had endless inspiration now.

Across language, culture, class, religion, and much that would seem to separate us, instead we all came together from the heart – as creatives, as change-makers, as peacemakers, as women can, as women do.