Well there’s no escaping the fact that it’s nearly December and the shopping has to start sooner rather than later. Are you ready? I mean ready to start shopping rather than the actual being ready itself. That won’t happen for a while yet I’m sure. Anyway, in the interests of getting closer to that state of readiness I have found this shop, Kalinko, which sells unusual pieces from small makers, so shopping here is helpful and ethical and all those things we have been talking about recently.
Kalinko was founded by Sophie Garner, who ended up in Burma “by mistake” and decided to set up the first online homeware brand to come out of this country. Everything is handmade and the artisans would find it impossible to sell directly to the UK on their own, so Sophie provides a route to market to help them earn a living.
I spoke to her via email last week to find out a little more about Kalinko, which comes from the name of a Burmese tribe (ka-lin-kaw) who come from the Chin Hills in the North West and who are known for their hospitality, lack of gender or class discrimination and incredible weaving skills.
The first thing I wanted to know (and yes the Rohingya Muslims was the second and we’ll get to that) was how did she end up in Burma – and she calls it both that – “so evocative” – and Myanmar which is the technically correct term.
“I sent my husband there on a trek to clear his head after he left five horrid years of banking and he came back with a job which he returned to do three weeks later. I went six months after that.
“It wasn’t necessarily what we both had in mind but it turned out to be the best random move of our lives. We love it. We feel lucky to be here and to contribute in a tiny way to its development. It’s a beautiful country full of wonderful people and right now there’s nowhere I’d rather live.”
Sophie’s background is in the art world and she helped found Beaumont Nathan, a high-end art advisory service helping you choose which Picasso to buy or would a Van Gogh be better at that price, a job which she feels was helpful in helping her to set up this business although clearly the price points are somewhat different.
Kalinko was founded a year ago and she is keen to expand the number of makers they work with as well as giving more choice to her customers in the West.
The Kalinko artisans are spread throughout the country and Sophie starts by going to areas which are well known for certain crafts. “There is lots of hand-weaving in Chin in the North West while the Irrawaddy Delta is known for its rattan,” she says.
“We then help to make their products more internationally marketable – perhaps by asking them to tweak a colour to appeal to the Western market. We stick steadfastly to traditional patterns and techniques, but use colours and shapes that are more relevant to our customers”
Over the last year of trading and during her research, Sophie says she has met many wonderful people and talks fondly about Soe Maung (pronounced So Mong) whose home is two days walk from their office in Yangon.
“He couldn’t find work at his home so he walked to us two years ago and now works as the security guard at our office. He had seen us carrying around our extra long shoe horn and asked if he could borrow one. Two days later he returned carrying an exact replica and asked if he and his village could help us with our woodwork items.
“We are now working to get the equipment and training needed to enable his village to be our woodwork suppliers and we are hoping to be ready by the spring.”
I hope you will enjoy browsing the site and considering adding it to your list for Christmas shopping. Even a small thing feels more precious when you know that buying it can help someone live better whether it’s a socially challenged person or a family in a remote village in Burma.
The store also adheres to the 10 Principles of Fair Trade too as set out by the World Trade Fair Organisation.
Now, the Rohingya. I’m sure, like many of you, when Sophie contacted me saying she was from Burma, my first thought was not for the people of Burma who have struggled under the regime for many years but for the Rohingya, who are on the news every night at the moment. There is no right solution for us here, and we can’t change the Government, but Sophie said this:
“It’s obviously unbelievable sad for the Rohingya who have no-one to support them long term although Aid agencies are doing their best. The other side of the story is the terrible effect this is having on Burma whose 58m people have been persecuted by a military regime for 60 years.
“Burma has only just started to emerge onto the international stage and this crisis is threatening the fragile peace process in other war-torn parts of the country. Burma needs foreign investment to help build the economy and the 13m people who live on less than a dollar a day. Aung San Suu Kyi is vilified for doing nothing but it’s very difficult as if she speaks in their defence she risks a military coup and the end of the democracy she fought for.
“I am trying to do what I can to grow the company to commission more from my artisans and to continue to support the communities I work in as best I can.”
Now this isn’t really the place for heated political debate, but I wanted you to have some answers to questions which I felt sure you would ask and if you want to help Sophie and the people she represents by doing a spot of shopping then you know where to go.