The Fairtrade Foundation has this year been awarded the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development 2016. Ahead of the Queen's Reception at Buckingham Palace, on Thursday 14 July, Eileen Maybin reflects on meeting Queen Elizabeth II herself whilst working in India 20 years ago.
Nearly 20 years ago I had an encounter with the Queen. This happened when, to mark India's 50th anniversary of Independence, a royal tour to the country was planned. Then Asia press officer for Christian Aid, I suggested the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visit some of the projects funded and supported by the charity.
To our pleasure, Buckingham Palace accepted our invitation and we set to work preparing an exhibition for our special guests, showing our development work with some of the poorest communities in the country: slum dwellers, rescued child labourers, bonded agricultural workers, flood and cyclone victims, landless communities and more.
The exhibition was to be displayed in the ancient church of St. Francis Church, in Cochin, Kerala, already on the royal itinerary. This was the first European Church built in the country and was in the location where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed when he ‘discovered’ India in the 15th century.
A gentleman with a terrifyingly cut-glass accent instructed us to invite a number of staff representatives as well as two of the charity’s beneficiaries. We were all to stand in line with chair of the Christian Aid board, Lady Marian Fraser, who was to greet the Queen and show her around.
Vases and necklaces
Gayathiri Oliviet, 19, and her slightly older neighbour were chosen to represent the charity’s work. Both lived in the slums of Coimbatore, southern India, with no running water and no electricity where Christian Aid ran programmes. They were beautiful, elegant and, it seemed to me, demure and rather diffident. They glided soundlessly around before the event. They were clearly excited, but had talked little at the hotel the night before and even on the morning of the day itself. I had plenty of time to explain all the etiquette that the British High Commission had drilled into me and to share with them the importance of absorbing and following the instructions we were given.
The arrangement had been that Gayathiri and her friend were to bring glazed brown earthenware vases for the Queen to show how, as the lowest caste Indians from the Dalit community, their future looked grim until they began a training course in pottery, funded by Christian Aid, which was enabling the women to work their way out of poverty. But there was one slight hiccup for, as well as bringing the vases, the two women had brought necklaces, also made from simple baked clay. I explained that the security entourage were adamant that we had to keep strictly to the minute-by-minute detailed programme for the day, without deviation. It would not be possible to hand over the necklaces. Gayathiri and her friend acquiesced in their friendly but reserved way.
Mum will be delighted
The time had come for the Queen to approach. To my astonishment the women’s shyness disappeared. With a sudden, feisty confidence, they reached below their saris and whipped out the clay necklaces in home-made cardboard jewellery boxes. They told the Queen that they had brought one for her and one for her mother, HM the Queen Mother.
The Queen’s face softened into a spontaneous, bright smile. “Thank you,” she told them, “Mum will be delighted with this gift.” The invisible - but very real - barriers of etiquette and protocol had fallen away. Transcending differences in class, rank and economic status, this was a moment when three women interconnected with the common understanding and experience of the bond between mother and daughter.
This connection was so clear to everyone present that the BBC and UK national newspapers carried the encounter as the photo of the day for the royal India visit.
Church Times was among many UK's papers featuring the story on 24 October 1997
I am recounting this story because on 14 July I will be meeting the Queen myself. This time the location will be London. I will be accompanying Mike Gidney, the Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation – which in fact was set up with the help of Christian Aid at around the time of the royal visit to India – to Buckingham Palace. The Foundation has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development 2016. The award recognises Fairtrade’s work empowering small-scale farmers and workers in developing countries, helping them to drive their own sustainable development in a world trade system often stacked against poorer communities.
On this occasion the Queen will not get to meet any representatives of those whose lives have improved by being part of the Fairtrade system. This seems unfortunate, given how receptive she famously is to hearing about the lives of others in the developing world, particularly young people, and the work organisations like ours do to offer opportunities for them.
Force for good
During my years with the Fairtrade Foundation I have met many young women who have lifted themselves from poverty and have progressed in their work, some taking leadership roles in their farming groups. Women like Grace whom I met on a trip to Kenya in April. Grace started off in gumboots picking roses on a flower farm. However she had ambition and a glint in her eye. With the help of a bursary funded by Fairtrade she continued her education and is now working in the farm’s Finance Department and continuing with her studies, enthusing about the openings Fairtrade provides for her and others.
I heard a similar message from Joyce from Bomarts Fruit Farm in Ghana. She comes from a family of 14 and had little chance of advancement when she started picking pineapples many years ago. But, with a loan from the Fairtrade premium committee, she has been able to study at university and is now working in Human Resources for the farm. Coming back to my mother-and-daughter theme, it was Joyce’s mother who encouraged her to study when her father couldn’t see the point in educating a daughter.
So while on this occasion the Queen may not get to meet the Grace’s and the Joyce’s of the Fairtrade system, this Queen’s Award is surely a tribute to them all.