I work here in Ecuador for a fair trade company. We work with artisans who make handmade jewelry. I think most fair trade companies, we somewhat unconsciously promote the idea that all our artisan partners are just lovely people who are something not unlike charming little elves- whistling while they work- always smiling, and always perfectly happy.
The reality is much more complicated. Because, like people everywhere, sometimes they can actually be difficult to work with (even if we don’t mention that detail in the inspirational blog post). They miss deadlines, they are disorganized, we have problems with the quality, we have disagreements about payments, we have disagreements about prices, they sell our designs to our competitors, supplies disappear. Not everyone, not all the time, but it’s the non-glamorous reality to all the smiling faces in our marketing materials.
Additionally, there is always a lot of time pressure- we have to make client deadlines, so if things are running late, it means we stay until 2am bagging and packing thousands of necklaces to make a ship date. so when materials providers are late, it causes bad headaches all the way down the chain,
We have one artisan, a seed provider I’ll call her “Maria” who at times we find to be extra ‘challenging’. Although my interactions with her (as the big boss) have pretty much always been positive, over the years she’s caused my staff to rip their hair out in frustration. In general, the concept of ‘the customer is always right’ doesn’t exist in Ecuador, but she takes it to a whole new level.
We have regular disagreements about the quantities of materials that she’s billing (Her accounting consists of a crazy stack hand-written school notebooks). When the quality is wrong and she’ll blame us. She ignores our calls. When we are calling to complain about an issue, the call will suddenly “drop” in the middle. But…we’ve worked with her from the very beginning, she has decent prices, she can get the quantities we need , her dyes don’t blead, and I have to admit she has helped us out a number of times when we are up against a tight deadline. So basically, we’re stuck with her.
To cope with that fact, as a means of dealing with the frustrations, she’s become the butt of the occasional of joke in the office. Nothing too awful, but lots of eye rolls and a sarcastic comments.
That’s all a lot of background to set-up the following story:
I’ve always known she has a young daughter with special needs, and in my more generous moments it’s occurred to me that must be a large stress factor in her life (as if running your own small business wasn’t enough of a stress for most people). But the other day she came into the office to review invoices and billing, and I felt my typical moment of ‘argh, I wish I could avoid this”.
But there was nothing to be done, and when she came we made small talk, which turned into something so unexpected. It was the week after the earthquake, and so that was the only topic people could talk about. I knew she had a brother who lived in the affected area, and so I asked how he was.
“It was incredible, but thanks to God they were all fine,” she answered. “ Just one wall in their kitchen collapsed -ut it was a miracle that they weren’t hurt.”
She when on, “In the moment right before the earthquake, my brother’s young son was playing with a ball and by chance kicked it out the door so ran out chasing it into the yard. Then their baby was crawling around, and he followed his brother also out the door into the yard. Then finally my sister-in-low, seeing the baby run out, rushed out after them both – and in that very instant the earthquake hit and the wall in their kitchen collapsed inward.” So they all avoided being crushed by that narrow bit of fate or providence.
She also told me another story from the earthquake, which apparently is spreading all up and down the coast among the survivors. There was an old beggar woman, filthy and wretched going up and down the beach, stopping at restaurants asking for food. Each one sent her away with insults and curses, until she got to the final restaurant, where one of the waiters took pity on her and told her to wait a few minutes until when they would be able to get something to give her. With that offer of kindness, she said thank you and then ominously predicted ‘just wait to see what will happen to the others’. And then a few moments later the earthquake hit, and all the other restaurants were destroyed and only that one kind waiter survived.
Consuelo and I expressed a good bit of skepticism at this story, sounds so widely exaggerated as to have to be made-up, but at seeing our disbelief Maria exclaimed, “No! I believe in these things! I know them to be true!” And she told me the most interesting personal story:
Her special needs daughter is now 6, and I have seen firsthand only small bit of how difficult she can be. But Maria described that how when she was younger the situation was just impossible. In tears, she told us about how her daughter was constantly, completely out of control. She had extreme emotional outbursts, she would become very violent and hysterical at the slightest provocation; she would smear feces everywhere and Maria could never take her daughter out in public. Maria described her as a person who was completely insane or possessed. Although she had been trying to work with professionals, there had been no improvements and she was utterly, exhausted depressed and at the end of her rope. Then one day during a therapy session the daughter began to eat her feces in front of the therapist, and even the therapist was like, I have no idea what to do with her anymore. I have no idea how we can ever help her.’ And Maria hit rock bottom. In that moment she decided there was no way she could live like this anymore, so she decided that when she got home that afternoon she would drink poison and give it to her daughter too, killing them both.
But then, as they were walking back to their house, suddenly in front of the church and old man appeared and began to walk with them, talking with her. And I quote you exactly she said “it was like he had known me my entire life.” “He just talked to me like he knew me, like he knew everything about me, and like he knew what I was about to do. He told me not to worry about my daughter, that she was going to be ok, that I didn’t need to be so worried and stressed and that it would be all alright.” And then we paused a corner store and I said, let me go and buy some Coke, so I can invite you to my house and where we can continue talking, then suddenly he was gone, and she never saw him again. But that interaction, who Maria thinks was an angel, or even God Himself, gave her the comfort and assurance she needed to keep going.
Flash forward 4 years, and life isn’t easy for Maria and her family and their daughter, they still spend endless hours trying to get her the treatments she needs, taking her to different therapies and treatments and trying anything and everything. But there are vast improvements. The daughter was recently toilet trained. She now has a limited vocabulary, she can understand basic instructions and within a highly structured routine, functions well. The government just per her on Ecuadorian Medicare, and is providing a special education schooling for her, significantly relieving Maria’s family financially and also giving her a solid block of 7 hours a day in which she doesn’t have to be watching over her daughter every moment. And she’s become the light of Maria’s life, the most affectionate and loving child you could hope for. She may still have the occasional tantrum, but most days she’s incredibly sweet and full of hugs and kisses for Maria and her older brothers. As the man promised, things really have turned around.
And I was stunned. Because I had no idea of any of that, of the severity of the difficulties that Maria faced every day. And suddenly I realized that perhaps all the times she had flaked out on us, missing deadlines was because she was spending days in the hospital with her daughter, taking her to get the different tests and treatments she needed. And she would fight with us tooth and nail about making corrections to materials because she had such limited financial resources available to replace damaged pieces. And perhaps when she was difficult to work with and just generally a disagreeable person was because she exhausted and completely emotionally over-taxed, having already given everything she had trying to help her daughter.
And I felt quite bad about the little jokes we had made at her expense. How could I have been so insensitive? There was nothing to be done, expect to gently take her hand, and tell her, completely genuinely, how much I admired her strength to carry on the face of so many struggles.
That and to vow to myself never again would I show such callousness.