Charlene Espinoza greets everyone with warm eyes and a genuine smile. Confident, calm, and unflappable, she has traveled much of the world, exploring unfamiliar cultures. As a Peace Corps volunteer 3 1/2 years ago, Charlene was assigned to teach English to the young students of Salala, Liberia in West Africa. But teaching English soon became secondary to the passionate enterprise Charlene embarked upon with the young women of Salala. She started an organization called Bosh Bosh, a manufacturing company that creates beautiful fabric bags made from the multi-colored, quintessential African “lappa’ fabric. I was lucky enough to be invited to spend two weeks working with this remarkable organization in June of last summer. Here is the story of Bosh Bosh:
A bit of background on Liberia:
But first let me tell you a little bit about Liberia. Liberia is the second poorest country in Africa and one of the poorest in the world. It was founded in the 1800’s by freed American slaves who jubilantly named it Liberia (for liberty) well before Abe Lincoln and the Civil War. Its flag looks just like the American flag but with one star instead of 50. In 2003, just 12 years ago, Liberia crawled out of one of the most prolonged and brutal civil wars in human history, instigated by the infamous Charles Taylor. The country’s teetering infrastructure was ripped apart, as was every single family, and now Liberia and its people have been in the process of slowly rebuilding. The roads are unbelievably bad; there is no running water, no electric grid, no working railroad, no garbage collection, etc. Money and jobs are scarce. And now there is Ebola too.
How Bosh Bosh came to be:
Charlene was sent into this environment and asked to teach impossible numbers of students, sometimes upwards of 50 at a time. Every morning the children – those whose parents can afford to pay the $20 annual tuition and the uniform fee – wind their way through the village from all directions to the blue and white painted school in the dirt field at the village center, all while balancing broken chairs on their heads to have something to sit on. Charlene would watch every morning as the kids wriggled and played in line. One morning, she was struck by something she hadn’t noticed before: the kids in the elementary grades were pretty evenly split between boys and girls, but the upper high school grades were populated overwhelmingly by boys. “Where had all the girls gone?” she wondered.
Charlene soon realized that the girls had, in early teenage years, become mothers, often a by-product of rape or unprotected sex coaxed by older men. These girls were now relegated to futures of cooking, cleaning, washing, and raising kids; their educational hopes were shattered by a daily grind of hard physical work. With no running water, electricity, or easy transportation, every simple task in West Africa becomes hard. For girls who did stay in school, Charlene learned that their tests and final grades were often “lost” or “held back” by male instructors demanding sex as a bribe for grades. With that revelation, Charlene decided to start a girl’s club with her Liberian counterpart, Yamah Zawu (Sis Yamah), with the sole intent of finding ways to give girls scholarships enabling them to go to or remain in school. Forty young girls signed up, and the girl’s club was on its way. While on a trip to neighboring Sierra Leone with her friend Kristin, Charlene bought a purse made by local craftspeople. At dinner that night she studied and admired the bag. “I remember having this thought, and it felt like a moment” she told me. She decided to add vocational training to the girl’s club activities, to teach the girls to sew and to make and sell bags to create some financial independence for themselves. She wrote a small grant and bought two pedal sewing machines (circa early 1900’s). Bosh Bosh was born.
The holistic and innovative way Bosh Bosh works:
That was three years ago. Bosh Bosh, which means “to put different colored fabrics together,” is also how they quite literally began. Today, they sew beautiful bags: purses, backpacks, farmer’s market/beach bags, yoga bags, and so much more with iconic West African lappa fabric. The artfully designed bags are fun, playful, and colorful, and every design is named after a different scholar or employee.
Initially they had no money to purchase fabrics, so Charlene asked a tailor to donate his fabric scraps. Since then, Bosh Bosh has grown to 20 full-time employees and maintains a “Scholar’s Club” of 20 young women. The BB employees are all paid good wages, in fact far better than most people in Liberia can hope to earn; BB also wants to make sure those wages keep increasing. But that is only the beginning. The employees’ time at work isn’t just about sewing bags on foot-powered pedal machines and ironing them with actual coal-burning irons (dipped in water if they get too hot). The employees get paid several hours a week to attend literacy classes, computer skills training, financial planning sessions, and service learning projects. Their children enjoy scholarships to school. And the “scholars,” along with the sewing training they receive to make the bags, get literacy, computer, and healthcare classes, too. In addition, the scholars hand-sew incredible three-dimensional Liberian stars made from cutting cardboard triangles from boxes, putting scraps of brightly colored fabric over the triangles, and stitching them together with thread from recycled rice bags. Sixty percent of the revenue made from The Stars Program goes back into the community by way of service projects like painting of the school or healthcare information workshops for the whole community. With the scourge of Ebola that has swept through Liberia recently, the Scholar’s Club members took it upon them to create hand-washing stations and provide training to families in the village on how to keep their families safe. Salala, I believe, has had only two reported cases of Ebola thus far. The Scholar’s Club members also get first chance at jobs with Bosh Bosh upon graduation should they want to work there in the future.
Charlene and her development team understand that they need to keep the community engaged by helping it to benefit from the successes of Bosh Bosh; she worries that a small community that feels left out of the good fortune may choose to undermine their NGO. Now, Charlene and team are looking for ways to make sure that family members of the employees and scholars are also engaged in the activities of Bosh Bosh so that employees can have full support at home. As Caleb Lush, Business Development Manager, likes to say, “It’s not really about the bags.” Bosh Bosh’s reason for existing is to benefit the social fabric of Liberia and to change lives for the better. In the void of organized government policies to educate their students effectively, Charlene and her team stepped in to do something remarkable, demonstrating, once again, the power of change a few thoughtful people can inspire.
Courage is what keeps them going:
To live in Liberia, in Salala, is to witness courage every day. Grace, an employee and the heart and soul of the BB work team, is the living embodiment of courage. At 29 years old, she can barely read and write. As a child, her parents would only spend what little money they had on her brothers’ educations. During the war they sent her to Guinea to a relative who treated her “like a slave”. That relative wanted to marry her off to an abusive relative, so she fled, hiding in the jungle. Eventually she made it back to Salala after the war, got married and had a son. They own a road-side food and drink stand that she works at every evening. Now, with the little money they earn, she can afford to go to school, so every day she dons the uniform of the grade school kids and this grown woman heads off to sit among far younger students in elementary school classes. She works for BB in the morning and at 12:30 she heads off to school. She walks home to make dinner for her family (she brought us breakfast and dinner almost every day, too), and then works with her husband at their roadside stand (literally on the dirt road where massive trucks whiz by within mere feet of them and their customers) where they serve up street food to the village folk late into the night. She sits there in her native lappa skirt, in front of a smoldering fire, with bits of chicken on sticks and small hot dogs cooking away, and she studies in the near dark, until the crowds fade away, finally calling it a night. Then, she starts all over again the next day. On her first visit (with Charlene) to the US Embassy in Monrovia, she spoke of being disoriented and confused by the modern bathroom, and used the toilet as a sink. She shared that story with us during a workshop, in her thick Liberian accent, allowing herself to be playfully laughed at because she has no real ego, just a whole lot of humble heart. When I think of Salala, or Bosh Bosh, or the people I grew to care about there and the daily courage they showed, Grace’s eager, smiling face and bright eyes pop into my mind first.
As I got to know these remarkable people I learned their stories, all sad and shocking tales from the ugly side of human nature. Many of the women at Bosh Bosh had fled to the jungles of neighboring countries only to endure rape, forced marriage, and beatings. Some of these women left their husbands after the war, escaping brutal environments with one or two children in tow while leaving other children behind in hopes of earning enough money to get them back one day. Every woman had a painful, tear-filled story to tell, and as a group, their survival spoke of enduring courage. While the men didn’t talk of their own stories, I suspect theirs were unspeakably difficult and perhaps even harder to reconcile. In the back of the Bosh Bosh workroom hang large sheets of paper scrawled with the young scholars’ hopes and dreams, what they want to learn, and their fears: “we want to learn about how others live in this world,” “we want to learn how to teach,” “to learn how to read,” “I hope to be a nurse,” “… a mathematician,” “… a teacher,” “I hope to be generous in my life,” “I hope my dreams come true,” “I fear killing,” “I fear rape,” “I fear losing my family and friends in war.” It is a moving display, and kudos to Charlene for keeping these young women’s words in front of them and every single visitor, as a proud reminder of where they came from and where they hope to go.
Ebola Hits Liberia:
As the world now knows all too well, the Ebola virus wreaked havoc on West Africa in the summer, fall, and winter of 2014, invading Liberia at a frightening and escalating pace, quickly overrunning what little medical infrastructure was previously in place. The world watched the events unfold while holding its collective breath. On July 30th, 2014, Peace Corps made the difficult decision to suspend operations by removing all 340 volunteers in the affected West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The local people I got to know in Liberia were surrounded by the fury of this epidemic. During the 16 days I was in Liberia in June 2014 with my son Caleb, and his girlfriend Charlene, the Ebola virus seemed far away in the border towns of northern and eastern Liberia. Life in the village of Salala, where I stayed, continued as usual. There was some talk of Ebola, but no one seemed particularly worried or concerned. As I update this piece now, in March of 2015, I am happy to report that Ebola is waning and Liberia is beginning again to recover from yet another horror. But sadly, as of this writing there have been approximately 9200 cases of Ebola with 4100 deaths and while Ebola is still there, Liberia is managing, gaining an upper hand, so to speak, on this menacing disease. Meanwhile, daily, through it all, the Bosh Bosh crew came to work every day sewing bags and teaching the “scholars”. The employees took worrisome but needed trips to Monrovia, where Ebola raged, in order to buy the provisions needed to keep sewing and to keep Bosh Bosh alive too. They became very self-directed as their leadership had to regroup with Charlene back in the States making daily phone calls to stay involved.
The ‘Aha!’ that makes it all so good:
Charlene and Caleb had invited me to Liberia to help facilitate an organizational development workshop. As I worked with them I was suddenly struck with the notion that this mostly poorly educated team in West Africa, was, in fact, the most functional team I had ever worked with! Their dedication to Bosh Bosh was something I haven’t really witnessed before. They truly had each other’s backs, were open and vulnerable, and helped each other be successful to ensure Bosh Bosh is and will continue to be successful as a whole. I had to think about this curious paradox. I guess I expected that their experiences in war would interfere with their ability to get along with each other or that their lack of education somehow meant that their emotional intelligence would be low, but the opposite was true. What I saw was that their lives were changing in an immediate, relevant, and meaningful way. Life in Liberia is hard; as they like to say, “it ain’t easy-o,” and while the past is painful, they see their future with Bosh Bosh as one of the brightest parts of their lives. And, the people tasked with developing the organization are driven to better the lives of their employees first and foremost. Charlene and her leadership teams’ conversations centered on how to stay within the values they operate by, maintain a central strategy, find and hire the people who are driven by their own desire to make a better life for them, and scale the operation to expand to other countries one day. Their conversations were not centered on how much money they could take out of the company or what investors need to stay invested. Nor were they ever condescending or pitying. People throughout the organization treated each other with deep respect. The “Aha!” moment for me was the realization that in focusing on developing their employees first – building their capabilities and seeing them as real people – Charlene and team actually did develop the most loyal, hard-working, productive, and high trust group of employees I have ever seen. They created a dedicated organization most CEO’s could only dream of. People just know in their gut whether you mean what you say or if you’re deceiving them, because actions always, always, always speak louder than words. Charlene’s leadership and Bosh Bosh, Inc.’s actions are truly changing lives in an authentic, courageous, and meaningful way.
Charlene’s efforts have been recognized by The Peace Corp and she was invited to speak on a panel at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. with Michelle Obama in December 2014. This past week, March 3, 2015, Charlene was invited to the White House to introduce the President and First Lady at the roll out of the “Let Girl’s Learn” initiative. She gave an incredible short speech and then was warmly greeted by the First Couple. Bosh Bosh has won some major grants from the likes of Chevron Corporation, Friends of Liberia, US Embassy Self Help Fund, National Peace Corps Association, crowd sourcing donations, individual donations, and they continue to go for more. They were awarded and completed a contract to produce 1800 bags for an American aid organization, a job that definitely challenged them to continue to grow and improve. Two of Monrovia’s elegant hotels, The Grand Royal and Mamba Point allow BB to sell their products in their lobbies, asking nothing in return. The bags sell rapidly at this expat-dominated hotel. Go Charlene and Bosh Bosh! You can help too. Check them out at www.boshbosh.org to see how.
Tania Fowler is the founder of Interplay Coaching, a business coaching company dedicated to helping teams pull together to meet their goals in a way that outperforms even their wildest dreams.