While travelling through a village in Yunnan, China a few months ago, I entered a central area of the village where women had gathered to work together on the harvest. Some were securing tobacco leaves to bamboo poles ready for drying. Another woman worked on harvesting the beans from dried pods spread on the ground. No modern equipment, just simple handmade tools to help in her work, she beat the pods with two sticks tied together until the beans fell out. Then she paused to sweep them in a basket and shook them to remove remaining debris, and went back to beating the pods, swinging her arm again and again. I could only imagine how much energy it took as I watched and wanted to ask if I could help her.
This was their life - hard and long days, stopping for a meal and back to work. Most people we passed asked us, "have you eaten yet?", a common form of greeting among their people. Social protocol would dictate that we refuse initially, giving them the honor of asking us to eat, without actually taking what little they had. If they asked again, you would still refuse, but upon the third offer, we should politely accept and then eat very little. Then it was back to the fields, or back to the task at hand. Some were tending animals, others carrying the hemp on their backs that would be used to make cloth. Some carried water to their homes from the local water source.
After a full day's work, these women will sew, making clothing and accessories for their personal use. Despite all the work, they earn only about $30 a month. One village leader asked one woman in the village if she had things she made that she wanted to sell to the foreigners, and she headed down the road to bring things she made. She must have told everyone she knew along the way, because within minutes, other women came to the center of the village bringing items they had made. The workmanship was beautiful! I asked each woman how much time it took them to make the table covers and pillow cases they had made. Some responded it took months, but were quick to clarify that this was in between all the rest of their chores. Normal protocol dictates that when they give you a price, you are supposed to bargain for less. But in this case, after learning of the time it took to make each item, I paid more than they asked. At first they were a little surprised at this crazy foreigner. But I explained about fair trade, and my desire to help them earn a sustainable income from their crafts. It soon became a happy occasion for the women - some receiving enough money for the stitching to care for their family for a year!
I left their village, remarking at their life - hard rewarding work, simple, natural tools and products - making use of what the land provides. And I am eager to develop a long term relationship with these women as we build their business.