This is so much more than a basket

The best stories are the kind with a happily ever after. Stories where, despite all the odds, hope and love prevail. Stories like Laura and Enzo’s, and the beautiful palm leaf baskets that are changing lives in their community.

Laura and Enzo

Laura, an Italian nun, met Enzo when she moved to Bangladesh. He was a priest, and had also traveled from Italy so he could work on development projects there. They had both planned on dedicating their lives to the church and working with members of the “untouchable” Rishi caste.

They did not plan on falling in love.

But, as so often happens in life, things don’t always go as planned. Laura and Enzo, unable to deny their feelings for each other, left their orders to get married.

Laura and Enzo

They bought a plot of land together and set up a small workshop in their new community. The workshop allowed the marginalized members of the Rishi caste to have income generating opportunities. Although poor and generally landless, the Rishi were traditionally leather workers and basket weavers.

Laura and Enzo knew that, given the chance, the Rishi could use their skills to earn money for themselves instead of being reliant upon charity. With this belief in mind, they founded the fair trade nonprofit organization Rishilpi.

Rishilpi

Now, more than 30 years later, Rishilpi employs 2,000 talented artisans who make baskets and other crafts from wheat straw, palm leaves, jute, leather and wood. For many, it is the first time in their lives they have had access to regular, fair income. Any surplus income that is generated by their hard work is reinvested into Rishilpi community development programs, like schools and health care services.

Enzo and Laura

Many of the women who work with Rishilpi make traditional palm leaf baskets in nontraditional shapes, like hearts and totes.

Palm Leaf Baskets

For such beautifully complex designs, their construction is surprisingly simple. Kaisa grass, an abundant and renewable material, is sustainably harvested and dried. Skilled artisans, like Shoma, take bunches of the strong grass and secure them together by weaving palm leaves in and out of the layers by hand.

Artisan weaving a palm leaf basket

Not only do the palm leaves make it sturdy, but they give the finished product a refined, smooth appearance unlike any other baskets from Bangladesh.

Ocean Blue Basket Set

And, even better, the women can choose to work from home so that they can earn steady income while raising their families.

Laura and Enzo were right about a lot of things. They were right about each other, and the power of love. They were right about their Rishi neighbors, and their ability to use their traditional skills to rise above the limitations of caste culture. And they were right that something as simple as a basket could create positive change in a community. We think that is a real happily ever after.


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Valentina

A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Valentina lives in Lancaster, PA where she runs slowly, hikes often, and excitedly points out historical landmarks to friends and family. She is fond of curry and guacamole, and insists that vanilla ice cream is a waste of time and calories. Val is convinced that the greatest feeling in the world is stepping off a plane in a new place, and is a passionate believer that all the best days include books, baking, border collies, and bagpipes.

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