Calloused Hands [117 Trip Chronicles]


About a week after I got home from Ethiopia, I noticed the skin peeling off the inside of my palm. Calloused skin from using the leather punch was a reminder of the hard work that goes into making the products at Carry 117. It reminded me of a truth that I witnessed at Carry 117 - that working hard to make something brings dignity and empowerment. As an occupational therapist, one of the things I know is that being able to work and provide for your family is one of the core values that gives someone self-worth and respect. Some of my fondest memories of being in Korah are those I spent at the worktable with Abay. I made a conscious decision to pick one place to sit that week and invest in building a relationship, while also hoping to be a little helpful.

Sometimes the ladies are busy working to build up the inventory so that there is enough new product ready once it gets promoted. In the sewing room, parts of beach bags are being assembled by Meskerem, Medi, and Hareg, while wine bags are being trimmed and turned right side out by Tiruso. But this day, in the cutting room, the pressure was on to complete a special order of earrings. The teen girls from Kidane were working hard but they needed some help to get the order completed in time to ship. Hundreds of earrings were due by the end of the week. So we jumped in to hole punch and to package the earrings alongside the teen girls.

So, it was in the cutting room, sitting alongside Abay and Rahamet, that I spent cutting, punching, bending, counting, and packaging. It was there that I experienced the kindness, hospitality, and strong work ethic of the women of Carry 117 . At first, Abay wasn’t too sure about me. I could sense that she was apprehensive to have me touching the products. She takes great pride in making sure the items are cut well and the leather is of the best quality. I am sure she wondered if I was just going to make more work for her. Having been coached to welcome us, she kindly allowed me to give it a try.

Once she realized that I was capable, the walls came down. Sometimes we worked in silence, completely focused on our task at hand. But often, we would try to talk, occasionally with the help of a translator, sometimes using her few English words and my very few Amharic words. We bonded over sharing information about our families, something that always connects mothers worldwide. One afternoon, I audibly counted off 100 pairs of earrings, getting help from both Abay and Rahamet. They were so excited with my effort at Amharic. Feeling so accepted and loved made me want to work even harder.

When I asked Abay what she would want my friends back home to know about the women of Carry 117, she thoughtfully responded, “Tell them that we work very hard.” And that, they do! My calloused hands were evidence of that. Jeff Goins, in the book “Wrecked,”  tells how the word “compassion” means to suffer with someone. While I can hardly say that having blistered hands is truly suffering, working alongside Abay did give me a picture of the hard work that goes into the products of Carry 117 and helped me connect with them on a deeper level. Many times I went to pick up the leather punch and my hands were sore and tired - I could have just quit and gone somewhere else. But I wanted to stick with it as a symbol of my solidarity to the women of Carry 117. The women rightly take great pride in their skills and how hard they have worked for themselves and their families. They put great effort into producing quality products. If they can do it, I can do it along with them. Even if it was just for a short while, it was a great privilege to be part of the working team at Carry 117.

Abay and Ann_ IMG_20190315_120141191.jpg
Ann Kumpf