Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, June 15

Jazz vs Leather

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One of the last big projects of my service took place at the 19th annual Jazz Festival in Saint Louis, Senegal. A four day adventure in Jazz stylings from around the world centered on the island of Saint Louis and entertaining both your days and nights, this festival provided an opportunity for local artisans to expose their products to both tourists and locals alike. Through the network of artisans affiliated with Peace Corps, Demba- my leather cohort- collaborated to rent a booth with six other artisans in the group.


We set about preparing for the festival months in advance. As a part of a chain of events we anticipated, Demba and I began by sitting down to estimate the potential sales by items we believed were possible. Given the time frame we had between that first discussion (late February) and the actual events (TICAA tourism conference at the end of May, Jazz Festival in mid June, and Close of Service conference just after Jazz Festival) we were looking at a pretty tight production schedule. In order to maximize the potential sales, Demba made a trip to Dakar to purchase hides that were already cleaned, treated, and dyed to cut out nearly half the production time on a number of items. This introduced a whole new color scheme to our products: pastels!

It’s also worth mentioning that I impressed upon Demba the idea to use traditional Senegalese fabric prints for linings in all products that required one. The idea was born from J.Crew’s modification of the magic wallet a few years after I bought my original one. What was once leather interior and exterior was suddenly available with men’s tie fabric interior. Why couldn’t the same principle be applied to our Senegalese version? It took a PCV guinea pig and a Facebook photo campaign, but the concept quickly became popular. Later at the expo, Demba would remark that he had indeed been the only producer of such a unique “African” leather product.

As the weeks passed, Demba stuck to his schedule of finishing stock by product model. In the evenings he reportedly worked on smaller items such as bracelets, magic wallets, and pouches from the comfort of his home in Taiba Ndaye (a small village outside of Mboro) bringing finished items back to the shop each morning. He was seriously dedicated to our estimated sales potential and I suspect this is directly related to the sell-out we experienced in the December expo held in Dakar. And upon arrival at the Jazz Festival I counted a minimum of four large bags of product accompanying Demba.

The logistics for the artisan exposition portion of the Jazz Festival was reportedly vastly different from years past. The organization changed from French Cultural Center management to the Mayor’s Office of Saint Louis. In addition, booths were smaller, more or less expensive (depending on who you asked), moved to another less favorable location, without quality power or access to water, and available to be rented by anyone looking to sell – regardless of product type, quality or origin of production. As a result our artisans were not pleased with the initial outlook of the selling opportunity.

3rd Year Expertise! 
We spent the first full day of the festival setting up the booth. The best way to describe the initial display is “an explosion of disorganized product that vomited into the passing street.” A third volunteer, who’d spent most of her Burkina Faso service working with handicraft goods and expos, was ruthless and told all the artisans that instead of displaying piles and piles of the same product it was much more enticing to artfully display a few items at a time. Stock could be carefully hidden and then as sales were made product could be replaced in the display.

But the notion was unfamiliar and wreaked havoc upon the booth regardless. It had been a long day and our artisans were grumpy and tired. They didn’t want to be learning skills right at that moment. To show them what we meant, we had to forcibly remove their product from the table and set up the artful designs ourselves. No one was happy. We bought them cold sodas and doughnuts at the end as a peace offering, but it was not well received. This topic would have to be revisited later, as I will do in the next publication. For now, back to the Jazz Festival.

We called it a day with a celebratory beer at a local PCV hotspot, got food and caught up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I rented a hotel room and eventually made it back there. The male artisans were tasked with sleeping at the booth all night to guard the product. Female artisans found friends and family to stay with for the weekend. The “serious” selling opportunities began the next day where myself and two other volunteers took turns sitting at the booth with the artisans encouraging them to heed our advice about the method of display.

Me and Alyssa
The rest of the weekend was much of the same; back and forth between the booth and the gallery. In the late afternoon and evenings I caught up with PC friends. Our favorite activities included eating good pizza, hanging by the pool, and catching up on stories. Evenings were spent dancing in to the wee hours of the morning. Volunteers stationed in Saint Louis did a great job of organizing festivities at a local bar. American beats were shared across many a nationality. Some US Marines on vacation from Mauritanian duty joined our merriment. Pick pockets were a steadfast opponent to our desired to relax, but all told few items were taken that couldn’t be replaced. Jazz music may not have been formally heard at the venues promoted- with exorbitant entry fees (unaffordable on a volunteer stipend) - but I’m pretty sure I passed by a few amusing beats.

1 comment:

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