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How to take home a 'real' souvenir

John Dabeti - opal sculptor
by Doug Bardwell ©2013

Souvenirs. Tchotchkes. Mementos. Gifts for the family. Whatever you call them, most people can’t go on a vacation without bringing something home to memorialize the trip.

Check in most airport shops, cruise ship shops or downtown souvenir stands and what do you find? More often than not, you’ll most likely find glossy depictions of your destination in paper, plastic or glass.

Marketing gurus know what attracts the consumer, so postcards have a high gloss finish. Plastic mementos are done in bright primary colors. Even the glass pieces are highly polished with bright lettering in eye-catching fonts.

So, do these make suitable souvenirs? With the millions or billions sold around the world, you’d think so. But, lift up any of these and what do you see on the bottom…MADE IN CHINA. Congratulations, you’ve just bought your family a lovely remembrance manufactured in a giant factory in a country you probably never set foot in. Hmmmm.

Meet the real manufacturers

While attending the annual Sanganai Travel and Tourism Fair in Zimbabwe, I had the opportunity to meet with the “real” souvenir manufacturers. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people exist in

impoverished areas all around the world, making handicrafts that they hope to sell to tourists. In many cases, through lack of employment opportunities or lack of resources, these handicrafts are the only means of support possible. Hence, when tourists come, they really count on the sale of these items to put food on their table.

At the Sanganai Fair, there were many talented artists there, with some incredible artwork available. Not surprisingly, a number of them have exhibited at travel shows around the world including the United Nations World Travel Organization’s latest general assembly in Zimbabwe. Others will be traveling to the UK for the upcoming World Travel Market in November.

While these people have achieved a high level of skill in their trade and sell some expensive pieces, without exception, they all train and/or sponsor other less fortunate artists. Many work with the handicapped and school age children, teaching them how to begin making saleable crafts of their own. Often the students create artwork from litter they find in their neighborhoods.

Many of these pieces can be picked up for a $1 or less, but they offer proof to the newly trained craftspeople that their idle time can be put to productive use. Success stories are common regarding talented youngsters now helping support entire families or even neighborhoods through their newfound talents. As each grows, and teaches the next generation, traditional methods are kept alive and native art continues to be available.

What the world needs is a buyer

What makes it work is a steady supply of buyers – in this case, travelers. Most of the handicrafts are decorative in nature, so there isn’t a big market for these items in their own country. It takes a steady stream of buyers to keep the money flowing, to buy more raw materials and to put a little extra food on the table.

When a tour bus pulls up, the expectations soar. If tourism is down, they may wait all day for just one or two selling opportunities per day.

You can make it work by leaving a little space in that suitcase when you leave home (my biggest challenge) and by taking a stack of $1 bills. For less than the price of one dinner at Applebee’s, you can make a significant difference in the lives of four or five artists and their families. Just remember to tell your bus driver that you only want to shop at places where souvenirs are locally made.

Meet the artists

As I mentioned, I met some amazing artists who do great work, but are basically unknown outside the borders of Zimbabwe. I’ll be featuring them on separate pages on in the coming days

Take a look at their crafts and see if there’s something that you’d like for yourself or for your office. Their contact information will be provided and they’d love to hear from anyone interested. The organizations they support will be listed as well, and they would love to hear from anyone with a shop who might be able to purchase a dozen pieces or so for resale. You’ll be helping the REAL souvenir manufacturers.

Our first featured artist: John Dabeti - opal sculptor Click here for video and more photographs of his work.

Doug Bardwell, based in Cleveland, OH, writes about travel destinations, photography and tech topics across the country and around the world at Feel free to drop him a line at with suggestions for future stories. To get his stories delivered to your inbox, click the RSS feed or the "Subscribe" button above or follow him on Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. To read Doug’s disclosure notice, click here. For travel ideas in Cleveland and around the world, check his Calendar of Events. To see his travel photo collection, see

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