The large, eclectic array of gift items from southern Africa at Calabash Gifts makes the store visually seem like a colorful year-round African market. Beautiful art, jewelry, sculptures, ceramics, carvings, baskets, dolls, crafts, and decorative home items handcrafted by people living in southern Africa fill the walls and cover the tables.
Owners Leah and Raymond Kessel moved to Madison in 1968. Raymond worked in the genetics department at University of Wisconsin–Madison. As the couple were raising their children, Roy and Sharon, owning a store never crossed Leah and Raymond’s minds until a 1996 trip home to Johannesburg to visit Raymond’s parents.
The visit to southern Africa opened their eyes. It amazed them that the lives of black people were essentially the same in 1996 as they were during apartheid, when there was purposeful segregation and economic inequality. They were disturbed by the extreme poverty in the region and almost unlivable conditions of the black Africans. People were dressed in old and torn clothes; multiple families lived together in one tiny room; and women with many children often lived in a broken down, stripped lorry (truck) or van pieced together from steel scraps and car parts. There wasn’t electricity or running water, so women cooked over an open fire, and the children slept on the grass outside the structure without blankets or pillows.
Men could sometimes find low-paying factory work with long hours. Women had to care for the children, and their opportunities were limited to cleaning the mansions of wealthy white people and handcrafting items to sell to tourists who came to the village. The items were well made and beautiful, but there was barely any profit. Thus, the cycle of poverty continued.
Leah was moved to do something about what she saw, and an idea came to mind. “I desperately wanted to help people living in extreme poverty in southern Africa. I saw extraordinary, exotic, and unique African art, and wondered if it would work for us to buy their beautiful items and bring them back to Madison to sell. The people were economically disadvantaged, but possessed great talent and skill acquired from previous generations to handcraft things of beauty.” If Leah was so struck by the work of the artisans, perhaps other Madisonians might also appreciate the beauty.
With a strong sense of purpose, the couple drove to the markets in the villages, and Leah carefully hand selected items. People begged her to buy everything, so to be fair, she bought something from each. “The purchases did not make the families wealthy, but it did provide a little more money to help feed their children more or with better food, or improve their living conditions,” says Leah.
Initially, Leah’s goal was to rent a storefront for six months to see if people would buy the items. “We found affordable rent at a building on Monroe Street and set up shop. We named the business Calabash Gifts after the calabash gourd, which grows in Africa. When dried, the outer shell of the gourd hardens to serve as an excellent watertight container to collect food, carry water, and other uses.” In a similar fashion, the store would hold the collection of handcrafted items from southern Africa.
The plan worked. People loved the brightly colored, unique African items, and they asked for more. On return trips, the couple shared stories about how items were shipped in containers and trunks to America by boat. In one of their first shipments, the carved elephants were confiscated by Milwaukee customs because the agents couldn’t tell if the wooden tusks were made from ivory. “I never would buy anything with ivory because it means elephants were killed to obtain the tusk,” says Leah. “After that, I carried the wooden tusks in my luggage for safekeeping.”
Through Leah’s keen eye for buying, Calabash grew in reputation as an African art and home accents store with an amazingly high-quality collection of both fine art and traditional African art. Locals and tourists alike often treat the store as an African museum or gallery. They come with their questions and love to hear Leah and Raymond convey the history of the artists and their work.
Every two years since 1996, the trips to southern Africa are both a visit to see Raymond’s parents and a buying trip for Leah. She often returns to the same artists she discovered before their work became world renowned. The work of Portchie, an artist born in Portugal who moved to Cape Town, is just one example. “The locals derogatorily called him Portchie, so he used the name they taunted him with to sign his paintings. Now his originals sell for thousands of dollars,” says Leah. A number of his prints are sold at the store.
Leah uses fair trade policies and respects the creativity of individual artists. Some items are purchased from local cooperatives and job creation programs that don’t exploit people. “The Kaross co-op has changed the economic base of 900 women from remote impoverished areas of Africa so they can support themselves,” says Raymond. One intricate embroidered wall hanging was the work of two women who created the piece to be as beautiful on the backside as the front.
Upon retirement from UW–Madison six years ago, Raymond joined Leah to help operate the business. Local teachers use the store as a resource on Africa, bringing classes to listen to Raymond talk about the country’s culture and customs.
“It has been satisfying to us that we’ve been able to help people in southern Africa for 23 years so they can provide more food, blankets, and necessities for their families and improve their living conditions,” says Leah. “In addition to serving as a retail outlet, we’ve changed the perspectives of customers who had no idea of the talent of African artisans.”
Visit Calabash Gifts to discover tradition, culture, and talent from southern Africa.
Lauri Lee is a freelance writer living in Madison.