Saving Starfish

I stumble into rainbows of beaded animals, walls covered with every imaginable size and shape. Elephants, giraffes, bucks, hippos, guinea fowl, and silly faced lamas seem to spring from the shelves. I spy soccer players, elongated dolls, and Nelson Mandela’s face. Beaded things explode from this little shop in Cape Town. The walls are even painted vibrant shades of papaya and plantain. I’m trapped in a Crayola crayon box.

This shop carries goods from an organization called Monkeybiz. Speaking with the shopkeeper, I learn that Monkeybiz supports women with HIV by promoting the craft of beading. What started with only a few artists has now grown to an artisan base of over 450 women. Desmond Tutu was involved in the organization, saying that Monkeybiz “helps women to help themselves.” The stigma surrounding HIV is being reversed, because these women are able to turn a craft into art, into education for their children, and into the prospect of a better life.  Monkeybiz has the slogan “Positively HIV,” empowering women who were once seen as ill-fated untouchables. I am so impressed by the objectives and success of this organization and eager to support the cause through a purchase.

Giraffe necks poke out at me and elephant trunks beckon to be chosen. Hundreds of can-shaped bodies teeter on thin legs with elegance and strength. I’ve been chewing on a hunk of biltong (local ostrich jerky) and I sigh guiltily at a beaded top-heavy fowl, gulping down the remaining chewy bits. I pick up this one and that one, and even asked the shopkeeper about her favorite. I think of loved ones back home and which would they prefer: an artsy giraffe or a recognizable elephant. The store is a beach of dying starfish, I think; which do I choose to throw out to sea? My wallet and luggage can’t save them all.

Hundreds of criteria churn through my head: expense, animal type, usage of “African” colors, size, and quality of beadwork. My backpack becomes heavier and heavier. T.S. Elliot chimes in my head, “and time yet for a hundred indecisions and for a hundred visions and revisions.” Other customers come into the store, look around, purchase and leave. I become embarrassed by how long I’ve been here, which only adds to my anxiety. Worried that my day is being wasted, my eyes dart from a shy baby giraffe to a gutsy turquoise zebra.

Finally my eyes flutter closed, calm grey replaces the onslaught of color. I realize it makes absolutely no difference which animals I choose. The fact is that my money will support female artists who’ve struggled with the HIV stigma. My friends and family won’t care if I choose a Saharan-grass zebra or one with mulberry stained beads. I want to give these gifts to spread the ideas of Monkeybiz, to raise awareness about a phenomenal organization that has really transformed women’s lives.

The time spent deliberating wasn’t wasted. I learned something more valuable than the three giraffes resting in my pack as I strolled away from the shop. The real gift I am bringing back for my friends and family is the realization that I can give the philosophy of Monkeybiz along with the story of my frustrated deliberation- turned- realization. True presents, after all, are alternate mindsets and stories that change your attitude; they are treasures that the recipient can’t ever lose (but can definitely re-gift).

Back on the ship, my roommate models her new designer purse.  She’s excited to get $150 back on the 14% Value Added Tax. You do the math. A gasp bursts from my pressed lips. I do the only thing I can: gush about Monkeybiz and throw starfish back into the sea one-by-one.

—Kira McCoy

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