Bangladesh Artisans

This February 14, many of us will buy roses or book a table at a swishy restaurant to share a meal with our longtime love or more recent date. At least 30 per cent of Canadians say they consider Valentine’s Day a special holiday worth celebrating according to 2016 data. At the very least, we’ll send Valentine cards: 40 million are exchanged in this country every year.


But while Valentine’s Day holds a special significance, love – true love – is hardly a one-day event. It requires patience, humour and a meeting of minds.


Just ask Hani Duarsa and Agung Alit, founders of Mitra Bali, our fair trade artisan partner in Bali, Indonesia, which crafts anything from coasters to colourful bags and kites. Last year they travelled to Canada and sat down with us for a fascinating (and freewheeling) interview that touched on politics, fair trade, tourism, culture and Indonesia’s troubled past. But Hani and Agung had a special treat for us too: they discussed their own personal history and even shared the story about how they met, wed in 1993, started their fair trade organization and raised five children – only two being their own biological kids. Here’s what we learned:

Different worlds

By all rights, Hani and Agung’s union is unique. Indonesia adheres to a caste system, and although Hani was of the lower, common caste – making a marriage to Agung a fortuitous match for her, her parents had reservations about her marrying him.


Agung was considered a “son of a communist.” Tragically, his family had been caught up in the mass killing of communists and communist-sympathizers in 1965 and 1966 during the assent of the new order autocratic regime of President Suharto. His father and six uncles were murdered. His mother and stepmother, a teacher, were forced to flee.


Even 25 years later, political and cultural scars remained, and Agung was stigmatized, finding it hard to find work or even get an education.


In the end, it didn’t matter

Fortunately, Agung, smart and driven, beat the odds and did what he had to do to survive – and thrive.


“Because I’m wild, I learned guitar,” he says now. “I speak English. That helped me a lot.”


Eventually he made it to law school where Hani was also studying law. But Hani too had a bit of a wild side. Although she came from a large, musical family, her parents were adamant that she not become a musician. They wanted a different life for their daughter.


But one night she left the house wearing a proper, conservative dress her parents approved of – and then changed into clothes fit for the stage. One of Indonesia’s most famous musicians had asked her to jam with the band and there was no way she’d say no. Playing the keyboards that night, she looked out into the audience and spotted Agung.


“I saw him dancing like crazy. I was curious. Who is this guy?” she says, laughing.


While Hani was an elegant “city girl,” Agung saw himself as a “county bumpkin.” Although they led a social activism club, it took a while for Agung to realize that she was interested in him too.


“I didn’t know whether she really liked me or she felt sorry for me,” he says.


Starting Mitra Bali

She liked him. In 1993 the couple were married and soon launched Mitra Bali in order to help struggling makers earn a living from their crafts. Rather than take a large cut – or make artisans wait for months to be paid – Mitra Bali offers deposits and pays within a week. Today the couple works with 38 different maker groups and 250 artisans.


Hani and Agung also have two children: a 24-year-old son, Carlos Santana, and a daughter, 18-year-old Janis Santana (named for Janis Joplin – who else?!). They also raised three children who arrived from a poor village. Hani and Agung are proud of the adults their “adopted” kids have become.


Having a strong family life full of hope and love translates to what Hani and Agung have been able to accomplish at Mitra Bali. And as long as the orders keep coming in, the future is bright.


“I believe a wonderful world is possible,” says Agung. “We can do it together.”


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