Earth Angels

(Excerpt from the June 2012 issue of 'Insight' magazine)
In a very dry and isolated region of Maharastra, India, Anne Godfrey and her husband Bruce Johnson began a ten-year journey of discovery. The couple had moved to this area to dedicate their lives to teaching organic farming and ancient Vedic practices called Homa Therapy. Coming from the comfortable lifestyle of Sydney, where Anne had worked successfully as an independent fashion designer, the shock of arriving in the almost desertlike region would have sent most people back home on the first available flight. But Anne and Bruce are made of sturdier stuff and stayed on to build a beautiful oasis called Tapovan in the Jalgaon District of India.

Previous overuse of chemical farming in the area for many years had resulted in a terribly unbalanced ecosystem. Anne’s first experience of living at Tapovan was a nightmare of extreme conditions. Masses of ants, cockroaches, centipedes, mosquitoes, cobras and scorpions were a daily part of life, especially in monsoon season. Malaria and Typhoid outbreaks were common and any sort of medical assistance was 40km away. The dry season sometimes peaked with temperatures above 50ºC and lasted for weeks at a time. Electricity was scarce and total blackouts would last for days.

Tapovan has come a long way since the early days. Anne and Bruce have created a miraculous example to local farmers about the merits of organic Homa farming. While most of the surrounding area is dusty, dry and overworked, Tapovan is organic, green, fruitful and semi-sustainable with solar powered water systems rainwater harvesting and companion planting. It is also a budding community with four families living on and tending to the land. Anne and her son, Aaron, designed beautiful eco mud huts with grass roofs to compliment the natural surroundings. When they hold training courses for farming or cottage industry, participants are given comfortable accommodation in these huts.

While working on this incredible project, Anne provided funding for its growth from her ongoing fashion company, Wild Blackberry, she had started in Australia. As time went on, she came across local women in desperate need of financial assistance and also support. The local farmers were losing their battles to the pull of GMO seed companies, AIDS epidemics, loan sharks, alcoholism, and drought, plus many of the women in the area became widowed or impoverished to the point of starvation. During this time Anne met an Indian activist called Nileema Mishra, who had started a movement in the nearby town of Bahadarpur, providing low interest loans to groups of women, computer training and various employment opportunities for women below the poverty line. She also provided financial loans to many farmers desperate to save their farms. According to the Indian government, living below the poverty line equates to 25 rupees or under per day, which is 50 cents or under.

Anne immediately volunteered to provide assistance to Nileema’s Trust and started giving design and stitching classes. Through this work, the Rose Circles project was born. Simple designs and motifs were taught to hundreds of women in the local area using handwork because of electricity problems and the lack of machines. Those motifs were then bought by Anne’s business and applied to her garments. Profits from the business were put back into training and ongoing employment opportunities. This work is still expanding today, eight years later. By working together over time the Rose Circles project and Nileema’s Trust created much needed employment and training for thousands of women. As a result of this endeavour, Nileema’s Trust has recently been the recipient of the International Ramon Magsaysay award for outstanding contribution to Human Development and has resulted in thousands of quilt orders for the women working with Anne’s designs and Nileema’s Trust.

As local women came together for training, Anne saw that the work she had created was resulting in far more than economic support, some formed groups to work together on the handwork. One woman would provide her home as the working venue and the rest of the group would gather there during the day. Previous to this, many of these women rarely left their home or had a chance to connect with each other due to the social norms in the villages. When they had the opportunity to share their stories with each other and create a kind of sisterhood, a new atmosphere of support was built. Their gratitude and happiness was tangible. As more and more of these stitching units blossomed, community spirit in the villages lifted and it was clear for all to see that Rose Circles was making a substantial difference to their quality of life.

With the thought of creating better lives for the women she had met in the local villages, Anne created a line of products that could be made to support the Rose Circles women. The cottage industry products were carefully researched, designed and developed by Anne to meet the demands of the Western market. Anne saw she would be able to help many more women become self-sufficient if the opportunity was there for them to generate their own sales through a local trust or their own co-operative endeavour. So much of her work is in encouraging women to create their own trade, without having to be dependent on her. To kick-start their path to independence, Rose Circles continues to provide training in design and stitch work, business advice, sourcing good quality cheap material and assistance with marketing. The stories of women coming together in solidarity and sharing has spread to other countries via Anne’s website and social networking sites. It inspired women in several countries to support the cause by holding women’s circles and presenting the cottage industry products for sale. A simple rose brooch bought by a more privileged woman can provide enough money to feed a family for one day. It is not just a matter of creating sales but is also a way to encourage women to get together on a regular basis in the spirit of unity and support,to inspire the same gratitude and happiness within women’s circles all around the world.