Last week I wandered into the SOHO canyons to buy my wife a gift. Since we’ve been in New York, we’ve spent every weekend exploring the different burrows of New York. For whatever reason, we’ve ended up finding ourselves in the heart of SOHO.
My wife needed a new wallet. I headed straight for Peter Hermann Leatherworks. They had the wallet my wife had, a week earlier, grown attached to. So I was going to be the hero husband and get it for her.
What I didn’t expect was to spend a week going down a rabbit hole, attempting to connect the dots on a $400 men’s tote bag made out of cotton from Uganda, and why it was oddly named The Philanthropist Briefcase.
It all started when I casually mentioned (I don’t remember why) the magic words that usually either produce a blank stare in the geographically challenged or triggers interesting dialogue: I am from Uganda.
The salesman immediately pulled out the bag, gave me the whole story on how the cotton was imported from Uganda from an organization based in Jinja. I picked up the bag, read through the sympathy marketing pitch on the flier that was in one of the pockets. The token no-name African woman standing in her cotton field was prominently displayed. I tried to hold back criticism and instead directed my senses to bathe in the glow of pride that someone, somewhere was using Ugandan cotton in a shop in SOHO!
In Uganda, such a happy encounter is usually serenaded by a short exclamation: Imagine!
I turned over the bag and zeroed in on a small square label. I stopped imagining and started getting curious. This was an Invisible Children collaboration. So naturally, I marched the shop attendant outside, propped the bag on a chair and took pictures with my phone.
I didn’t do anything with the images until this morning when I started digging around.
This is where I realized I was in over my head.
I looked up the company that makes the bag, Apolis, which touts itself as a “a socially motivated lifestyle brand that empowers communities worldwide.” They have similar raw materials sourcing partnerships in Bangladesh, Peru, India, Israel, and Honduras.
For the Philanthropist Briefcase, Apolis partnered with famed luggage & bags outfit, Filson. The partnership is explained in this brief video embedded below:
That’s all well and good but I couldn’t find the connection to Invisible Children until I went back to the Apolis site and found, none other than Jason Russell
waxing poetic stammering on about the tenants of sustainable development:
Still not satisfied, I dug a little deeper and hit the mother load.
During last year’s Kony 2012 video phenomenon, Bruce Wilson at Talk to Action published an exhaustive backgrounder on Invisible Children, the origins of the Apolis Global partnership, and how it ties into The Fellowship – what I can only describe as a far right Christian group and largest international funder and promoter of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill – which has led to the unnecessary deaths of many Ugandan equal rights campaigners.
One of the most immediate IC-Fellowship connections traces directly through Jason Russell, and other top Invisible Children leaders, and the co-founders of Apolis Global – a California for-profit boutique high-end clothing brand which Invisible Children has partnered with in a joint project in which cotton for Apolis clothes is grown in Northern Uganda.
Somehow, I knew it was too good to be true. A truly well-meaning market-centered initiative that was willing to engage Uganda’s most impoverished area in order to bring about economic development. Instead, what I uncover, and I am sure many people have connected these dots, is yet another scheme attempting to white-wash clear acts of sovereign interference in the name of doing good.
I, along with many Ugandans, flocked to the microphone last year to defend our country against the blatant defamation and robbery of agency being inflicted on us by Jason Russell’s organization.
It is disappointing to discover that we are nothing but pawns in a grand game of ideological leverage. Even our smallest efforts to rise from the ashes can be hijacked in the name of global good.
Instead of me walking out of a high end shop proud that my country was a partner in the production of a product worthy of being on the shelf in a SOHO boutique, I am newly skeptical of any partnership that doesn’t have us as the originator and producer.
If we as Africans are going to rise — truly rise — we need to examine what is really in our best interest. The best interest of our children and nations as a whole. I am fully aware that in some situations, we may not have the cards to leverage partnerships in our favor all the time. But I think if we stop and realize that the biggest bargaining chip, one that no one can devalue except us, is our pride. If we truly own and understand the notion that standing tall – even with nothing – is the most powerful tool one can leverage, we can build empires.
I am truly disappointed that what could have been a beautiful, empowering story about a Ugandan bag in a SOHO boutique, is instead a depressing story about a $400 bag of hurt, dressed up as philanthropy.