Abena Sara is a regular contributor and featured author here at Trusted Clothes. Read more about her below through this one-on-one interview with Scott.
Your name is Sara Corry, but you have the name Abena Sara, too. How did this come about for you?
In Ghana, everyone has a ‘day name’ that corresponds to the day they were born. I was born on a Tuesday, so my day name is Abena. When saying it, the stress is on the first A so it’s like AH-beh-nuh – not aBEEnah like most people outside of Ghana pronounce it.
You have a passion for travel, and you’re living in eastern Ghana near its capital of Accra at the moment. How’d you get there? Tell us your story.
That’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I was involved with African drumming in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I’m from, for many years. One of my teachers is from Ghana, which piqued my interest in Ghana in the first place. Then, a friend from a drum circle introduced me to a Ghanaian friend who was visiting NM – this was back in 2010. His friend, Godfried, and I hit it off and kept in contact after he went back to Ghana. In 2011 he invited me to come to Ghana and see some of the country, and I went for 16 days. The trip was amazing. I’d never been to a “third world” country and I saw so many things that touched my heart and soul. I fell in love with Ghana, and with Godfried. Then lots of “life” happened for both of us and I didn’t return until 2014, for a month this time. When planning the trip, I started brainstorming ways I could spend more time in Ghana, and the idea to form a business that would allow me to be here more often came to mind. One thing led to another and I realized that my passion is with humanitarian causes and a desire to give a hand up to people who are in desperate situations. In February, 2015 I returned and ultimately spent nine months in Ghana, working on business development – and I’m still here! I’m working on getting residency so that Godfried and I can be together and continue work we’ve started on a project to improve medical care in villages, and of course to develop Batiks for Life.
Your posts always have great photographs of Ghana. What personal fulfillment comes from it?
Yes, I love photography, although I’m really an amateur. I love nature photography most, but I’ve managed to get some nice shots of people here in Ghana. Ghana in general is a very colourful and photogenic country! For me, photography can be a spiritual thing. It’s soul-nourishing to slow down and see my surroundings through the camera lens.
And you’ve lived in the desert for over 30 years. How did this come about for you?
I moved to Albuquerque, NM (high desert in North Central NM) in 1988 (after spending a couple of years there previously). New Mexico’s state slogan is “the Land of Enchantment” and it’s a joke that we say it’s the “Land of Entrapment”! Or like Hotel California, you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave! The land does seem to hold onto people! I do love New Mexico and my family is there, so I’ll be back to visit at some point. Ghana feels like home now though.
What’s a normal day in Ghana like for you?
It’s a rather “chop wood, carry water” kind of life – in some ways a little like camping. I don’t have a huge income so I can’t afford the high rise apartments or fancy gated communities in downtown Accra. Actually I wouldn’t want to live like that anyhow, surrounded by mostly ex-pats and apart from everyday people. So I live in a small town in a small house, draw water from a well every morning, wash my clothes by hand, shower from a bucket of cold water, shop for food at the markets and food stalls, and cook over a little gas canister, just like most people here. One challenge is that I’m continually singled out because of my skin colour, which gets kind of embarrassing at times. But whereas a Black person in a predominately white area of the US might be negatively singled out, here “obrunis” are looked upon as an asset to the community. Sometimes this becomes another kind of challenge, when children come to me asking for money for instance, or when the market ladies overcharge me. Even Godfried has said he gets charged more at the market when I’m with him. To be looked upon as a source of easy money is uncomfortable, and creates a kind of entitlement which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do through my work.
Batiks for life has come a long way, what does “Batiks” mean and where did the name of the company originate from?
Batik is a process of creating a print on cotton fabric, by applying wax to form a design, then dyeing the cloth, then removing the wax. It’s a traditional way of making beautiful fabrics in many parts of the world and in Ghana, there’s a particular way of making batik that’s been handed down from generation to generation that’s specific to this country. One way of making batik in Ghana involves using stamps with symbols known as “Adinkra” – it’s a centuries-old system of symbology with meanings attached to each symbol, kind of like a proverb in a way. So, for instance, you could tell a story through the Adinkra symbols stamped on your batik! I love these symbols, which tell the story of life in all its nuances. The name “Batiks for Life” is partly about the Adinkra symbols used in batik, but also about the intention that sales of our products will support life – from the people in Ghana who make the products, to the customer. Our batik medical scrubs are one of a kind, and bring colour and liveliness into often depressing environments. We have several repeat customers who remark on how their patients enjoy the batik scrubs they’re wearing! Additionally, our mission is to use a portion of our income to support life-giving medical projects here in Ghana. This has been a goal of mine since the beginning of the business, but I never expected to be able to realize this dream so soon. I’ll say more about this below.
What kinds of things does Batiks for Life offer, and what is the overall purpose, to you, of the organization?
We started out with medical scrubs, but pretty soon people who don’t wear scrubs were asking for other batik products. They wanted to support our mission, but the product wasn’t appealing to them. So we’re in the process of adding new products that our supporters asked for, like different sizes of bags, yardage of batik fabric, and wrap skirts. Right now our batik artistes are working on some batik wall hangings that I’m excited to put up on the website! I think one of the things that makes our products desirable (in addition to being beautiful of course!) is that customers know that people in this developing country are being supported through their production, and that a portion of income goes right back to the community in the form of healthcare initiatives.
What is the difference between fair trade products and other products?
First off, I want to be clear that Batiks for Life products have not yet been certified as Fair Trade – this is a lengthy process which we will undertake once we are more established. But we do incorporate fair trade business practices – meaning the people who create our products are paid a living wage and work in safe conditions. Actually, they set their own prices and work out of their own small businesses. So there is no concern that they’re being exploited or forced to work in unsafe factories like often happens when sewn products are mass produced in China or other countries.
You contribute to a website on wildlife conservation in the continent of Africa. What is its importance as a website or resource, and the salience of larger efforts to preserve wildlife in Africa?
The website is www.safaritalk.net and is a community of people who support wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. Some people own safari lodges, others are visitors to Africa, and some live on the continent. There’s always interesting discussion about wildlife topics, amazing photography, and reports on places all over Africa. One of the issues that continually comes up is that most of the problems facing wildlife here are economy-driven. When people don’t have another source of income, they will be more likely to poach wildlife. We all know about the plight of rhinos and elephants, but it continues down to the smallest of animals. Poaching here in Ghana is a huge problem because people love bushmeat. Bushmeat can be anything from grasscutter (a large rodent that lives in sugar cane fields), to antelope, to monkey, etc. Anything that moves can be consumed, pretty much. Combined with habitat loss, this has decimated the local wildlife. But, if people have a reason to keep the animals alive, by and large they’ll protect them. Again, it’s economy-driven. So some communities have started wildlife sanctuaries which are tourist destinations and bring money into the community. Ghana isn’t known for wildlife as are East and South Africa, so through my writing for Safaritalk, I hope that more people will see that we too have wildlife (you just have to know where to look!), which will bring in more tourism, and keep these local wildlife sanctuaries, preserves, and national parks alive.
What is the importance of the companies and organizations such as Trusted Clothes and Batiks for Life to you?
I think that people are in a conundrum when it comes to their clothing. We all know that most of what we get at the department store is produced by people who work in a form of slavery – these clothing companies make a huge profit on the backs of impoverished people in the “third world”. Yet while someone may feel bad about supporting these businesses through their buying choices, they don’t know their options. We’re here to show them the options, and to convince people that it’s worth a little extra money to buy something unique and lasting. I value my connection with Trusted Clothes because it reminds me that on top of all the other reasons I’m here in Ghana pursuing this crazy idea of mine, I’m also contributing to a healthier world through promoting sustainable clothing options. Kind of like the cherry on top!
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
I wanted to back up and say a bit more about the healthcare initiative I mentioned above. Godfried is from a little village in the southeastern corner of Ghana. I interviewed the two nurses who run the clinic – I also write for a nursing website, HireNurses.com – and I’m doing a series on healthcare in Ghana. In doing this interview it became clear that they’re doing the best they can, but are really hampered in their ability to provide healthcare for the village for a lot of reasons. I saw the opportunity to do something to help. It was an initial goal of mine that Batiks for Life would give back to the community through giving a portion of income to health related projects, but I never expected it to happen so soon in the life of the business. For Godfried, it’s also a dream come true because his great-great-grandfather founded the village and so he’s in the lineage of chiefs and very concerned about the welfare of the village. He’s also had an idea in his mind for a long time about leading medical mission trips throughout the country. Well, almost immediately we started getting offers of help that were most unexpected! We’re pursuing these offers and trying to wrap our heads around the possibilities! It’s really exciting and we hope to make our ambitions to help under served communities with their healthcare a reality.