Monday, January 14, 2013

MARGOT LIEFTINCK, a foot soldier for change

I have always been fascinated by the global community. Today the global community has been made smaller by the use of the internet. Not only can my words be read on the other side of the earth, but you can share your stories with me. It is nothing short of miraculous. After the world response to the gang rape and death of 23 year old, Jyoti Singh, in New Dehli, I've begun to believe that change to this shameful culture of rape can really happen. 

Kantha is a form of embroidery from Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. Kantha means ‘old cloth’ in Sanskrit.

Unsurprisingly, the battle against poverty is a major player in the war against rape. I have been amazed by the number of organizations that have taken a stand in this process. The thing that has astonished me most are the foot soldiers. These are the individuals that stand independently to promote women in countries far from their own. Margot Lieftinck the founder of Tulsi Crafts ( is one of those foot soldiers. She has taken a stand to promote the fair trade model while empowering women with a way to earn a living.

When I was a child one of my beloved family possessions was a world globe that was textured by the topographical peaks and valleys of the lay of the land. I would sit alone with the globe in my lap and spin the world as fast as I could. I would stop the spinning by placing one finger on it and explore the texture with my fingers trying to put into context the vastness that it represented. I tried to imagine the lives that were lived there. Although I remember clearly my excitement at landing in the highly textured area of the Himalayas or disappointment of landing in the middle of the ocean, I can’t say that I recall landing on Bangladesh. In fact, my knowledge of Bangladesh is minimal.

Bangladesh also known as the “Country of Bengal” is bordered by India, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. It is the eighth most populated country, with one of the highest population densities in the world. The country is highly challenged by poverty, corruption and natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. The Bengali Deltas are nourished by large rivers flowing from the Himalayas. Of the roughly 2500 remaining Bengal tigers living in the wild, approximately 440 are in Bangladesh.

Margot Lieftinck traveled to Bangladesh for the first time in 2011. She says that it wasn’t a country that she was longing to visit but traveled with her partner, a board member and architect for the Dutch NGO Niketan, ( to Bangladesh for a building project. Wanting to make good use of her time she took part in some market research for the NGO in their vocational training center that was working with textiles.

Margot describes her first experience with Bangladesh as a love-hate relationship. She describes it as a densely populated country in which 49% of the people are living below the poverty line. Dhaka the location of her travel is ridden with poor infrastructure and corruption while also being handicapped by a substandard power supply and a nearly nonexistent public transport system. She said she was overwhelmed by the noise and difficult way of life.

On the other hand, Margot describes Bangladesh as a country of opposites. She said the people were the most friendly, curious and hospitable she had ever met. She said that because tourism is not commonplace, visitors are not viewed as monetary opportunities, the warmth offered is genuine. Margot went on to describe a street scene that left my heart longing. She said. “The old part of Dhaka, while very run down and at risk of being destroyed, showcases the former grandeur of the city. There are stalls everywhere. There is bread baking, tea brewing, water pumping, goats being slaughtered and everyone welcomes you into their home. They want to know why you are in Bangladesh. It’s all a very full and vibrant way of life despite that it is a difficult life for many.”

Margot said that she had always been fascinated with the colorful textiles found in India and was excited to find similar textiles in Bangladesh as well. As she visited fair trade shows in Dhaka she was surprised by quality of the products and wondered why she had never found anything like it in the Netherlands. She later found that some organizations don’t like to trade with Bangladesh because Fair Trade organizations making larger volume products are subject to the country's corruption making it harder to produce from within Bangladesh. She explored using organizations that she knew and trusted and found that she could purchase smaller quantities. 

Tulsi Crafts is a Rotterdam based store that sells fair trade products that are manufactured in Bangladesh. The products sold are made from re-purposed, recycled or natural materials. Products include bags, electronics sleeves, jewelry and my personal favorites beautiful, colorful Sari Scarves and blankets. 

Most of the items sold by Tulsi Crafts are recycled. I told Margot that as I reflect on my Indonesian mother’s habits, I realize that recycling was always part of her custom. An empty cottage cheese container became a compost bucket long before the idea of recycling and composting was trendy and common. Margot explained that in Bangladesh everything has value, when you have no money you don’t throw anything away. 

One of the items that Tulsi Crafts sells that appeals very much to me are the Sari Blankets. The method known as “Kantha” is a technique used to create two sided quilts. They are presently made to be sold, but originally their use had been to keep the family warm. Traditionally Kanthas used motifs with a religious or spiritual meaning. Today the fact remains that the blankets are made from Saris. I love the idea of wrapping my child in the protective warmth of a blanket of saris that were worn by other mothers. The blankets and scarves sold by Tulsi Crafts provide work to women by Basha in Dhaka. Through dignified work the women are provided a sustainable livelihood and offered shelter from the risk of human trafficking.

I asked Margot her thoughts about implementing change for women in countries like Bangladesh. Margot said that she felt that we have the power to make small changes individually. She said that she knows that she can only start with small steps towards making changes in what seems to be an incomprehensible need. She said that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the idea that you can’t change things alone. Margot stated that she has to focus on the handful of women whose lives she can change and recognize that that change also occurs for the children of these women.

Margot discussed the value of the internet as a tool of awareness. I asked her what single issue she thought that she would like to share with the world. This is her response, “The textiles industry in Bangladesh exports $18 Billion (USD) in merchandise annually and yet the textile workers earn about $37.00 dollars a month while working work six days a week. That it is not nearly enough to support families or secure a better future for their children. The working conditions are brutal and yet we all continue to buy clothes manufactured in Bangladesh without any consideration for its origin. We need to have an awareness for the wages earned by the workers and the working conditions to which the workers are subjected. The manufacturers and designers need to be held to a higher esteem".

Before our conversation ended Margot told me a story that I won’t soon forget. Margot said that before she and her partner left The Netherlands for Bangladesh they made a pact not to give money to panhandlers. They jointly made the decision to find other ways to give, to find ways that provided a more long term method of helping. When they arrived it was nearly the end of Ramadan a time when many people “give” and a time when many people travel to Dhaka to beg. She said that there was one boy who was extremely persistent and made a nuisance of himself by obstructing their path. She said that finally upon becoming irritated and without looking at him she stated clearly that she would not give him money. She said that she was not only irritated with his persistence but with his parents for bringing another child into the world for which they could not provide care. She felt angry that parents use their children as a way to generate money. As he walked away she looked behind her and saw that he was carrying the limp body of a younger sibling. She realized later that she had bread in her bag that she could’ve given them.

Today when I see a globe I can’t help but think about that game that I played alone as a child and the way the textures felt beneath my fingers. The internet has allowed me to put faces and personalities into the vastness of those textures. When I pay too much for a beautiful Ralph Lauren blouse made by a mother who earns pennies each day, I have to give her a face. I have to imagine the children she loves and what the future holds for her daughter. We can all be foot soldiers in the fight for change. We can each do little things that touch the lives of others in a magnificent way. We can help make change happen for women on the other side of the earth before we turn back and see a mother walking away without hope.

Thank you, Margot Lieftinck.

Please visit Tulsi Crafts

For more information about Niketan and the building project designed by Tony Nelis, please visit these sites:

If you would like to share a story about your corner of the world or tell me about a person who is promoting change, please feel free to email me at


  1. Thank you for writing such an inspirational blog.keep writing for us.
    Russel Ahmed

  2. Thank you Russel! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it!