In 2001, I decided to travel through West Africa. I had finished university, was ready for an adventure and I had dreamed of going to Africa since I was a child. I started my trip in Paris, made my way down the Spanish coast, ferried to Gibraltar, crossed into Morocco, convoyed across the Sahara desert for 4 days through Mauritania, and on to 6 other countries – Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Those six months were life changing for me. Africa was now in my heart and I could not wait for the next opportunity (or excuse) to return.
It’s twelve years later and now I own and run Ambler with my husband, Christian. Last year we were introduced to Landis Wyatt, an Ambler employee before we owned the company, who was living and running Universal Outreach Foundation with her husband in Liberia (a west African country I did not visit on my 2001 trip because they were in civil war). Back in the day, Landis was sewing and selling bags and thought bags could be a good fit for Ambler. Ambler bags did not pan out at the time but the idea of creating and making bags came full circle when I met Landis. Landis was excited to see if a partnership could develop for Ambler in Liberia. I was very excited because I had been dreaming of having bags made in Africa. My reason was part selfish, wanting any excuse to return to Africa, but mainly because I knew there was a need for social enterprises in many African countries. Not only that, Africa has such unique fabrics and sewing is a skill many Africans already have.
I arrived in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, on December 4th, 2012 with only a few other people, one being my friend Deb who I was travelling with. Most people on our plane got off when we stopped in Sierra Leone, Liberia is not necessarily a destination for tourists. Liberia has only been out of a civil war for 10 years and you can still feel and see the effects of years of war. Approximately 250,000 people died during the war and now 85% of the population continue to live below the international poverty line.
As a tourist I was astonished at the prices! I was paying more than I would in Canada for quite a few things. I soon realized that it made sense since there is no electricity anywhere and everything is powered by generators which take diesel. As you can imagine, imported diesel isn’t cheap either. So either you do have the money to live comfortably or you make due with the little you have and live quite differently.
The reason why I went to Liberia is because relationships with the people we work with are very important to Ambler. So I spent my time in Monrovia with our new partner, Jola House, a social enterprise trying to help generate income for Liberians. It was wonderful to see where and who was making our new bags. I also felt that it was reciprocated for the workers at Jola House to associate Ambler with an actual person who does care about them!
My time in Liberia was very intentional because I was only going to be there for a short time. A week somewhat felt like a month because of all the things I got to do and see. I went to markets looking for fabric, designed new bags, adjusted bags in production, worked on new product, ate Liberian food with Jola House staff, visited a beautiful Eco Lodge, swam in the ocean, rode motorcycles to get around town, talked with all sorts of people on the street, listened to church choir practices, danced with children playing soccer outside, experienced the daily difficulties of not having electricity to run sewing machines, learned more about tie-dye, listened to life stories and felt compassion for what Liberians have gone through. Even through these huge trials, I am in awe of the abundance of joy, trust and hope Africans still have.
One of my favorite memories from this trip was asking people, “How da body oh (How are you doing)”? The response was, “Praise God”, which means, I am doing very well.
Until the next time…