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Do you know about plarn, yarn made from plastic bags? You can knit or crochet it and make beautiful, durable items--like this bag that darkpaisley made for me, years ago, from Stop & Shop bags.

Discarded plastic bags are more than just an ugly nuisance in the West African nation of the Gambia. There, plastic shopping bags kill livestock that eat them and provide a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitos. A woman named Isatou Ceesay found an ingenious solution. She learned how to make plarn, and, with her friends, started crocheting small change purses from the discarded plastic bags, which she and her friends sold. The trash problem--and attendant health risks--disappeared, and Isatou and her friends had a new source of income. The project was so successful that Isatou started teaching women in other villages, and in 2012 she won the International Alliance for Women's World of Difference award.

Isatou Ceesay Photos by Smelter Mountain on Flickr (used with permission)

Miranda Paul, a writer who has lived and taught in the Gambia, wrote about Isatou in One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia (illustrated by the fabulous Elizabeth Zunon).

An LJ friend put me in touch with Miranda, and I asked her some questions about One Plastic Bag, writing, and her time in the Gambia. Her answers are thought-provoking and inspiring.

You lived and taught in the Gambia a few times over the course of several years. How has your time there changed the way you live in the United States?

All of our experiences shape the way we live in some way, especially significant ones such as my time(s) in the Gambia. Of course, I'm even more conscious about using resources and generating trash now, but that's not the only way my travels have changed me. I've learned the importance of having many relationships and connections, which is hard to admit for those of us who are introverted or like being alone. In Gambia, your network of people is often your greatest asset, your biggest resource. I make it a point not to "hole up" here in the U.S. and to try to keep in touch with people (offline).

As a follow-up, how has writing One Plastic Bag changed your outlook (on recycling, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship—anything!)

Watching the success of Isatou's project in Njau has led me to firmly believe that the most productive development, empowerment, etc. happens because the leaders are insiders. I've seen many foreigners try to come in and start charities or projects, and they tend to fail or fizzle in time. But Peggy Sedlak, the Peace Corps Volunteer in the book, who helped Isatou and the women get their co-op running, deserves kudos for setting it up in a way in which the women took ownership and leadership of the project. Listening and being flexible was important to all of them, and the Women Initiative Gambia program has become one of the most successful (and longest-lasting) Peace Corps inspired projects in the Gambia.

As a child, you didn’t think of “writer” as a possible career because you never saw or met any writers. Now, you do lots of school talks, which helps kids see that yes, writer is very much a thing that a person can be. Can you share a memorable interaction you’ve had with schoolchildren?

Miranda Paul Photo by Smelter Mountain on Flickr (used with permission)

Even before my first book came out, I visited a school to talk about what writers do (I wrote for magazines and newspapers at the time). I showed a group of fourth graders some of my rejection letters and told them that all writers get rejections, but the REAL writers are the ones who keep working and trying. Two girls who had co-written a story rushed up to me afterward because they, too, had gotten a rejection letter. They'd been bummed and stopped writing for awhile, but now couldn't wait to keep working on their story and trying to get it published.

You’re also a cofounder of the We Need Diverse Books movement—and what an amazing movement that’s been (and continues to be). Can you tell us about your involvement with it?

There are a number of cofounders, and I want to give a shout-out to them all; what an amazing lineup of people. I'm involved in some of WNDB's board decision-making, but also in a few of our newer initiatives. We have so many wonderful programs already rolled out this year, and more to come soon. I'm particularly proud of how WNDB continues to put diverse books in the forefront, with our Summer Reading Series and Booktalking kits. Next year, we'll also announce the first-ever Water Dean Myers awards. As VP of Outreach, it's my job to tell people to sign up to get our updates and visit our website often (www.diversebooks.org). Our email signup on the homepage and joining us on social media (also linked on the homepage) are the best ways to keep on top of the great things the organization is doing!

Thank you, Miranda, for spending some time here with me! And thanks for all that you do with children and building community--it's wonderful.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 15th, 2015 01:30 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this.
Jul. 16th, 2015 10:28 am (UTC)
My great pleasure! The book is just lovely--highly recommended for grandchildren! And as you can see, Miranda Paul is a really insightful thinker.
Jul. 15th, 2015 03:51 pm (UTC)
Maybe this could be part of a solution to Egypt's trash problem.
Jul. 16th, 2015 10:30 am (UTC)
I think it requires people being really enthusiastic about doing the work. It *is* a lot of work, but the end result is so good.
Jul. 16th, 2015 03:16 am (UTC)
Good project - the fewer loose-flying plastic bags the better.
Jul. 16th, 2015 10:30 am (UTC)
Jul. 16th, 2015 03:40 am (UTC)
Jul. 16th, 2015 10:31 am (UTC)
I really loved Miranda's answers.
Jul. 18th, 2015 08:58 am (UTC)
That's a great story! Thanks for sharing...
Jul. 19th, 2015 12:15 pm (UTC)
My pleasure!
Jul. 24th, 2015 02:58 am (UTC)
Sorry it's taken so long for me to drop by. I started reading shortly after you posted on Facebook, but got interrupted.

I tried several years ago, after reading an article about plarn, to turn plastic bags into yarn and crochet with it. I found it was really hard on my hands. I admire these women so much, for all their hard work and perseverance in so many realms of life.
Jul. 24th, 2015 12:15 pm (UTC)
I've never tried it myself, but several of my friends have. I admire these women too--wonderful.
Jul. 25th, 2015 12:40 am (UTC)
I learned to crochet as a child, and while I am by no means an expert, I have always found it easier than knitting. I recently started tutoring at a new location, where very few students are availing themselves of tutoring this summer and the management has not yet succumbed to my pleas for work I can do between students. Consequently, one of my fellow tutors, who is a fairly prolific knitter and crocheter, has taken on the task of teaching me knitting. Today, I managed 7 or 8 inches of very ragged scarf-width knitting. Even as a slow beginner, I find it much faster than crochet. I wonder whether the women making these bags would find plarn works for knitting, and whether it would be faster, or provide a better drape for the finished products.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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