Reading the Beads, Part 3

As we noted in our two previous posts, beads carry great significance in Ghanaian culture — marking key moments in your journey through life. What’s more, they can signify your status within society. 

A priest, for instance, would wear beads made of organic materials like bone, cowrie shell, or elephant teeth. A queen mother would wear white beads, symbolizing purity, as well as silver and blue beads, aligning her with the moon. A chief would wear bronze beads, plated with gold, and complementary yellow beads. According to our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, these glowing colors represent “fire under control.”

Not surprisingly, beads marking the end of life are especially meaningful. At funerals, mourners usually wear black and white beads to express their grief — but they might also wear red, to show their rage at the loss of a loved one. Beads of creamy red-brown bauxite, exclusive to Ghana, indicate an extremely profound loss.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our discussion of beads and their significance for the people of Ghana. Whenever you wear beaded jewelry, think of the ways different colors and styles can express something about your own journey through life.

Reading the Beads, Part 2

In our last post, we noted the significance that people in Ghana attribute to beads. As we saw, beads can celebrate and commemorate your birth. Here’s how they reflect the later stages of your journey through life:

Waist beads represent an intimate adornment once you reach adulthood. To quote our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, “they should be worn discreetly and not be seen by just anyone.” Beads worn around the wrist, however, can show status and express identity — for everyone to see.

Beads can also designate major landmarks in your journey, such as overcoming an obstacle, surviving an accident, or even giving birth. To make these moments tangible, you might opt for white beads or disk-shaped beads.

In our next post, we’ll talk more about the way beads can communicate social status — and mark the end of life. Be sure to join us!



Reading the Beads

In Ghana, beads are more than beautiful objects; they are symbols with specific meanings for each person. To quote our friends at SUN TRADE BEADS in Accra, they help “narrate your life from birth to death.” At the start of your journey, for instance, beads tell your story in the following ways:

One week after your birth, you’ll have a naming ceremony, and you’ll receive a small string of beads. These may be blue or another color, chosen by your grandmother. 

If you’re a twin, you’ll get a special set of beads to reflect your special status. These beads represent seed and bone, and they’re usually made of glass, in a combination of black and white or brown and white.

As you grow, your beads will be carefully restrung — continuing your story into the next phase of life. In our next post, we’ll explore that pivotal phase, so be sure to join us again!

Making a Difference -- With Masks

Earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached America, thousands of people had trouble getting face masks. There simply weren’t enough to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Beginning in March, we’re pleased to say, Unique Batik took action to address this problem. Working in tandem with skilled artisans and longtime retail customers, we were able to produce thousands of masks — and to make them freely available.

In Guatemala, for instance, artisans created soft, colorful masks from traditional corte fabric. In Thailand, artisans made beautiful tie-dyed masks.

We donated many of these masks to nonprofit organizations, and several of our retailers did the same, or facilitated the donation process. Here are some inspiring examples of fair-trade stores doing their part:


The Bridge (Holland, Michigan)

Volunteers bought masks and sent them to the Navaho Nation, a coronavirus hotspot with an infection rate among the highest in the country. Now, thanks to contract tracing, social distancing, and a mask mandate, the Nation has almost completely eliminated new infections.


Blue Heron Design (Lee’s Summit, Missouri)

Blue Heron gave masks away for free. With donations from its customers, the store raised almost $3,500 for four local organizations: Hope House, Lee’s Summit Social Services, Black Waters Market Food Pantry, and the Humane Society Animal Shelter (which received masks with a cat print). “I’m proud of our customers,” says owner Peggy Brown, “and humbled by their generosity.”


Mosaic Fair Trade Collection (Eugene, Oregon)

Mosaic helped customers donate masks to the Navajo Nation. For more information about the Nation and its response to COVID-19, click here.

Thanks to everybody who has helped us get masks to the people who need them!


When you buy a face mask from Unique Batik, you're helping talented artisans like Laura and Francisco -- hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

When you buy a face mask from Unique Batik, you’re helping talented artisans, like Laura and Francisco, who've been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.


The Impactful Work of ODIM Guatemala

One of the universal truths in this world is wherever  you go in the world you will find people just want to provide a good life for their families. At Unique Batik we strive to present opportunities for the families and communities we work with to do just that. We also know our work is only one avenue of support, so we believe in advocating for organizations doing life changing and life saving work on the ground in these communities. One of our favorite such organizations in Guatemala is ODIM (Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya). ODIM was founded in 2005, initially beginning its work by supplying humanitarian relief for the people of Guatemala after being devastated by Hurricane Stan. In 2008 construction began for ODIM’s San Juan Clinic (Clinica Sanjuanerita), and in 2014 the San Pablo Clinic (Clinica Chuitinamit) was opened. One of the greatest things about these clinics is that they are staffed by bilingual Spanish/Tz’utujil speaking nurses and a local physician, and of their 42 staff members 82% are Tz’utujil Mayan staff, 13% are Guatemalan (but not Tz’utujil), and only 5% are foreign staff. Another bonus: 83% of ODIM’s leaders and coordinators are women! 

Since ODIMs conception its staff has worked hard to raise funds to implement and maintain an array of incredible programs:

  • Healthy Mommy & Me utilizes healthcare, informational sessions, cooking classes, food vouchers, psychological support groups, and medical appointments to combat chronic malnutrition.

  • Adolescent Health is designed to equip youth with knowledge about puberty, sexuality, contraception, and gender equality to empower them to make sensible decisions for themselves and become peer educators in their communities.

              Adolescent Health                   Let's Walk Together
  • Let’s Walk Together provides education, exercise, cooking classes and support groups for those living with diabetes, which affects more than 25% of the indigenous population (to compare, the CDC’s 2020 report estimates 10.5% of the US population has diabetes).

  • High Impact Home Improvement (HIHI) provides families with water filters and safe, smokeless, and environmentally friendly stoves in their homes, as well as informative workshops about Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH).

ODIM provides medical care at their two clinics, their dental clinic Healthy Smiles, and goes above and beyond to address the root of issues in these communities. The importance of this simply cannot be overstated. While helping people to heal once they come to a clinic is certainly important work, having programs which assess and address the factors that lead to common issues is crucial to ensure the highest number of safe and healthy individuals. The fact that ODIM does both is truly impressive and heartwarming. 

These are just some examples of ODIM’s phenomenal programs. You can visit their website,, to learn more about all of the work they do, the communities they work in (San Juan and San Pablo La Laguna), and ways you can get involved. Thank you to all of the staff at ODIM for your tireless efforts to make your communities the best they can be. 




Hope for the Next Generation

As Unique Batik looks for nonprofit partners to support in the regions in which we work, one of the most important attributes we seek is sustainability. Will the organization be able to work effectively not only now, but in the future to make a long term impact instead of putting a temporary band-aid on the community’s problems? One of the most impressive things about Asociacion La Libertad, or ALAS, is that they have a sustainability plan to secure the organization's future. ALAS, a nonprofit organization based in Guatemala, coordinates educational development and more for the neglected populations of Guatemala.

Students in ALAS’ educational programs contribute to the plan by working while they attend school. To launch a new school in a remote area, La Libertad must ensure that they can support the minimum number of students required by the government.  Unique Batik has funded tuition for the seven qualified students needed to reach the minimum number required and start the new school.  Once the school is established, the students will help sustain it through their work.  Through this system, not only are they creating a future for the students who come after them, they are also empowered by knowing that they can contribute to the community.

After the brutal 36-year civil war ended in in 1996, 410 refugee families were repatriated to a remote zone of the highlands of Guatemala in the Zona Reina area, to the village now known as San Antonio de Nueva Esperanza, or “New Hope.” Reconstruction began and the vision of the village elders included establishing education as a foundation for future development. With the lowest literacy rate in Latin America, especially among rural, indigenous populations, education is of paramount importance to the development of the lives of the Guatemalan poor.

Fourteen years after the initial founding of La Libertad’s educational program, which seeks to provide formal education ranging from elementary school through college, the village of San Antonio de Nueva Esperanza and its neighbors have seen over 450 people complete their education through the ninth grade. Approximately fifty students participating in extended vocational training for computers and agriculture have gone on to study at the university level. Considering the odds against them -- on average, only one out of ten rural Guatemalans completes middle school -- these figures indicate the tremendous success of ALAS.

La Libertad continues to take on challenges, including the 2010 opening of the university satellite campus of the Mariano Gálvez University, the only one in all of the Zona Reina. With this, the original vision of extending local education from the middle school to university level has been brought to fruition, but sustaining this vision takes continuous work on the part of not only ALAS, but program participants. One benefit of local university classes is that it guarantees that local teachers who want to stay in Zona Reina and expand the educational system can achieve their own necessary education to lead and inspire future students.

Unique Batik is proud to partner with ALAS in providing educational opportunities for the people of Zona Reina and San Antonio Nueva Esperanza. Through the years, the community has shown its commitment to education and La Libertad has created a program that can achieve its goals sustainably, making the vision of the founding village elders a reality that will touch generations to come.

Introduction to the Modern Maya

Once one of the most powerful civilizations in Central America, the Maya people remain an integral part of Guatemala. The rise of the Maya civilization began thousands of years ago and spread across what it now southern Mexico all the way to modern day Honduras. The Maya civilization lasted longer than any other Mesoamerican culture that came to power in the area, and as a result, traces of the culture remain very much alive even today.

Today, there are about six million Maya living in Central America. Although they have relatively modern lives, most still live a lifestyle that is distinct from that of Guatemalans descended from a European heritage. Instead of Spanish, the official language of Guatemala, most Maya speak primarily  indigenous languages, of which there are 22, each reflective of a disparate regional heritage. Because the Maya civilization was so widespread geographically, various dialects evolved into unique languages over time.

Many Maya women, in particular, may not speak fluent Spanish at all. Growing up in Maya households and, unfortunately, likely not to have attended school where the Spanish language would be taught, women and girls speak only their indigenous language. Only 48% of indigenous women are literate in Spanish. This language barrier contributes to many disadvantages including inequality in the labor force, limited access to adequate health care, and exclusion from the legal system. Unique Batik works primarily with indigenous women, seeking to create income and the possibility of an education for those who would otherwise have little to no opportunity.

A history of craftsmanship is still seen in the beautiful handicrafts of Maya people today. Although their work has evolved to take in new influences, assimilate them, and in some cases become something entirely new, a reflection of Mayan history remains in carving, painting, textiles, and more. Considering today’s prevalence of beaded jewelry, it may surprise many to learn that although weaving has been an integral part of Mayan culture for centuries, the introduction of small glass beads and the subsequent creation of woven beaded jewelry did not occur until quite recently. Since the introduction of the tiny glass bead, women in Guatemala have used their traditional weaving skills to create a wide range of jewelry designs, which have become quite popular in the marketplace.

Weaving holds a position of high importance in Maya culture, not only as a handicraft tradition,but as a religious and social tradition. Ixchel, goddess of the moon, has a special connection to women. She is represented with weaving implements in her headdress, and is said to have taught the first woman how to weave. The tradition is passed from woman to daughter, and has been for centuries. Weaving is a social activity, as well; with the portable backstrap loom, women can weave virtually anywhere. Historically, it is one of the only sources of income available primarily to women. Maya women take great pride in their weaving skills, as can be seen in the amazing textiles that come from the region.

At Unique Batik, we strive to sustain both ancient and new traditions of Mayan handicrafts through marketing these special products to buyers across the globe. Having spent many years traveling to Guatemala and the heart of the Maya culture, not only observing its beauty, but learning about it personally through friendships and long term partnerships with our artisans, we recognize both the beauty of the Maya peoples and the struggle that they face. Through fair trade, we hope to preserve the one and alleviate the other.

Reducing Impact, Recycling Inspiration

In today’s struggle to preserve the earth for future generations, the inclusion of people in developing countries is more important than ever. Not only are those in developing countries more at risk for health problems caused by environmental factors, without their participation in taking measures to combat environmental problems, there is little chance of seeing real change. As fair trade producers operating within the principles of fair trade as defined by the World Fair Trade Organization, Unique Batik is committed to using materials sourced sustainably, minimizing waste, and using production techniques that reduce environmental impact.

Environmental risk factors across the globe are “greatest for the poor and vulnerable populations in developing countries,” says the WHO’s Health and Environment Linkages Initiative. This brings an even greater sense of urgency to our need to not only stop environmental impact but to reverse it. For example, deforestation, one of the greatest environmental issues in Guatemala, is both exacerbated by the poor rural populations who must make use of whatever resources they can find, and puts them at risk for further tragedy such as the 2005 landslides that killed more than 1500 people. In order to prevent the continued disappearance of Guatemala’s forest, there must be other employment options for its people.

Fair trade seeks to create employment opportunities that offer not only the financial means to preserve the environment, but to do it in a way that is intentional in reducing the impact of productions. Outside of the production of our crafts, Unique Batik also participates in other environmental initiatives. There is the everyday, such as recycling at our home office in Raleigh, NC, and riding our bikes to work. There is also the truly inspired, such as a project in Guatemala that takes mundane trash such as the plastic bags and wrappers and the ubiquitous plastic water bottle, and turns them into eco bricks that are donated to build homes for the poor. With little infrastructure in the rural area of Lake Atitlan, there is trash but nowhere to put it other than scattered about the ground in otherwise picturesque villages (at worst) or in a giant pile on the mountainside (at best). By stuffing the bags and wrappers into the plastic bottles until they become sturdy and solid, the bottles can then be used as “bricks” in building adobe homes and other structures.

Despite the many challenges to environmental sustainability in developing countries, in some ways their people could teach those in the Global North a lot about reducing, repurposing, and recycling. The people with whom we work are masters of recycling -- wasting almost nothing. Some of the recycled materials they use include: textiles, metal, plastic, and glass. These recycling techniques may be as straightforward as using recycled glass bottles to make glass beads or as whimsical as making bangles out of broken guitar strings. We at Unique Batik are proud to work with artisans whose creativity and ingenuity can rescue items that would otherwise go to waste and instead transform them into beautiful and useful products. Somehow, it seems appropriate that in a fair trading relationship, inspiration and knowledge are not a one-way thing. It is through working together that we can make an impact for good, both on the lives of producers and on this world we all share.

Tres Estrellas: A Story of Transformation

One of the most beautiful things about fair trade is the way it transforms things. It transforms people who have oppression into people who have opportunity. It transforms beggars into businessmen. It transforms kids on the street into kids in the classroom. And sometimes, with a little creativity, it turns trash into treasure.

Take the humble guitar string. People have been playing guitars (or guitar-like instruments) for over three thousand years, and steel strings have been in use since around 1900. If you’ve ever played a guitar, you know how frequently the strings break or have to be replaced, but have you ever thought about what happens to those strings when they are discarded? Are they recycled, do they end up in a landfill, or what? One Unique Batik artisan group is transforming recycled guitar strings into fun bracelets, bangles, and rings, and in the process, they are creating not just jewelry, but jobs.

Tres Estrellas, located in the Canton Pujujil region on the edge of Lake Atitlán, was founded in 1995 in response to the dire poverty of the people in the region. Or, as co-founder, Juan Par, put it, “so that people would not die of hunger.” The Guatemalan Civil War, which began in 1960, plagued the country for more than thirty years. The Maya people were particularly targeted by government death squads, forced disappearances, and a scorched earth policy. After decades of war and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it is no surprise that rebuilding has been a long and arduous process.

Many Maya women were left widowed by the war, desperate to find ways to feed and care for their families. Today, most of the young women in the Tres Estrellas artisan group are children of widows. The group is made up of thirteen women, ages 22 - 45 years old. When there is not enough work making jewelry, the women supplement their income making traditional baskets, but because there is so much competition in the basket market, their income from selling baskets is about half of what they can earn making jewelry with the group. Group leader Juan and his wife, Maria, design and develop the products and provide training and technical assistance to the other group members. Juan has been a hard worker since he was a child working in the coffee and cotton fields with his father, and is grateful that this employment has allowed him to provide for his family and educate his eight children.

The biggest challenge for the group is to create enough work for the artisans, who are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their community in the aftermath of such a long and brutal war. With each unique guitar ring and bracelet that they make, they get a little closer to that long awaited dream. We hope that you will love our Unique Batik guitar jewelry not only because it is funky and cool and old-into-new, but because you want to be a part of transforming struggle into success. Together, we can do it - one string at a time.

Artisan Spotlight: Carmelita Ramos

Sparkling beads dance across her hands as Carmelita Ramos creates earrings and bracelets to sell to customers in the distant land of the United States. Her dreams of earning a living and educating her children were once just as distant, but through her work and creativity and her connection with fair trade, those dreams have become a reality. Carmelita’s story did not begin so differently from that of many, many other women in Guatemala. Being able to sell her handicrafts to a fair trade company like Unique Batik has given her the hand up -- not handout -- that changed the course of her life.

Born into a family of thirteen children in the rural mountain village of San Jorge in the department of Solola, Carmelita’s challenges in life started early. None of the girls in her family were sent to school. This is still true for many girls in Guatemala; of the two million children who do not attend school, most are indigenous girls living in rural areas. In fact, 90% of these girls do not attend secondary school. Carmelita was no exception.

With no education, Carmelita’s options were few. She became a maid at a young age, which is a typical path, with 98% of domestic workers being women and 70% of domestic workers being indigenous Maya. However, Carmelita’s story took a turn when, through her employers, she began making jewelry to sell for export. She immediately showed promise as a designer, creating an original bracelet featuring bamboo and making oven mitts out of scrap fabric. For her first significant order, she received a paycheck of Q1200 (the equivalent of $150 US dollars).  It brought tears to her eyes because she had never seen a Q100 note.

Carmelita’s creativity and ingenuity have been a big factor in her success as an artisan. Now part of a jewelry making cooperative of eleven people, all family members, Carmelita sources the beading materials herself and trains co-op members how to make new jewelry designs. Unlike many other artisans in the area, when Carmelita’s group creates exclusive new designs for a customer, they do not sell them to anyone else. The group members work from their own homes, but confer on pricing, production, and any other issues that might come up.

Today, not only has Carmelita’s story defied expectations, but her leadership of the artisan co-op has influenced the lives of many others. Her own daughter, Maria, has graduated with a degree in business administration.  She has partially paid for her education and transportation to school through part-time work making beaded jewelry with the artisan co-op. Another group member, Marta, has five children, for whom Marta desperately wanted an education. Her husband did not support her dream, but through her earnings as an artisan, all of Marta’s children have gone to school.  Since the time her jewelry work began, Carmelita and her husband, Juan, have gone from living with her mother-in-law to buying their own land and building a two-story cement block house -- an extraordinary accomplishment for a woman who started with no education and no means.

The journey has not been without its challenges. Competition in the area is fierce for beaders, keeping their wages low. There is even a “bead mafia” which controls the availability of beads, so Carmelita’s group is not always able to source the colors they need. US buyers are not always reliable, and it is the long-term, fair trade relationship with Unique Batik that has made a difference in the success of Carmelita’s group. Ten years ago, a US buyer placed a big order for beaded jewelry from women in Carmelita’s village, then pulled out without paying the women for their work. A mutual acquaintance gave Carmelita Unique Batik owner Sharon Gale’s phone number. Carmelita called Sharon for help, and that began the relationship between Unique Batik and Carmelita’s cooperative.

Carmelita’s talent as a designer is special, but without the opportunities created by fair trade purchases, even with all her hard work and creativity, the story might not have such a happy ending. Given the opportunity to be treated with integrity and turn her gifts into a secure life for her family, Carmelita has transformed her own narrative. Thanks for being part of her happy ending!