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Cushions and T’ings in exchange for your Farthings

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Olga Laban
Education was the least of the family’s priorities.

An 8 year old girl arrives home from school, has a piece of bread with jam or sometimes with just sugar on it and then settles down for the evening. She’s not doing home-work; instead she will work through the night to assist her Mum in putting the finishing touches to table cloths, hankies, table mats and so on. Tomorrow, she will get up and go to school with whatever sleep she has managed, unless she is able to fain a headache. 

Her Mum will take two suitcases off merchandise in the morning to one of the many Royal Mail ships which call at a small island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The year is 1952, the island is St Helena, and the little girl is Olga Crowie (now Laban) then of New Ground.

Mrs Pritchard, whose husband was on the island working for the British Government had a store in the canister and would supply material to the island ladies who would then make these wonderful items for retail.

Whilst the income was very meager, the Crowie family needed every penny they could get to buy food. Times were hard, there were no shoes, very little money and Olga remembers walking up Jacobs Ladder with gunny bags of shopping, unless she could hitch her bags on donkeys travelling out of Jamestown. Education was the least of the family’s priorities.

 

Yet, Olga remembers happiness. She remembers life being simple, the sharing and caring and ‘Aunties and Uncles’ next door. Most islanders were ‘in the same boat’ when it came to the level of hardship. She loved playing 5 and 10 stones with neighbouring children.

She remembers vividly stopping at the house of a lady who lived near the Police Station at White Wall and asking for some water knowing full well that the lady would offer her a slice of bread for her final leg home.

The items sold on Royal Mail ships would have then been transported all over the world, the story of how they came to completion and the little girl who worked all night with her Mum to finish them, perhaps never being told, the case for many countries who sell their goods to western first world societies perhaps? Without this trade, things would have been decidedly more difficult for the family financially.

At fifteen, Olga moved to the UK with her Mum, a stark contrast to island life. Yet, during a very difficult period in the UK, she found her needle and thread again and created a beautiful cotton blanket. She displays the blanket proudly and the amount of detail is simply awe-inspiring. “Let beauty come from ashes”.

After many years of living abroad, Olga and her husband Paul decided to return to the island of St Helena for good in 2006. Olga hadn’t been back since her departure in 1961. Through the leafy sunshine of Little Varneys in Alarm Forest, Olga once again began to weave her magic.

This time, there is no boat in the harbour waiting for merchandise, this time there are no tight deadlines or excuses of a headache to avoid the long hours of toil for food money.

The cushions, covers, table clothes, needlework in picture frames etc which she proudly displays are indicative of time consumption, meticulous detail, vibrancy. When folks suggest that creativity has only recently surfaced on the island, Olga’s story (as many others) show that this is far from the truth. Saints the world over continue to amaze with their creativity in kitchens, joinery workshops, art exhibitions, music venues etc. Some of our market might not be world-class, but given half a chance, it could be. With the transcendence of each year / decade, market demands change, there is a market (albeit competition is rife) for arts and crafts, if we can really believe in the authenticity of our product.

As the cable arrives, folks will be able to showcase their efforts quickly and less expensively online. A special place, talented people, what’s to stop us but our own lack of belief in our product?  Dare we to think outside of the confines of these forty seven square miles? Dare we use our talents to showcase the journey as opposed to the destination? Dare we find help for the challenges in life which are blocking our creativity? Dare we have a creative purpose beyond money and fame?

Olga’s goods are heirlooms, to be handed on to her daughters. Machines now do the work much faster for larger quantities, what is that machine’s story? Made in Germany in the year 2017 and it cost £80k. Can we even validate the efforts of machines against the hard toil and ingenuity of a human being?

St Helena Online continues to showcase the talent of Saints. 

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