“BAGS of APPEAL” project
01 March 2008
The village of Walahanduwa is situated about 10kms jungleside of the costal town of Galle in South West Sri Lanka where a community of 79 families live who have been re-housed after the Tsunami.
The majority of men were fisher-folk prior to the terrible wave of Boxing Day 2004 and they lost their homes, 73 people from their community and many their livelihoods too.
They were re-housed in a brand new village and all given houses.
Wonderful – on the surface……………………
However the stark reality is somewhat different………they have been given ‘new’ houses and a community centre but with the ‘new village’ has come a whole range of problems.
The village has been built in a geographical dip and when the monsoon rains come the village floods – badly – so badly in fact that 6 of the houses have 3 feet of water/sewage in them for sometimes a whole day.
All the new furniture that has been bought for them gets soaked and the bedding has to be replaced on a regular basis. Added to this the access road has not been finished – or indeed even started! There are deep trenches making it impossible for a car to negotiate the track. Even our mini-bus struggles and we have never attempted to get in there in heavy rain – I am sure this would be even worse. Many of these ‘new’ villages have terrible access roads and it is almost as if the contractors ran out of steam and left the job before the roadways were tackled at all. The heavy rains carve huge trenches into the clay like soil with the resulting problems for vehicular access. Is this anyway for a human being to live?
Personally I think it is incredible that seemingly no research was done into whether the land was suitable for building a village on in the first –place!
How can these visiting NGO’s sleep at night knowing the problems they have created?
The residents have to endure the thought that as soon as it rains they have to go into flood mode.
I came across this village when I had a phone call in the middle of the night last year, from a lady, Frankie Sutton, in Abu Dhabi asking if I could distribute 22 bikes into the village if she transferred the money into my account! She is a teacher in a Boy’s College there and had given a talk to her students about the post Tsunami problems – see website (On the menu scroll to Abu Dhabi Mission Bikes) I was very surprised and asked her how she could trust me? She said she had done some research on-line and found out about me!
Anyway I arranged to meet Chaini who had become the unofficial head of the village, because her English was so good and she could communicate with the International Community directly post Tsunami, and Frankie had met her just after Tsunami – I liked her instantly and arranged for the allocation. In fact there was enough money to buy some sewing machines and a wheelchair too! We became firm friends and she asked if she could help me with my work!
Chaini is married to Indika and they have become an integral part of my team in Sri Lanka. Her English is remarkable for one so young – she is 24 – the respect in which she is held in the village is obvious – she has charisma and drive to succeed which I have great admiration for. She is a great organizer, translator and champions the cause for the underdog! In fact I think she would make a great Prime Minister of Sri Lanka – and would change the Island over night I feel sure.
I very much want to help this little community and one of the ways is to give the women some work.
This is the story so far:
Walahanduwa March 2008
12th March 2008, saw Annemarie Dolan and I heading out to Sri Lanka with a clear plan in mind. We were to set up a sewing workshop to try and help a Tsunami village where the inhabitants were still struggling to move ahead after their terrible ordeal.
More of that later.
This is the story of the setting up of this project – but many other projects were undertaken on the trip too. A little acorn of an idea chewed over during the last Christmas visit was starting to grow. I was at a loss as to how to help these people and then it occurred that as several of them could sew some kind of small workshop might be an option.
I had a manager in mind already – Chaini of course!
I needed serious financial input from Guernsey, and with Rob Gill’s support I approached Sue Whalley of Alliance to see if the idea caught her imagination – it did – she loved it. It fitted neatly into the ‘get rid of plastic’ idea that was growing in momentum both locally and nationally and it had the added bonus if one’s conscience needed any more pricking that you would be helping a village just by buying a bag. Simple!
I approached local companies including Creasey’s, Specsavers, The Blue Diamond Group and the Co-op who all joined Alliance in their enthusiasm to support us. I explained my idea to provide bags both for sale and for retailers to actually put their own goods in. They all injected an equal amount of money, which would provide a sewing machine for the workshop and give them 500 bags each with a screen print of their very own logo.
Irene and David Marsden live in Sri Lanka and have become great friends over the last 2 years. They willingly agreed to help me and be on the ground for at least part of the year to help me get this moving. They managed to find a small old colonial house that was really near to the village, secured it by giving 6 months rental upfront and set about organising repairs to the building. The local monkeys had been using the roof as a playground and the tiles were in total disarray, the electrics needed serious work – in fact the house was given a makeover the like of which would rival any TV show we have here. All done in the space of less than 2 weeks!
Next was the need to set up a company so they approached a companies lawyer and together with my own lawyer Nilanthie they put the process in place.
We arrived on the Thursday 13th March and the very next day a van full of us drove to Matara to buy 4 sewing machines, one overlocker and a cutter.
We were lucky enough to have the help of a friend of Chaini’s called Rosaro who not only was an electrician, but he had worked in a large Government clothing factory too, he was very experienced as a machine engineer and knew all there was to know about the maintenance of these beasts – they are not for the faint hearted! The machines were delivered that afternoon and Rosaro stayed up all night assembling them.
Things were moving very fast – it was very exciting and not a little daunting.
Sunday saw us collect Nilanthie – we drove to Walahanduwa where Chaini had assembled the majority of the village to listen to what we had to tell them. I spoke of how I was there because of Chaini and her amazing grasp of English – of how we had become great friends – of how she had given freely of her time to help us at Christmas with the organisation and delivery of the food parcels and school bags.
I explained carefully that I was sorry not to be able to employ all the people but that we had none of us done anything like this before and we must move slowly and get it right.
I explained that after all the expenses of the workshop were covered we would plough 100% of the profits into the village to enable them to have more facilities. There would be a democratic election of villagers to sit on a committee to decide how best to spend any funds available.
This was all relayed to them by Nilanthie – she took pains to tell them they were very lucky to have Chaini as she had opened up an opportunity for the village and if they all supported it it would benefit them in the long run.
They had no idea why we had come and as the news sank in a woman stood to thank Chaini for helping them. Another rose to her feet to thank us for helping the village and giving them food parcels at Christmas. Quickly followed by another who said she was still using her tea from her parcel. Then a man stood and thanked us for the school bags for the children – he went on to say that no one should be jealous as we were trying to help them. He said if anyone had a problem they should speak out and not mutter about it – no one did.
Phew – it had worried me a little that it was limited to just a few we could employ.
At the end the monk said his piece adding his thanks, and this was followed by vigorous hand shaking. Everyone seemed happy and very enthusiastic.
Next day was Monday and ceremonial opening day. We arrived to find 2 monks and a house full of villagers crammed in all wanting to see the proceedings.
We had employed 4 machinists, 1 overlocker, 1 cutter, 2 helpers one of whom is a trainee machinist (apprentice) – we are keen to develop this – the other is an experienced machinist and is capable of filling in for absenses and helping with finishing and ironing too.
Chaini is employed as the manager with over all responsibility, her husband Indika is in charge of maintenance of the building, the machines, and all freighting issues. Chaini’s father is the ‘watcher’ – security guard – he stays overnight.
Once open the girls started in earnest to sew the designs we had approved. It was all systems go. We had already designed several bags and the cutter was humming satisfyingly while the sewing machines buzzed. We were open for business!
Bags of Appeal was born!!
The rest of that week was spent in furnishing the house with the necessary items. We bought a desk and cupboard for Chaini’s new office, plastic bins for finished items, rubbish, new material etc. an iron and board, a cutting table, stools, a kitchen table, chairs and storage bins. We designed a label and had it printed on calico as a trial run. We are trying to find a more cost effective way to produce large quantities and may have found our answer. We had to find a screen printer to ensure the company logo’s were placed on the bags in the right colours and sizes. We had to incorporate the company, our Companies lawyer did all that for us, we visited the Trade and Export Minister who approved the quality of our samples. This is necessary to get the all important ‘tin ‘ number needed for export. Then we have to apply for exemption form export and import tax as over 70% of the raw product originates in Sri Lanka. Annemarie and I took a great deal of trouble to try and get quality control to be something that comes naturally to all the staff. Over the months ahead we hope to be able to produce a whole range of exciting things.
To date the range includes shoppers of various sizes, purses, fabulous bottle bags, aprons, and some thing we hope will become a must with our students – the Monkey bag – which resembles a sling, which crosses the body and lies on the hip!
There will be a ‘Pukka’ bag for sandwiches and lunches. We are also designing a Man Bag made from pin stripe for the executive’s amongst us! We want to encourage Companies arranging corporate events to order bags of all descriptions from us to put their ‘give aways’ in – they can design the style they want and we will logo it up!
We use Calico as the base cream fabric and hand loom (which is generally a looser weave in vibrant colours – for example lime greens, fuchsia pinks, burnt oranges – all the colours one associates with Asia). Linings are also in a variety of shades with fabric colours changing all the time.
The house looks great – white, light and airy and I am proud to say that we have provided a nice workspace that in no way resembles a large impersonal factory. The girls all have a contract and any overtime worked has to be approved by me. They work 9-5 and were given an hour for lunch – except they went to Chaini on the second day and said they would like to give ½ hour back to us as we were helping them! What a great start!
We are providing a decent salary, breakfast, uniform of their choice and hopefully this will produce a happy workforce and quality products. All we need now is for YOU to support us by buying our products. Do something different that REALLY benefits another community! We hold the future of Walahanduwa in OUR hands!.
The bags we make can be custom made to your own requirements. We want people to order a bag because they understand the story behind what it is we are doing. Every penny of the money made on the bags in Guernsey, Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world is put back into the company. Bridge 2 Sri Lanka is NOT making money from this project.
The ultimate aim is to provide the village of Walahanduwa with some money so they can improve their quality of life. The most urgent project is the overhaul of the very poor drainage they have now. Now onto our orders – these include a wide range of bags already designed but we hope you will want to design your own if not of the designs suit!
We have 25 companies currently on our order book and several more pending quotes – these range from Advocates to schools, from Hotels to Banks, from Bookshops to sandwich shops – a huge variety of sizes shapes and designs.