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In the Pursuit of Happiness with Sofi Seck and Expedition Subsahara

In the Pursuit of Happiness with Sofi Seck and Expedition Subsahara

11/30/2021

Founder and fiber artist Sofi Seck sees Expedition Subsahara as a love letter to the world about her Senegalese culture, its tradition of weaving, and the women artisans who form the country's and economy's backbone. The seeds for the brand were planted when Sofi moved from her hometown of Dakar to St. Louis, Missouri, to complete her studies. Even as St. Louis has become home for her, her primary motive remains to work towards a future where Senegalese youth do not have to leave everything behind for an education. That is why Seck and her team have undertaken the building of a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) school for girls in Senegal. They view their investment in girls' education through STEAM as an investment in Senegal as a whole. Expedition Subsahara then serves as a bridge一celebrating and showing reverence to Senegalese culture and the Wolof tribe's weaving tradition, currently partnering with artisan weavers to bring their baskets and accents to life, and working on building a school that will serve future generations. We loved getting to sit down with Sofi for our latest artisan feature. We spoke in-depth about the current gender disparities in education in sub-Saharan countries, the importance of radical respect when telling the stories of the craftsmanship, culture, and people behind their products, and how color brings joy into your home. Read below for more from our interview with Sofi and shop Expedition Subsahara's capsule of "happy baskets and accessories" here. 

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You began your career as a photographer before founding Expedition Subsahara. Was there a moment of inspiration that led you to that transition?

Celebrating Senegalese culture through something like Expedition Subsahara has been at the forefront of my mind since I came to the United States. When I first came here, I quickly realized that the only story of Africa that Americans really know is one of poverty. At the time, they were predominantly shown sad, starving people who needed to be saved through the media. That story of destitution applied to the entire continent一but that wasn't the Africa I knew. I grew up in a place that was so vibrant, colorful, happy, and where the people were genuinely kind. I wanted to show others the beauty of Senegalese culture through craftsmanship.

The event that led to this moment for me was breaking my back. I was at the gym squatting, and I popped a disk. I'm a very active person, and I was suddenly unable to move. During this time of immobility, I was able to really think about my life and what I wanted to leave behind to better my culture. The injury slowed me down enough to actually start sowing the seed that was planted so many years before.

You've spoken about moving to St. Louis from Dakar to pursue your education. How influential was that move in your desire to start your business and make education a core aspect?

Globally, the majority of countries with female enrollment ratios of less than 10 percent are located in sub-Saharan Africa. The widest gender disparities related to literacy also exist there, where 41% of women are illiterate, compared to 27% for men. An average of 44% of women have never attended school in sub-Saharan Africa (all stats are according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.) Where you were born shouldn't dictate the types of opportunities you have, but the reality is that it does all across the world. I grew up in a country that puts women at the head of the table when it comes to the home, but that also has strong gender roles. Women are expected to cook, clean, raise children, and do most of the house chores. In homes with fewer resources, girls and young women not only help with the household, but they can do housekeeping and other odd jobs for people and bring the money home to help support their families.

Like so many Senegalese youth, I left my country for education. I understand that there are systemic issues in the country and strong gender roles keep women doing certain things to provide for their families. I also know that no one should have to leave everything that they know for an education. 

 

We do want to highlight your mission for a second. Could you talk more about how you and your team decided to build a STEAM school for girls in Senegal? 

I knew I wanted to start a business that would do good globally, specifically in Senegal. At the time, I had a business partner who was an educator, and we decided to give 20 percent of our profits to a fund that would then build a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) school for girls in Senegal. My partner has since left the business, but the mission remains steadfast. 

Economics is the top reason Senegalese girls don't attend or finish school. According to UNESCO, in addition to economic reasons, unequal access to quality education, distance to school, unsafe roads, and poor infrastructure of school buildings all contribute to girls not finishing school. Many families still only send boys to school, keeping girls at home to help with housework or look after siblings. In developing countries, in particular, women have authentic relationships with their community members, which allows them to be in tune with the most pressing problems of their community. Put simply, women are the economic backbone of Senegal, and our investment in girls' education through STEAM is an investment in Senegal as a whole. 

Do you see Expedition Subsahara as a crucial link between honoring Senegalese weaving traditions and ensuring a better future for Senegalese youth and the entire country?

Absolutely. There is an old African proverb that says, "Until the lion can speak, the story will always glorify the hunter." Unfortunately for the continent of Africa, our story has been told time and again by the hunter. That means African traditions, like the Wolof tribe's weaving tradition, along with so many tribes and traditions, aren't told with the cultural respect they're due. 

Not only that, but many of our own people think about our traditions as antiquated because they want so badly to assimilate to the rest of the world. For me, Expedition Subsahara is a love letter to the world about my culture, about the Wolof tribe, and the women who weave the baskets that are the backbone of the Senegalese economy. These women take their craft and instill it into their children一like my mother did with me一and that craft becomes a seed that grows. 

Once you can make something with your own two hands, you will always have work. But take that young woman who can weave a basket and give her every opportunity that girls in other places have. Let her learn about computer science or whatever her heart desires, and see what she does with that craft. 

I'm obsessed with my culture and the craftsmanship my people create, and I want to show that to the world. I have such a beautiful culture with amazing people and traditions. The rest of the world should know that story through radical respect.


One of our favorite aspects of your work is celebrating the artisans themselves and their craftsmanship behind your products. Talk about that concept of "radical respect" when it comes to African art.

This might sound a little funny, but the term "radical respect" came to me in a dream. I've always realized that what is missing from the conversation about Africa is respect. For far too long, poverty has been used as pornography to sell African goods. Usually, that poverty is in the form of the face of an African woman or child. No matter the original intent, the reality is that Africans have been branded as people who need to be rescued. 

We built Expedition Subsahara as a love letter about our culture, and everything that we do is seen through the microscope of radical respect. That is, "would our ancestors be proud?" And with a very high bar, we tell the stories of craftsmanship, culture, and the people weaving our products. We make sure that every part of our brand showcases our culture in a positive and celebratory way. It is a delicate balance. It requires slowing down at times and course-correcting, but we believe that it is the only way to tell the story of our people. 

We love the color and pattern of your designs. How would you describe your creative process and then the production process with Senegalese artisans? 

In the beginning, it was very simple in that we created what has always been created. Our bestselling product一the Taya Storage Basket一is actually the most traditional design. That says a lot about people because although technology is everywhere, we still have this desire for timeless products. 

Nowadays, we play around with different shapes and designs quite a bit. One thing about Senegalese culture is everything is full of color. Color is happiness, joy, dancing; color is life. You see that in the patterns and the designs themselves. Right now, the design and production process takes quite a bit of time. Once we develop a base shape for a basket, we create a design or pattern and go through different color variations. It's a lot more hands-on and deliberate than just creating what my mother taught me, and her mother taught her. Our process has definitely evolved, but not too much. 

As an art form, weaving is very methodical. You can't fake it. You have to sit and use your hands and your brain, and you have to take your time to get it right. 

Your baskets are so wonderfully colorful. Do you have any advice for incorporating those tones into people's homes? 

Thank you. Our baskets are wonderfully colorful because Senegal is a wonderfully colorful culture, and that is what we celebrate. Your home, office一anywhere you spend time一should bring you joy. We always say that we make happy baskets for colorful people, so the people who seem to be the most attracted to our brand are people who enjoy and love those vivid hues. But even if they don't love a lot of colors, the best way to incorporate some into your home is to choose a tone that brings you joy and make it a statement piece. Color brings joy. It's science, and there is no wrong way to add joy to your home. 

Are there any care instructions your customers should know?

Our goods are alive. What I mean by that is that they're made with grass and natural materials. Don't soak them in water because they will absorb the water. Keep it simple. If you spill something on your basket, put water on a towel and dab it. Let it air dry. Do not let your basket sit in direct sunlight or outside for prolonged periods.

Expedition Subsahara is also a distinctly St. Louis brand; how do you feel your city has influenced your work? 

Yes, Expedition Subsahara is a St. Louis brand, and we are so proud to be a part of this community. St. Louis was a second home for me when I came to the United States, and it has continued to be a place I love. This city has given me a new culture, the ability to tell my story, and its people have welcomed me with open arms. 

I love this city as much as I love my country because together, they showed me who I am and that a brand can be from two different places. We can be distinctly Senegalese and distinctly St. Louis. Both places are so proud of the brand, and we're proud to call St. Louis our home and our eternal headquarters. We're St. Louis through and through.

St. Louis people have been so supportive. As a business, we're always looking at our numbers, and St. Louis outperforms any city in the world in product purchases year after year. Anybody who has a basket in St. Louis can tell you about Expedition Subsahara. We love St. Louis, but St. Louis also loves us, and we could not be more proud to be STL strong!

What is one holiday tradition you're looking forward to the most with your family this year? 

To be honest, we don't have many traditions for the holidays. It's just a time to spend together, and I'm looking forward to it. Running a business can take you away from your family, and I'm excited to spend some time relaxing and enjoying the company of those I love. 

What's next for you, Expedition Subsahara, and your STEAM school project? 

The STEAM school has proven to be one of the most challenging endeavors I have ever undertaken, but we're chipping away at it bit by bit. We've made enough money to buy the land, and we're interviewing people who might be able to be a partner in that realm while I continue to build Expedition Subsahara. 

One of my favorite African proverbs says, "little by little, the bird builds her nest," and we understood from the beginning that the school wasn't going to be built in a day. Once it's built, it's going to continue for generations, so we're proud of how far we've come and excited to see what we will accomplish. 

For Expedition Subsahara, we will continue to tell our story一and the story of Senegal一in a radically respectful way. Maybe we will be able to tell the stories of other Sub-saharan countries in a radically respectful way at some point. Personally, I will continue to be colorful and make happy baskets for colorful people.