World culture, one stop

Barbara Johnson’s store in Southport is 800 square feet, but it contains the world.

Canvas bags from Kenya. Peace bracelets from Laos. Blouses from Madagascar. Textiles from Hawaii. Beadwork from the Philippines. Bowls from India.  Alpaca-wool goods from Ecuador. Jewelry from Spain. Every nook and cranny in Mama Jane’s Global Boutique, as the store is called, teems with color and life.

But this is not just the case of a shop in a tony community featuring high-end, imported goods. Rather it’s about bringing awareness to some 90 artisans, often women, around the world who could use the support and to businesses that champion Fair Trade, green sources and female empowerment while at the same time telling their stories and paying it forward to like-minded nonprofits.

Johnson’s epiphany came on a service trip to Kenya in 2010 with husband, Gary, and two of their children. Along the way they became acquainted with Free the Children, a Toronto-based charity founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger that encourages children in industrialized countries to help those in the developing world by fostering education and clean drinking water, among other initiatives. For Johnson, the encounter with Craig Kielburger and his sister-in-law, Roxane Kielburger, was “a life-changing moment.” So was the trip.

“I never worked that hard in my life — going to a school, digging a garden. It was such a beautiful place.”

And one in which she had a chance to see her privileged life through the lens of those who had less but were still content.

“Here were children singing about how happy they were to have clean water.”

Johnson also met the indomitable matriarch Mama Jane, who would organize the women in the carrying of water jugs down to the river and helmed a merry-go-round collective of some 50 women that would rotate the profits from their beadwork among members. That sparked something in Johnson, and three years later Mama Jane’s was born. The store buys products from around the world, often made by artisans such as the beaders Johnson observed in Kenya. Then, minus expenses, the profits are passed on to related charities. They are The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in East Africa, helping to preserve elephants, rhinos and other endangered species; ME to WE, offering socially responsible products and services to help support Free the Children; Partners in Health, a health care provider for countries and communities in need; and Our Woven Community, a Bridgeport-based charity that offers immigrants opportunities for sustainable employment through sewing.

The products in Mama Jane’s, Johnson says, “speak to people all over, who get to hear (the artisans’) stories” via the cards that accompany the items. Among the examples, Johnson says, are the canvas bags that began with a knock on the door. That’s how travel photographer Daniela Bateleur met fisherman Ali Lamu from Lamu Island in Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago. In 2008, he knocked on her door, seeking work. Instead, she asked him for an old Indian dhow sail to paint on. One sail led to several weekend bags with messages of love and hope, which in turn led to marriage and a studio that employs 24 Lamu fishermen to make the bags.

Another great story, Johnson says, is of Filip + Inna, founded by a Filipina (hence the name) Lenora Cabili, who brings the beadwork, embroidery and weaving of indigenous countrywomen to the fore.

“We’re so used to looking at stores that are the same,” says Johnson a former Gymboree franchisee who had to get up to speed quickly as a retailer. “My store is a mix of cultures and price points, everything from $7 to $700…. It’s a celebration of the unique.”

Mama Jane’s Global Boutique is at 363 Pequot Ave. in Southport. For more, call 203-292-8787.

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