Inspirational trip to Senegal with the Toolbox Initiative

In April this year I was one of the lucky six jewellers to be chosen to go to Senegal with The Toolbox Initiative.  This is a charity established by Matthieu Cheminee (award-winning jeweller, teacher, author and photographer) and Tim McCreight (jeweller, teacher and publisher) to assist the metalsmithing community in West Africa by donating tools and materials from jewellery suppliers in the US as well as private contributors, while giving jewellers from developed countries the opportunity to learn new skills.

Each traveler paid a fee to cover accommodation, food and transport once in Senegal.  We arranged our flights ourselves, and travelers coming from the US carried around 20kgs of tools each.  I brought excess tools from my workshop in Greece to donate, along with some silver to commission some pieces.  We stayed in a comfortable apartment in Dakar, and having sorted the tools into bundles, we distributed these to the jewelers as we felt appropriate, with the guidance of Matthieu and Tim obviously.  We visited around 40 tiny, rudimentary workshops, and in each case we would ascertain what each jeweler needed most.  Valued tools such as draw plates and calipers went to people who particularly needed them.  It was a carefully considered distribution of equipment.  We also had two ambassadors with us from Mali and Guinea.  They traveled by bus to join us, sharing their skills (forging and filigree), then returned to their respective countries with tools to be donated as they saw fit.  

We were welcomed by these talented and humble jewelers as members of their family.  As one jeweler from Niger said “we may not have the same colour, culture or language, but we are all one family”.  So true - the language barrier was irrelevant here as we all had a certain knowledge of our subject, to varying degrees obviously.  For us, making jewellery is a solitary profession, whereas in Africa it is like a constant tea party, literally.  Tuareg rhythms in the background, sheep baaing from outside, fountains of African tea brewing, huge platters of Thieboudienne, the national dish being shared, and often a musician jamming in the corner.  All while sitting on the floor, and using your leg as an extra lever to create silver jewellery from a rough ingot.  

Matthieu and Tim’s friends were astonishingly generous with their knowledge and time.  In addition to demonstrations of how to form a bangle, knit a hollow wire bangle, make filigree and granulation, cast an Agadez cross, and gold plate, we also had a chance to sit down and practice engraving and stamping; all skills which I intend to practice and incorporate into future work.  

In the evening, apart from the privilege of enjoying Tim and Matthieu’s company and knowledge of jewellery and West Africa, our friends would come over to share dinner, discuss jewellery and play music.  Our communication was intense and rewarding, despite the language barrier.  This was a unique experience, and most importantly we contributed equipment to deserving people, gathered knowledge and shared inspirational times.  

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