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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.