Being a product of two cultures and being at home in Freetown and Paris, I live the big paradox of our global society every day: while somebody picks up a bag for 5000 euros in a store on Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, someone else in Sierra Leone struggles to get 5000 Leones (=$1) to buy his/her next meal. I wonder which of these two people is happier in the moment of consumption, the one eating the meal or the one buying the luxury accessory. I ask myself how our love of fashion can shrink this huge social gap, instead of exasperating it and producing anger and violence?
Patrice Bart-Williams asks: How can fashion help to relieve poverty and criminality in the city?
Mallence Bart-Williams answers: I think the answer is through sharing. The elimination of any kind of social gap can only come about through an exchange, through which the counterparts engage and create something mutual, something that connects them. The most inspiring and unique combinations can come out of such collaborations, complementing for deficiencies on both ends of the stick. The *folorunsho creative collective was born out of the necessity to be creative in order to survive.
In spite of its incredible richness in natural resources–like diamonds and gold–and its overall religious tolerance, Sierra Leone is still recovering from a terrible civil war that killed over 50,000 people between 1991 and 2002, forced over two million to leave the country, and compromised the lives of those who stayed, destroying their families and social structures. The capital, Freetown, is an urban jungle in which many fight daily for survival, rather than a place to realize their dreams.
Here, in 2008, I met some of the survivors. Ironically, I met them because everybody warned me and told me to avoid them. They sounded very intriguing: a group of 14-22 years old “bad boys”, “gangsters”, leading expedient lives, and living under a bridge, literally in a dumpster called Lion Base. What kind of circumstances made them end up living in a gutter? What made them different? Why were they marginalized? In the quest for these answers, we got to know each other. Not only did they never rob or harm me, but they also granted me the respect earned in the best of friendships.
With time, I understood how talented and special these guys are. Life on the streets had made them masters of creativity; the kind of creativity that is born out of necessity and the struggle for survival. Some of them had been living on the streets since they were only 3 years old, never receiving an education, forced to be independent and responsible for themselves from an early age. Their personalities, formed by their lives on the streets, are unique in every aspect. It was clear that their creativity would flourish and prosper if put into the right context.
Utilizing their creative skills, we founded the creative collective *folorunsho (meaning “born under the eye of God” in Yoruba). Through collaborations with brands and individuals, this group has produced handmade products like sneakers, jewelry, projects like the short movie “The Rising of the Son”, and published a book. We also took part in TED Prize winner JR’s ‘Inside-Out’ art project.
We don’t have machines or electricity. Instead, we use our hands and our creativity to transform something generic into something unique. You may not be able to travel here and we may not be able to travel to you, yet we can touch you with something that was touched by us: for instance, local batik material used to hand-make sneakers.
We also produced embroidered denim shirts with local materials.
The proceeds from these projects enabled the twenty-one boys to hire a private teacher who taught them how to read and helped them be able to move from Lion Base into two apartments in November 2011. Today, most of them are going to school and eventually plan to go to university. For the first time, the boys are discussing their futures instead of merely focusing on their day-to-day survival and their fight against social and environmental exclusion.