PIQUA — What began on a whim evolved into a journey exploring the complexity of the human experience for one author.
Darke County native and New York Times best-selling author Kelsey Timmerman was at Edison Community State College Wednesday for a discussion titled “Common Threads: A Global Search for Community.” His visit was sponsored in part by the Piqua Community Foundation.
“Over the last decade, I’ve traveled to the countries of origin of things we take for granted,” Timmerman said.
English Composition 2 students at Edison read one of Timmerman’s books — “Where am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People That Make Our Clothes” or “Where am I Eating?: An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy” — as part of the class’s discussion of globalization.
Through humor and storytelling, Timmerman discussed how his love of traveling and experiencing other cultures became a search into what life is like for the people who make the clothes Americans wear and grow the food Americans eat.
Timmerman developed a love of traveling after graduating from Miami University with a degree in anthropology. He explained that this first trip — from Hawaii to Australia to Europe to Thailand to Napal and more — was funded by a gift of $5,000 from his grandmother. It was a tradition for his grandmother to give her grandchildren that same monetary gift after they each graduated from college, and while his siblings used it to pay for a car or student loans, Timmerman went a different route and traveled.
“I was like, I am going to go blow all of Grandma’s money,” he said.
After that trip, Timmerman moved to Key West to be a scuba diving instructor. He continued to travel, seeking more adventures and writing about them in newspaper and magazine traveling columns. Then one day, while deciding where to go next, he decided on a whim to go where his shirt was made.
“I had this t-shirt I was wearing that said, ‘Come with me to my tropical paradise,’” Timmerman said. After that, he went to Honduras.
Timmerman explained that, after an adventure in the jungle involving a poisonous snake, he was confronted with his privilege when he visited the factory where his shirt had been made and he was face-to-face with one of the workers who made his shirt.
“Do you have any idea what life was like for the people who made your shirt?” Timmerman asked the audience.
He decided to continue going to places where his clothes had been made to ask workers in those factories if that job provided them a better life.
One example was his trip to Bangladesh, where his underwear happened to be made.
“If you go to Bangladesh because your underwear are made there and you write a book, you’re an author. If you go to Bangladesh because your underwear are made there and you don’t do anything, you’re just some weird dude,” Timmerman said.
In Bangladesh, Timmerman met a woman named Arifa, who was a former farmer and a single mother. He learned that she earned about $24 per month in the garment factory where she worked and that it cost about $15 per month to feed a family of four in Bangladesh on rice. That did not leave much left over for providing for an education, clothes for themselves, shelter, or healthcare.
Timmerman also met a woman named Reshma Begum in Bangladesh who had worked at garment factory. Timmerman told a story of how Begum noticed a crack in the wall in the factory where she worked but did not say anything because she did not want to risk losing her job or being labeled a troublemaker for speaking out about the condition of the factory building.
“She sat at her sewing machine, and she worked,” Timmerman said. He said that, the next day, “She sat at her sewing machine, and she did not leave the factory for 17 days. That factory collapsed, killing 1,1033 people.”
Begum survived and later said that she would never work in a garment factory again.
It was there that Timmerman began to explore the spectrum of workers being exploited versus being given an opportunity. “Sometimes I look at their life … and I can’t tell where they fall on this spectrum,” he said about the people he meets while traveling.
An example of this was when he traveled to a trash dump in Cambodia, where he met people digging through the trash for recyclables.
“The sight and smell made me want to puke,” Timmerman said. Still, the trash dump provided an opportunity for workers to make $1 per day, which was possibly more than they would have made farming.
“They chose to go to this place,” Timmerman said.
Timmerman said that he hoped the audience would see the complexity of these situations. “The world is more complex than we want it to be,” he said.
During the discussion on where chocolate comes from, Timmerman explained how he met a man in modern-day slavery working on a cocoa field in the Ivory Coast. The man, whose name was Solo, was not paid, was abused, was not allowed to leave, and called his superior “Master.”
After being confronted with this, Timmerman said, “It shakes something in your soul.”
Timmerman attempted to help Solo return to his home in Ghana, but Solo disappeared after Timmerman brought him away from the cocoa farm and was later found working at the cocoa farm again. Timmerman was unsure if someone had grabbed Solo in the streets or if Solo had returned on his own. The owner of the cocoa field also threatened to have Timmerman arrested for traveling with Solo.
“Did he choose to go back to the farm? Did Solo choose slavery?” Timmerman said.
Timmerman encouraged the audience to think globally and act locally in terms of being both consumers and people. He encouraged them to buy fair trade products, even if it did not necessarily mean changing the whole world.
“We’re not going to consume our ways to a better world,” Timmerman said, explaining that the point was to change the way people think of themselves as global consumers and people capable of making a difference in the world.
“It changes you … More than that, though, (the point) is to look at our lives and how we can make a difference. That’s an individual question for us all.”
Timmerman ended by encouraging the audience to think about that in terms of their own lives and talents, asking the question, “How will you make an impact?”
Reach Sam Wildow at firstname.lastname@example.org or (937) 451-3336