The women sat, legs askew, on the concrete floor of an out building at an experimental farm run by the local Catholic diocese near Himo, Tanzania.
From near the door of their sheet-metal clad shelter you could see old Kibo, the central volcanic cone, rising off the massif Mount Kilimanjaro.
It climbed skyward from the Maasai plain some 50 kilometres distant. The ladies clad in brightly designed kitenges, the wrap-around skirts made from a single panel of cotton cloth, worked away intently weaving sisal fibres into on a multi-coloured rug.
Sisal, a plant native to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, had been surreptitiously smuggled into what was then the colony of German East Africa in the 1890s.
Expatriate planters soon recognized the potential of this drought and disease resistant member of the agave family for their African soils and climate.
By the 1960s, Tanzania led the world in sisal exports. The strength, durability and resistance to salt deterioration of the sisal fibres made it particularly useful as marine rope and agricultural twine.
However sisal plantations, once a mainstay of the local economy around Himo, were all but destroyed when world demand dropped sharply in the 1970s.
It seems that the then cheaper and nearly indestructible polypropylene cordage had quickly replaced sisal in the world market.
Thousands of Tanzanians lost their paying jobs.
With development funding from a European Catholic aid agency, the staff at the experimental farm tried to find alternative uses for the crop.
Local women were hired and trained.
A CUSO volunteer assigned there showed me rugs, tablemats, bags and a host of other products that they had made.
The next step involved trying to find markets for the handicrafts.
Beginning in the 1970s, European then North American non-governmental networks evolved and began linking small co-operative and self-help group producers in Africa, Asia and Latin America to consumers in wealthier northern countries.
These ‘fair trade’ organizations not only provided a more equitable financial return to producer groups by eliminating middle men, they also sought to educate consumers about key changes that need to happen to make our world economic system work for everyone’s benefit.
Sisal seems to be staging a comeback.
Wilson Odhiambo, the director general of the Tanzania Sisal Board, remarked in a Tanzania Standard article in May that environmental awareness has sparked growing interest in natural, renewable products like sisal.
As well, sisal under normal conditions doesn’t demand expensive inputs of imported fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides like many other export crops.
Odhiambo further noted that technological innovations have sisal now being touted as an element in a composite replacement for fibreglass in the automotive industry, in a host of new geotextiles and as a component in construction materials such as roofing tiles and particle board.
Sisal handicrafts such as those produced by the women of Himo will still find fair trade markets such as the 15th annual Global Village Craft Fair.
It will be held this Saturday at the CYO Hall at 4th and Steele from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Ten Thousand Village crafts will also be available at the craft sale in the Haines Junction Convention Centre this coming Thursday, November 23rd from 7 to 9 p.m.
We are all tied together in our increasingly connected global village if not literally by sisal cord certainly by our concern for the just and equitable treatment of others.