The Troublemaker - by Ali Hull
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The Troublemaker - by Ali Hull

The Troublemaker - by Ali Hull

Greg Valerio finished his last day of school with the words “Valerio, you’re a natural-born troublemaker. Just make sure you make trouble for the right reasons!” ringing in his ears. Nor was this the last day of term – instead, it had been the day when the school’s patience had run out. A difficult relationship was coming to a premature end. School, for Greg, as for so many lads, had been a difficult experience – and one that had got worse as he got older. Brought up in a solidly middle-class area, he says, “School was a farce, with its pressures to qualify with straight As, sit the Oxbridge exam or end up working for IBM. This mantra was continually preached in classrooms and assemblies, yet how could I take this seriously when one of the female teachers seduced my classmates, and another sold some of the best dope in the district? My disaffection with the school was reciprocated, because the senior staff didn’t like me much either.”

So Greg greeted expulsion with joy. “I was absolutely delighted. Screw the exams, screw the teachers, and screw it all. I had no idea what I would do, but I knew where I did not want to be. I did learn one vital lesson, though – ‘Always question everything. Always question authority, and take nothing they say for granted.’”

It has been an approach that has served him well, not only when people are obviously doing wrong things, but also when they appear to be doing things that are right. So he has had battles with the rich jewellery trade – but also disagreements with the world of international development and charity. And it was this battle that he was to have first.

Having become involved in speaking about the issues of poverty, in schools and colleges, he realised that he needed to go and see for himself – having gone no further, at that point, than Canada. And on a trip to Tanzania, he came up against some of the issues regarding charity that were to trouble him. The point of the seven-week trip was “to live and work alongside local people in the rural south of Tanzania. I would be exposed to the daily poverty of ordinary Tanzanians. I could listen to their stories, their hopes and fears, and learn from them. I went with six other individuals, and our basic job was to make bricks for an extension to a school”.

Poverty tourists

It wasn’t long before questions about what he – and the others – were doing there began to bother him. He realised they were “denying locals employment so the project could host white people from the donor organisation. I had become a development tourist”. It would have made far more sense, he realised, if the locals had been paid to make the bricks, rather than shipping in a group of Westerners. But, of course, the NGO he was with was getting quite a bit of money from each of the individuals who had come to experience ‘real poverty’ for a few weeks.

And this was not the only thing that bothered him. “One conversation I had with a rural trainee pastor brought home to me how thin the line between life and death really was. The pastor had bilharzia, a disease caused by a water-borne parasite that can kill you, over time, if not treated. As you weaken through the illness, you cannot work; if you cannot work, you cannot earn money to buy food; if you can eat, you weaken and so the vicious cycle continues. This man had a wife and three children to feed. So what little he could earn from subsistence farming, he gave to his wife to feed her and the three children. I asked him what it would take to cure him. I was told a simple course of drugs would kill the parasite, but he could not afford to buy the drug and feed his children at the same time. He was slowly dying so that his children might live.”

And when Greg asked how much the treatment actually cost, he was told it was all of £5.

A simple solution

So the solution seemed simple – or at least it did to Greg. But that evening, he discussed the situation with others that he was with. And then he was told that giving the money to the man “might not be culturally sensitive, as the man was an elder. And if I did it for one person, I might have to do it for everyone”.

Greg’s response was typical of him – he went ahead anyway. “What’s culturally sensitive about dying and leaving your kids without a father? I gave the guy the money for his treatment, he was very grateful, and he got better.”

Needing a break from making bricks, Greg took off for a week to Arusha, in the north of the country, and set about exploring. In the course of wandering around the dusty streets, he met a Maasai, who asked if Greg would be interested in seeing his batik artwork. “His canvasses were huge, abstract Picasso-esque pieces, picturing traditional mystical landscapes and village scenes from the life of east Africa.”

Greg left Arusha with two of Robert’s batiks, and a host of questions swirling around his brain – to say nothing of the emotions he was struggling with. He was concerned both with the work he had been doing and to which he was returning – did it have the right focus – and even more concerned with the way charities were working. He was beginning to realise that handing out money was not only not enough, it was not what those struggling with poverty actually wanted. “It had created a dependency culture.” And it wasn’t what those he had met wanted. “Where was the dignity in a begging bowl?”

Having promised himself that he would return to Africa on a yearly basis, Greg was soon back, in Ethiopia, and this time it was the urban poverty that he saw which shocked him to the core. “Arriving in Addis (the capital) was an explosion of emotion, an assault on the senses and a harrowing of my consciousness. As we travelled around the city, I struggled to take in the complexities of life. Every road junction we stopped at, we would be engulfed by a rugby scrum of children begging for food, three or four deep at our window. Women would offer us their children to take home, and the disabled pleaded for help with eyes full of sheer desperation.”

The gateway to hell

However, it was his encounter with two street girls that had a greater impact on him. They turned up at the conference centre where he was speaking and told him their story. Meron and Sarai were aged around 12, and lived behind one of the big hotels, working as prostitutes, the only way they could earn. They were frequently raped by older boys. “Their lives were violent, abusive and loveless.” Greg arranged for them to have regular health checks, and promised to stay in touch with them – a promise he has kept. Their plight moved him in a way that was entirely new: “As they walked back to their life on the streets, my body began to shake with raw emotion. I felt a surge of pain across my chest, as if my heart was being ripped from my body. The thought of those two girls returning to the daily horror of living and working on the streets was too much for me and I broke down in tears.”

These two trips to Africa and others that he made moved Greg to realise that the best way to help those caught in poverty was by trade, not aid. It is a simple mantra and one that we are now very familiar with, but when he started selling jewellery, batiks and other products, sourced in Africa, at festivals and events in the UK, he and the organisation he ran, CRED, were breaking new ground. However, once a lot of other organisations caught up with him, he decided to move on – and he moved on to the jewellery trade.

We have all seen the adverts – the glossy fabrics, the sparkling stones, the shiny bands of gold – but what we don’t see, and the trade does not want us to see, is those who are at the beginning of the chain – the men down the mines, badly paid, in dangerous conditions, risking their lives for the sake of that piece of frippery – or that much-loved and meaningful engagement ring. Greg soon found himself arguing and questioning, all over again. When he set up CRED Jewellery, he mixed jewellery from Tanzania and Ethiopia with more mainstream products, and the new business was successful. But he soon realised that the ethnic jewellery was never going to replace the really expensive, “contemporary modern designs, well-crafted and affordable”. When it came to wedding rings or beautiful necklaces, mainstream customers were not asking the questions about where the gold had come from, or the diamonds and sapphires. They might faithfully have bought Fair Trade coffee and Fair Trade sugar in the supermarket, but jewellery was different.

Except it wasn’t, as Greg was discovering. On a visit to the pink city of Jaipur in India, to buy some jewellery, he insisted on finding out where the stones in the pieces came from. And he also found out that many of the 60,000 people working on gem stones in the city were children. A visit to a local garnet mine was another eye-opener…

Shaking with raw emotion

“As we reached the brow of the not inconsiderably sized hill, it abruptly stopped. It was in fact only half a hill. Below me was a vertical drop of some 20 to 30m, straight down. As its base was a huge pit where the miners worked, with simple tools, clawing at the face of the hill to extract the rough garnets. We walked down to the pit and saw the extremities that these miners were subjected to, every day: the heat, rock, thirst and the Neolithic working conditions. It was horrific. I felt like I was looking at the gateway of hell.”

Talking to the mine workers, he soon discovered that not only were they paid a pittance, but they had to buy bottled water from the mine owners – what little the workers did have was being snatched away. But he also realised, talking to leading figures in the jewellery trade, that no one was going to take much notice of what he was finding out unless he could back it up with proper research, rather than simply one or two eyewitness statements. Determined to create jewellery that was fairly traded all the way from the mine that produced the gold or silver, and the gems, Greg was battling against an industry that either felt what he was attempting couldn’t be done, or shouldn’t be. Either way, he appeared he was, more or less, on his own.

The story of what happened next is told in full in Greg’s book, Making Trouble – Fighting for Fair Trade Jewellery (Lion). Without giving the game away, it can be added that he was named the Campaigner of the Year in the Observer Ethical Awards in 2011. The battle did not end in Jaipur – it took him to Nepal, to South America, and to a fight in Greenland, against the Danish government. He is still asking questions, and making trouble.