The roots of my career as a basket importer and supporter of artists in Ghana stretch back to my stint in the Peace Corps. I put in two years from 1988-1990 in the Dominican Republic, working in community development of a women's work cooperative. My experience there showed me that if we could empower women, it could impact so many parts of a family's life. For example, if a woman knew how to read a simple milk formula for her baby, it could save lives.
Back in Denver in the mid 1990's, I began a business that imported African-made goods, largely art pieces and cultural relics. Among these collectibles were hand-woven baskets. These baskets hit home with Colorado, and US shoppers were impressed by their artfulness and utilitarian power. I've sold many products from Africa that had history and meaning, but many people did not understand the complexity of the art. However, the beauty of an African basket is easy for Americans to embrace. They are functional works of art. By selling these baskets, I feel I can promote African culture and sell a useful, time-tested product that has a purpose in modern times. The baskets also enable me to achieve a more important goal. Since basket weavers are 98% women, this is a perfect way for me to empower women in Ghana.
That empowering effort became focused on one locale when I realized that the best baskets I could find in Ghana's art markets were made by artisans in the Bolgatanga village of Ghana. I made the first trip to the Bolgatanga village in 2005. The trip took 20 hours by dirt road, and what I found there was jarring. Most homes have no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Many of the weavers and their families live in one-room mud houses with dirt floors. They also face unemployment levels of about 80%. Many are also single mothers in a culture that looks down on such women which further limits their job options.
Today the 400+ women in Ti-a's collectively get a hand up, not a handout. We are not a charity group. Our basket weavers proudly earn a sustainable income and gain a measure of financial independence. We are giving these women hope, pride, and a future. We have now founded a basket-weaving school in Bolgatanga that helps beginners learn basic techniques, and advanced weavers acquire new skills. I visit the villages near Bolgatanga every year to ensure that the rates being paid for the baskets are above fair-trade. With each visit I get to see that the weaving school is thriving and that Ti-a is having an impact on women and families in Northern Ghana.
Meanwhile, I gain something too. The artists give me inspiration. They say to me, "Do not stop; we need you to keep doing this." I don't know if I can do all they want, but they tell me, "No, you can do it." They have more faith in me than I do.