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Looms of Ladakh Cooperative Formed

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The Pashmina wool sheared from goats in the high plateau region of Southeastern Ladakh has, for centuries, been shipped out to Kashmir, where artisans have fashioned luxurious cashmere sweaters and shawls. Almost all of the profits from this trade have been in the hands of the shippers, merchants, and weavers—everyone other than the Ladakhi themselves. Until last year. A news story last week described the establishment of a path-breaking Ladakhi cooperative that seeks to train women in the villages where the goats are raised to process and weave the goat hair into products that will be sold on the international markets.

A young Changpa taking the family goats out to graze

A young Changpa taking the family goats out to graze (Photo by McKay Savage on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

G. Prasanna Ramaswamy, the former Deputy Commissioner of Leh, and his wife Abhilasha Bahuguna, developed the idea for the cooperative after a chance encounter he had in the remote village of Chumur, located in the Changthang Region of Southeast Ladakh bordering Tibet. During his visit, he was gifted with a luxurious pair of knit socks by a Changpa woman who was a member of the local Ama Tsogspa, one of the mother’s collectives that have been formed by Ladakhi women. The gift raised a question in his mind—why can’t the women in these remote villages use their innate skills to enhance their livelihoods with this fine wool?

So he and his wife set out to found a weavers’ cooperative. Bahugana said “not only does this initiative [seek] to enhance livelihood opportunities, but [it also fosters] the creation of an identity for a region with its traditional crafts and textiles.” Her husband addressed the broader implications of the new cooperative. He said that by giving employment to the Ladakhi in their own homes, the new venture might help stem the flow of migrants out of the remote villages and into the larger towns like Leh.  Prasana added that too much out migration might result in Ladakh losing its unique way of life.

Pashmina goats in Ladakh

Pashmina goats in Ladakh (Photo by _paVan_ on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Prasana appointed Dr. Tundup Namgyal to take charge of forming Project Laksal in July 2016, which was intended to form the cooperative itself, to be called “Looms of Ladakh.” Their reasoning was that one Pashmina goat may yield 250 g. of raw wool, one-quarter to one-third of which is enough to fabricate a shawl that could fetch, according to Dr. Namgyal, Rs.15,000 (US$236) on the market. If the women could process the wool and produce the finished shawls themselves, the herding families could retain a lot more of the profits from their goats.

Within a month, the founders began testing a pilot project in Stok and Kharnakling, two villages near Leh, the capital of the Leh Distract of Ladakh. Then, the founders began a training program in those villages and in Chuchot and Phyang, also near Leh. During the following winter of 2016/17, training programs were extended to women in Chushul, Merak, Parma, and Sato, much more remote villages in the Changthang area.

A woman shepherd in southeastern Ladakh milking her goats

A woman shepherd in southeastern Ladakh milking her goats (Photo by Prabhu B. Doss on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Stanzin Paslmo, an expert on design, conducted the training sessions for 40 of the women in the Leh area. She told the reporter that she focused her sessions at first on the value of the raw Pashmina wool and on the importance of the women’s existing skills. She said she “made them understand the importance of design, size standardisation and finishing.” The village women also came to appreciate the importance of effective branding under the tutelage of Ms. Paslmo, who also designed the logo for the Looms of Ladakh. Their first store with that name opened in the main market district of Leh on May 12, 2017.

The reporter interviewed a woman named Tsering Youdol in Chushul, one of the villages in the Changthang. She said that some members of their cooperative group have 70 to 80 goats and a few have over 100. They take the goats to be sheared and then distribute the wool to their members. “Earlier we weren’t aware of the value of Pashmina,” she said. “At home, it used to lie here and there.” They know better now.

The Looms of Ladakh website

The Looms of Ladakh website

Looms of Ladakh would like to expand the reach of its website and enter the e-commerce sphere, but logistics are a serious issue due to inadequate shipping services in Ladakh. In their first six months of operation, Looms of Ladakh saw their business quickly grow to sales worth Rs 23 lakh (US$362,000), but it might have been more with better planning, according to the reporter.

The news report indicated that the products made by the women are bar-coded and that the individuals earn 37.5 percent of the sales. Out of the sales, 41 percent is kept by the cooperative so they can purchase raw materials for the upcoming season. The remaining funds are used for administrative costs of the organization, utility bills, marketing, skill development, and other expenses. The organization also keeps a percentage to develop a welfare fund for participants to use for health expenses and schooling for their children.

 

A Cholera Epidemic in Tanzania

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News reports from southwestern Tanzania in late November expressed hope that health authorities were slowing the spread of cholera, but the news last week indicated that the situation is getting worse. The epidemic is occurring in the traditional territory of the Fipa society, which occupies much of the land between the southeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika and the western shore of the smaller Lake Rukwa. The cholera epidemic had been particularly severe along the shore of the giant lake but it appeared, in November, to be diminishing.

Approaching the Mtowisa Health Center, near Lake Rukwa, by road

Approaching the Mtowisa Health Center, near Lake Rukwa, by road (Photo by Katy Woods for The White Ribbon Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A news story on January 7th reported that the disease had spread to the shores of Lake Rukwa starting in November, and it is becoming an epidemic. Since the 20th of that month, seven people have died from cholera on the Lake Rukwa side of the district and 138 have been diagnosed with it. Sumbawanga is one of the four districts in Tanzania’s Rukwa Region. Dr. Halfany Haule, the Sumbawanga District Commissioner, closed down all fishing activities along Lake Rukwa until the epidemic has been brought under control.

The District Commissioner also banned fishing on the Lake Tanganyika side of the district until the disease has stopped spreading. He also ordered that patients with the disease be transferred to special camps “where they will be treated to ensure that it never spreads outside these areas,” he said.

Women waiting at the Mtowisa Health Center

Women waiting at the Mtowisa Health Center (Photo by Katy Woods for The White Ribbon Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The wards in the Sumbawanga District that seemed to be the most affected included Mfinga, Kalumbaleza, Muze, Mwadui and Mtowisa along the shores of Lake Rukwa. The epidemic started in that area on November 15 when two fishermen in Muze got infected and died. Dr. Haule instructed people living near the lake shore to take proper precautions, such as only using properly built pit toilets, never using the lake itself as a toilet, and boiling all water before drinking it.

An article published by a different news source on January 9th reported that cholera has spread beyond the borders of Tanzania into other southern African countries. Zambia has had an estimated 65 deaths due to the disease since October 2017; the Zambian army has been mobilized to provide support to the health ministry for efforts to control the spread of the epidemic. That country has delayed schools, closed some businesses where sanitary facilities are inadequate, and postponed political activities until the crisis has passed.

A woman waiting with her baby at the Mtowisa Health Center

A woman waiting with her baby at the Mtowisa Health Center (Photo by Katy Woods for The White Ribbon Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The disease appears to be spreading across Malawi as well. Reports from that nation indicated that 150 people have been hospitalized due to the disease and four have died. Malawi is imposing strict border controls to try and stem the spread of the illness from the neighboring countries. It is clear from the news stories that officials in the affected nations are taking the epidemic seriously. Whether the Fipa and the other peoples of the region will also heed the warnings and use proper health measures remains to be seen.

 




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