It was about a year ago that Matthieu Cheminée and I were in Senegal in West Africa. We met many jewelers there—a first for me, but an ongoing engagement for Matthieu. Without fail, the people we met were friendly, generous and highly skilled. In every workshop we visited, jewelers of all ages made elegant objects using only a few simple tools. When we returned home, we created a program called the Toolbox Initiative to funnel donated tools and metal to jewelers in the region. Rio Grande generously offered to help in this effort.
Americans are famous for our poor grasp of geography. If you are like me, you have only a vague idea of the countries that make up Africa, let alone where they are or what they’re like. For starters, we fail to understand how large the continent is. Make a mental image of China, India, the United States, Mexico, Europe and Japan; all these countries combined could fit into Africa. It would be difficult to imagine a land with a greater variety of wildlife, geology, and cultures. For many years, Africa was a destination for people from around the world because of everything it had to offer.
And then came the modern age of terrorists. With every newscast we hear about pirates, abductions, and conflicts. Travel to Africa declined over the last two decades, and with it craftspeople lost their market. Local people who worked for restaurants, hotels, and travel services were also left without income so they were not in a position to buy jewelry. Times were hard.
And then came Ebola. The good news is that none of Matthieu’s many friends in West Africa are sick. In a recent conversation, Ibrahima Condé in Liberia said he hasn’t seen a single sick person, but the repercussions of the epidemic are felt every day. It is our feeling that even if the epidemic was stopped tomorrow it will take years for tourism to recover.
Back in August, Rio Grande published a blog post about Toolbox Initiative and sent an email that described the project. The response has been overwhelming. Generous jewelers have given hundreds of tools and several ounces of silver. Others have given money that will be used to buy tools and materials—the latter has been particularly important as jewelers wait for customers to return.
The intention of the Toolbox Initiative is to hand-deliver tools and silver ingots to jewelers in West Africa. Our travel plans have been put off until next spring when we will make our delayed trip. As a stop-gap we are now researching reliable ways to get materials there, for instance by connecting with some of the brave doctors and nurses who are going to the region to help contain the epidemic. There is no easy solution and no quick fix, but these jewelers are our friends and colleagues and we will do what we can to help.
With the season of giving upon us, I hope you will also consider contributing to the project. To donate duplicate or unused tools in good condition, you can visit Toolbox Initiative’s donation page. On that page you’ll also have the option of making a monetary donation via PayPal for the purchase of new tools—I will hand-select the tools I know are most needed for these jewelers (and Rio has offered to ship everything I purchase for Toolbox Initiative to me for free!). This generous gift to friends who share our passion for metalsmithing will make the world a kinder and smaller place, one jeweler to another.