This week as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we honor the brave and talented women of the world. Today we would like to give a shout out to Mushmina blogger and copywriter, Tara Fraiture whose birthday happens to be on International Women’s Day, March 8th. Tara tells the story of her days as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, how she organized a bike race on the sand with Fulani ladies, and why she loves telling stories about ’empowering her tribe, women.’ Read on….


Sands of Cameroon-Grains of My Heart

I was a 23-year-old, wide-eyed Peace Corps Volunteer in remote Far North Cameroon, Central Africa. Close to Lake Chad, villagers survived on dried fish and millet grains; this was the endless sandy drifts of the Sub-Saharan African desert where even coveted cooking gas was in short supply. Locals cooked over open fires outside and inhabitants lived in basic, mud-brick structures. This was my home for two years.

My parents jokingly told me after the end of my Peace Corps service that they hadn’t expected me to last two weeks. I might have actually agreed with them; I even surprised myself. Living with no running water, a dubious pit latrine that worked in addition as an even more questionable outdoor shower + frequent electricity outages was, let’s just say, rough.



I learned quickly to wash my long, thick hair (a small victory) with just a small bucket of well water; I became a seasoned expert at the ‘bucket bath’. I didn’t have much to eat besides stale bread, egg salad sandwiches and I’d stock up on Nigerian pasta-a real treat was sautéed tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Powdered milk was a must for my instant coffee and millet beer was a hush-hush moonshine secret, served in huts just outside of the village outskirts.

The seemingly ceaseless dry season was stiflingly hot and humid and the rainy season hit like a smack in the face and the bumpy, pot-hole ridden roads were easily washed out. This would leave a relatively easy (albeit harrowing) drive on a desolate dirt passage to a several hour, harrowing trek. The roads would become rushing rivers. There is nothing, I recall, to this day, like an African rainstorm. It comes down like a herd of trampling of elephants; no mercy, no relief.

Yet through all of these severe circumstances, I thrived. This tiny, isolated, strictly Muslim village, Bogo, welcomed me like a long-lost sister and daughter. These historically nomadic Fulani people of the far north province became my support, my friends, my dear family.

The relationships that I developed and fostered; those were the real lessons of the Peace Corps. They are the memories that remain with me today, over 20 years later. These friendships, the bonding; realizing that there wasn’t much difference between myself and a young Muslim village woman from this itty-bitty village in far-flung Cameroon, three days travel from the capital of Yaoundé.


My best friend and colleague, Leila and I-we came from different worlds, literally across the globe from one another. But really, we were alike. We had the same cheeky sense of humor. Perhaps even the same raucous laugh. The same gift of gab. The same hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families. For our futures. We were, deep down, sisters.

The mud-brick ‘house’ where I lived was in a compound that was cared for by an elderly couple; Asta and Nouhou. Asta was nearly blind and Nouhou hobbled around with a makeshift cane fashioned from the sturdy branch of a baobab tree.


I immediately became like a granddaughter to them. I would spend my evening hours sitting, laughing, talking, and chatting with the pair. No use at all speaking French in Bogo; particularly with the women and children. I did all of my work in the local Fulani language. Asta and Nouhou became my teachers. The villagers, neighbors, vendors, were all my teachers. The children who came to my house daily became my teachers.

It was those human connections that became the ones that mattered the most. These are the memories that still resonate today.

International Women’s Day happens to be on my birthday, March 8th. The first year I was in Bogo, I organized a bike race for the local women. On the sand. Because why not?!? Traditional Fulani women, gracefully tall and elegant, dressed in brightly colored ‘pagne’ or African wraps, on bikes. It was the best moment ever. Many of these women had never been on a bike before. We laughed till we cried. It was such a wonderful day.

Since then, working with women’s groups and co-ops has been something that I inevitably gravitate towards. After all, women and children are often marginalized in developing countries. And I have lived in many developing countries. I therefore feel a pull towards writing about empowering my tribe, women.

I want to tell the stories of women; those who are most often not heard. I can be their voice. I share these stories with my three daughters. I feel grateful to work for Mushmina; a company so dedicated to working with women’s groups and so focused on empowering women that this often becomes the focal point. The story is just as important as the product. And luckily, the products are beautiful. But the women who make our products are really the heart of who we are. And for me, this is what I envisioned for myself, years ago as a young woman in Central Africa. Those heart connections.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger



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Halima’s house in Bejaad is modest and tiny; we gingerly walk up the narrow staircase into her small living room and on into her workspace where she has carefully cleared out an area for our visit.

As we make our way up the stone stairs into her humble abode, her lively children run up and down the stairs around us. The street below is busy and bustling with little ones playing, neighbors chatting, and curious by-standers gazing at us, wondering whom we were.

Halima is a master weaver in rural Bejaad, Central Morocco. She is the head contact for a small but mighty group of female weavers in this quiet town; known for its beautiful, unique rugs. For female weavers here and all over Morocco, these carpets symbolize a tiny slice of independence.

Just as importantly, though, Halima is Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill’s loyal friend. Their friendship has evolved from Heather’s starting days in Morocco as a galvanized, determined Peace Corps Volunteer almost 15 years ago. She has also been Heather’s most trusted rug weaver and much-needed informal ‘consultant’ ever since.


Halima, whose infectious smile lights up a room and whose eyes twinkle with clever humor and intelligence, is an example of the strength and inspiration of the small but Herculean business of the Mushmina sisters, Heather and Katie.

Halima’s calm temperament and warmth radiates from her when she hugs me and welcomes us into her home.

Halima has not had it easy, however. As a woman, mother and wife in a tiny traditional Moroccan working-class town, it is often seen as taboo for a woman to be earning a salary. Finding a balance is difficult. Maintaining a busy home, where most women still wash laundry by hand and toil in front of teensy gas stoves for hours, as well as caring for her three young children, takes up most of her time.

Halima’s work ethic is unmatchable; her energy and vigor are unstoppable; her motivation is ceaseless. She has something inside her that is different-she takes initiative with her trade. She wants more for herself. She demands better for her children.

Halima’s heartwarming story is a fascinating one. An incredible woman who never had the opportunity to go to school as an uncle suddenly passed away and she was sent to care for the family, Halima speaks no French; typical of most rural Moroccan people. Luckily for me, Heather flawlessly translates Halima’s heartfelt story for us from Darija, the local language.

And then there is her actual physical weaving. Halima, like most Moroccan weavers (most are female, as it’s an ideal trade handed down from mother to daughter), has the family loom in her cramped kitchen. The lighting is dim and the elements can be brutal; summers are stifling hot and winters are brutally frigid. Heating and cooling systems are unthinkably too expensive.

Luckily, Halima is still young and her eyes and hands haven’t failed her. But she weaves at night after her incredibly long work hours at home are finished. Inevitably, the day will come. Her mother sadly had to give up weaving because it was too hard on her vision.

Weavers depend on their knowing hands for their work; these are their tools. Halima’s hands are her lifeline; soft and calloused from years of physical toiling at her basic wooden loom. Her loom, a simple wooden structure with two beaten-up, rudimentary cans placed precariously on either side as well as a spoon tied right in the middle for balance, is the heart of her income.

The ancestral wooden looms on which these women weave, amazingly, have not changed over the years. Although electrical looms exist, they are not used as a result of cost and maintenance.


While we talk and work and she shows us her gorgeous weaving, her children periodically come in and out of the room, asking questions, scrambling all over her. She handles them like a pro; not skipping a beat in continuing our work and caring for them.

We watch her as she weaves rhythmically, mesmorized.

Halima’s talent is quite magical. As Moroccan weavers do, their trade is innately in them-she doesn’t use any conventional tools. Halima uses her hands and her arms to measure the rugs. The rest, is almost divination-all of the stunning symbols that make the Bejaddi rugs so famous throughout Morocco and beyond, come from within Halima. Her patterns are so exact, so perfect, such excellent quality, one might think that they are factory-produced. This is a real, pure, raw gift.

Astonishingly, weavers work with their textiles facing outward from the loom; the women have to essentially do everything backwards. It is intricate, difficult work. When I ask Halima where she finds her inspiration, she tells me that her revelations come to her in various ways. It can be as simple as the outline of a grain. Or the peaks of the majestic Atlas Mountains. Nature and agricultural motifs are often woven into Moroccan textiles. Each region has its own trademark patterns.


We got a sneak peak of creative director, Katie working closely with Halima on designs that will later be sewn into Mushmina’s trademark handbags.


As the afternoon wanes and the evening appears out of nowhere, we stop our work for a tea. The pocket-sized room, all of a sudden, is cold. We fill ourselves with minty, heavily sweetened Moroccan tea, cakes and toasty flat bread. And when our bellies are satisfied and our hearts are warmed, we hit the road. Feeling grateful to have been enlightened by this incredible woman. And to have shared a little bit of her world.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger





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Ahmed Ghezawe journeyed three long hours from rural Bejaad, Central Morocco to his destination of Rabat. His goal was the second annual rug exposition of Morocco; a massive white tent, held in the capital, with hundreds of stands, vendors, visitors, and of course, rugs as far as the eye could see.

It is, though, so much more than rugs. These textiles have a story. Each piece is carefully made by a strong woman. Often, under difficult conditions-tiny spaces, no electricity, frigid rooms in the cold winter, sweltering spaces in the heat of the summer. But still, these hearty weavers persist. Their calloused fingers and hands work tirelessly and rhythmically in motion, day after day, week after week, month after month.

In this gargantuan Bedouin-style tent, rows and rows of rugs-wool, cotton, silk, chenille. Colossal rugs and miniature ones. Gorgeous wool shags and tightly-knit kilims. Naturally-dyed throws and brightly colored patterned carpets.

The mecca of Moroccan rugs; all the way from Chefchaouen in heavily-Spanish influenced northern Morocco down to Marrakech and beyond into the High Atlas region of the south. Distinctly different, vibrant rugs from this incredibly unique country. The people of Morocco reflect this diversity. And their art; these rugs represent this fascinating range of singularity in its people.

Along with Ahmed on this trek came Zohra, one of the committed weavers of ‘Association Beni Zemmour’; a women’s co-op of talented rug makers aptly named after the famous rug-weaving region around the holy town of Bejaad.

The dedicated pair brought with them a van filled with carefully hand-woven rugs. And hearts brimming with hope. Their main goal was to find influential contacts with whom they could find networking opportunities. If they could possibly sell some of their beautiful rugs at the same time, it would be an added bonus.

Most of the stands at the rug expo were women’s co-ops; a rare opportunity for women to showcase their group work and trade in a typically traditional country where it is often seen as taboo for women to work. It is a unique chance for women to work towards a sliver of independence and empowerment.

For Ahmed in his role as mentor to these female weavers, his journey started many years before and is forever linked to ours at Mushmina. Ahmed was Heather O’Neill’s counterpart (or professional mentor and government-assigned aid) years before when Heather was a Peace Corps Volunteer….in Bejaad, Morocco.

Heather describes Ahmed back then, “He started from scratch with the women’s rug-weaving co-op. But he had a vision from the start. He was committed and hard-working. But most of all, he believed in the women and their ability to grow professionally. It’s not often that one finds a male leader like this in Morocco.”

She continues, “I was so fortunate to be mentored by Ahmed. He was an incredible teacher to me. But what he has done with the co-op is so much more than me. He has taken it from a room with no electricity to a large showroom, where visitors come and see the women working. He facilitates professional training sessions. He supports these women’s families by helping their sons receive certification courses in electricity and plumbing classes. These are young people who would not normally have the opportunity to learn a trade.”

This partnership between Heather and Ahmed was recognizably meant to be. A professional collaboration that has lasted for years and is based on respect, a vision for the future, and the hopes of others.

When I had the good fortune to meet Ahmed, it was very clear that both he and Zohra care deeply about Heather. Ironically, I barely speak Darija (the local language in Bejaad) and Ahmed’s French is quite basic. (Zohra speaks no French at all.) So we reverted to animated hand gestures, quite a bit of smiling, and much laughter. I find, funny enough, that these are the most heart-felt interviews.

It is quite rare, to be honest, to find a Moroccan man so incredibly invested in the professional growth of rural Moroccan women and their trade. Ahmed is a trailblazer himself; breaking down barriers of traditional cultural norms.

Ahmed kept touching his heart when he talked about Heather. He described working with her with such fondness that it was as if he were describing his own daughter. He told me how devoted Heather was to her job. How she would go into every house and get to know every neighbor and every woman with whom she worked. She was special, he explained to me. These relationships took time.

Relationships and family are incredibly essential to Moroccans. And perfectly apropos, Ahmed showed up at the rug exposition with his 5-year old grandson, Yahya. Moroccans are so deeply connected to their families. It didn’t seem at all odd that the entire time I was sitting with Ahmed and Zohra, Yahya was running circles around us; clambering joyfully all over his grandfather. Ahmed wasn’t bothered at all. Work and family. So closely connected.


It’s superbly fitting that in explaining his work to me, Ahmed wrapped up our chat with this gem, “The association is made up of seven women. Six ladies. And then me.” And then he laughed. A long, hearty, self-depricating chuckle. Zohra giggled as I burst out laughing.

I left the rug expo, a few more rugs in tow, satisfied and happy. And now as I gaze upon these brightly colored pieces of art proudly laid on my tile floors, I know a little more of their story. And the women who carefully created them. And I am determined to know more.


-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger



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3 Things That Feed My Soul

January 21, 2018

It has been a while since I posted a ‘Super Soul Sunday’ blog post, this Sunday I’m feeling inspired. This month I have been making a conscious effort to listen to positive messages, to reconnect with what really feeds my soul, and to carve out personal time to connect to ‘spirit.’

Today I’d like to share 3 things that feed my soul.

1. Positive Conversations. Did you know that Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday conversations with the world’s top thought leaders are now available on podcast?! Download these Super Soul Sunday podcasts for free to your smartphones. Podcasts are a game changer for me because some days I spend hours in the car driving across Morocco’s landscape to meet with Mushmina artisans. These half hour conversations are thought provoking and uplifting and help set the tone for my day.  I also love Hay House podcasts. Every spring Hay House broadcasts a ‘World Summit,’ hour long conversations with spiritual leaders. Highly recommend!

2. Spending time in nature. I take a walk everyday if I can to feel the sun on my face. Richard Diebenkorn, the American painter’s California landscapes remind me of Morocco. Maybe that is why I always liked his work even before I came to North Africa. The bright Moroccan sun and vegetation are similar to a California landscape. Something is calling me to paint again this year, another way I feed my soul!

3. Connecting with my tribe. My tribe is my sister, my mother, my girlfriends in the US and abroad who have become like family to me. I love hearing what exciting things they are up to, Women’s March posters they have made together,  stories and struggles and triumphs we share.

Do something that feeds your soul today.  Happy Sunday!

xo Heather

Mushmina,Co Founder

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In the vast, rugged mountains overlooking the sleepy, blue-washed walls of Chefchaouen, northern Morocco, Berber men and women weave labors of love in the strands of rustic cotton textiles called ‘mandils’. Rich hues, created by broad, calloused hands from years of hard physical toiling.

These fabrics are produced from natural dyes and carefully woven on traditional horizontal wooden looms. The material is then transformed into rustic striped cotton pieces; matching the ivory clouds and the fierce sun in their pure tones.

Women’s weaving groups are scattered throughout the haunting mountains of this region; loosely-organized co-ops where women make a small profit to support their families with these sustainable pieces that can be used as blankets, throws or towels. But for the locals, they are much more than a decorative piece.

The history of this striking red and white fabric is as fascinating as the women who wear them-the hearty women of the Rif region of Northern Morocco have worn these ‘mandils’ as aprons for centuries. The reason is deeply rooted in a utilitarian sense; the fabrics are used for practicality-they are deeply warm in the cool, mountain air and can easily be thrown over other clothes for extra insulation.

And why the red and white stripes? The answer is, like the history of Chaouen itself, a bit of a mystery. One theory is that the stripes have just evolved as a natural way to add interest with a simple pattern.

Another speculation is that the Rif region, once Spanish in its possession, has much to do with the presence of the bold pattern.

Color is clearly an essential part of Chaouen’s rich history. Chefchaouen, which translates to ‘see the two mountain peaks’ in Darija, was founded in the 15th century and initially populated by Jews and Moriscos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Many stories have circulated over time as to why Chaouen is so utterly blue. Some say that European immigrant Jews chose to paint the tiny town sapphire upon fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime. Some insist it’s a natural protection against mosquitos. And some even claim that Chaouen is blue as part of its etheral and spiritual aura. In any case, the haven of Chaouen is famous for its gorgeous blue hue; throwing peaceful shades of vibrant azure throughout its charming, winding passageways.

Chaouen has still managed, over the years, to keep much of its pastoral, tranquil appeal. It’s one of those places where you feel you might have just stepped back a few hundred years. In fact, time seems to slow down in Chaouen. Locals still seem to follow sunrise and sunset as their faithful guide. After all, the community around Chaouen is still vastly a farming one. The Rif Mountain range is enormous, spreading from Tangiers all the way south and east to Tetouan and Chaouen.

Tara's 3 girls peering over the city

The women of the Rif mountain region have adapted to a rugged, rural terrain for centuries. They need clothing that is sturdy, robust and lasts over time. The thick, softly woven cotton of the mandil is ideal for these hard-working locals.

Most female weavers learn their trade from birth; carefully watching their mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers patiently labor on their looms, their worn, creviced hands working tirelessly day in, day out. Weaving, sewing, embroidering is in their blood; it flows through them like the blue paint that is stirred in the vivid colors of the old medina doors.

One such women’s group is high above the tiny village of Dardara, 10 km from Chaouen, about a 35-minute bumpy drive down the mountain and into the larger town. The co-op doesn’t even have a name; it is just a small building with no water or electricity and a group of very active female weavers.

Typically, one mandil takes a full day for a woman to weave on a basic wooden loom. The supplies cost about 10 dirhams ($1). The mandil then sells on the local market yielding a few dollars profit, a substantial amount for the weaver.

The telltale traditional red and white colors of the mandils vary depending on the communities of women who wear them throughout the enormous rural region. They are really the identification keys of each community.

In recent years, these distinct materials have caught the eye of vendors and tourists alike.

Other colors, as a result, have been introduced as an entrepreneurial spirit has taken over and merchants have started requesting additional patterns and colors. However, the true originals are deep red and white. One can still see this if you catch a glimpse of a local woman washing clothes or selling vegetables in the surrounding villages. The indigo shades of Chaouen are now visible in the blues and whites of the mandils as well.

The practicality of these fabrics have two benefits for locals-the men and women weavers of the region will always need the mandils for their physical labor as well as protection from the harsh elements. In an enterprising sense, there will also likely continue to be a demand for this unique product to tourists visiting the region.

The story of the mandil is a success story in Morocco for of women creating an income for themselves and seeking an independence that they would not normally be able to find in such a traditional region. These women’s weaving co-ops create a unique means for women to have a small income in a bucolic area, where they would not normally have had the possibility to go to school to learn a trade or profession. This gives them a chance at success; no matter how small it might seem.

These shades of Chaouen-the rusty red of a brilliant sunset from the peaceful rooftop terraces, the pristine white of the puffy broccoli-shaped clouds above the tremendous mountain peaks, the dreamy blue of the dusty medieval doors of the old town. Paramount to the region and etched forever in the hearty cottons of the mandils.


By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger

Mushmina, mindful fashion and home.





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Thanksgiving. Eid Shokur, as they call it in Morocco, ‘the holiday of thanks’ comes down to two things for me, love and food. Gathering those you love to give thanks over a meal of all your favorite foods. The sweet smell of pies baking, warm cider brewing, and family and friends pouring in. It doesn’t get much better than that.

First as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as artisan production manager for Mushmina, I have lived abroad for a total of 9+ years. Some of those years were spent flying back to New Jersey to be with family for Thanksgiving weekend. A small(ish) gathering at our parent’s home on the bay, followed by dessert with our (VERY) large Irish family hosted by an unsuspecting cousin who has a house (or bar) big enough to host us all.

Two kids later (and a whole lot of frequent flier miles) a new tradition is forming. The last few years my family has spent Thanksgiving in Morocco with other American families living abroad. So what does an ex-Pat Thanksgiving look like? New faces, new accents, and new variations on all our favorite holiday foods… of course we hunt down a turkey, pumpkin soup, and if we are lucky (imported Spanish) cranberry sauce! Did I say cranberry sauce?!

We are a mix of people of whom might be put in the slightly crazy category of having jumped ship and moved to foreign lands.

This soulful Sunday we bring you, The Giving Meal, by our lovely blogger, Tara Fraiture, an American Ex-Pat living in Morocco. Did you know Tara was also a Peace Corps volunteer? Are you surprised? 😉

Read on…..

xo Heather

The Giving Meal

Thanksgiving is all about family, love and thanks. When I was a child, my British-born mother would cook up a frenzied storm for days in preparation for this beloved American holiday. The gorgeous smell of a Thanksgiving meal to this day, brings me back to my happy youth.  My New-York born father, a foreign student counselor and Western Civilization professor, would invite students from all over the world to join us. These were undergraduates of all religions, ethnicities and socio-economic groups coming to our modest house; young people who could not travel home for the holidays to be with their own families.

These were also people who were not familiar with American Thanksgiving. It was a real treat. And the best part was the sharing. Everyone would bring a dish from his or her home country; our antique dining room table would be teetering in dishes, bowls and platters, filled with delectable delights. Of course, my Mum offered the traditional homemade Thanksgiving indulgences with a Californian twist-barbequed turkey (still the best I have ever had), fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin chiffon pie, buttermilk biscuits, Mum’s special recipe of sausage stuffing, homemade mulled wine and much more. My sister, father and I were given some menial tasks like juicing oranges for the mulled wine or cranberry sauce, but really, I think it was just to stop us from helping ourselves to the treats a little too early. But everyone did lend a hand. We then would stuff ourselves silly.

But still, the sharing part was the best. Chatting, laughing, telling stories until late into the evening. My Dad was the best story-teller. He still is, at almost 90 years old. He has a way with words and a gift for making people feel welcome. Even if my father he doesn’t speak the language, he manages to communicate, particularly with humor. And my Mum does what most mothers do to get to people’s hearts-she cooks. Her comfort-food casseroles and fluffy sweet potato biscuits make their way into your soul.

My parents always opened their house to others, particularly those far from home, on Thanksgiving Day. We lived in a small house when I was growing up, but we always welcomed others for the holidays. This simple idea of caring for those far from home was embedded in them and it carried over to my sister and I. It’s what I remember most as a child-my parent’s giving hearts.

One of the earliest memories of my childhood was in the rural Kenyan bush; miles and miles of savannah, practically another world from the capital of Nairobi, with my parents and sister. My parents met and married in East Africa. It was a swelteringly sweaty day and I recall red clay dust was puffing up around our hearty old four-wheel drive as we bumped along the unpaved, potholed road. Suddenly, we were flagged down by a staggering pair, hobbling along the path. The woman, we could tell, was clearly deathly ill. Even I, young as I was, had feeling of impending doom for her. Malaria, they said. I vividly remember seeing the flies circle around her face and smelling the pungent odor coming from her body. I was hesitant and afraid. The woman was terribly weak; she didn’t even open her eyes. My parents carefully shuffled her in the car and we barreled off to the nearest health clinic. Which was, of course, miles away. We never found out if the woman survived. It’s likely she died, she was so ill. But my parents, they never even blinked. They just acted. They always reacted with their hearts first. And they still do.

I’d like to think I am teaching my three daughters this same sense of selflessness as they grow up overseas. We always tell them that it feels so much better to give than receive. Thanksgiving is, and always will be, my favorite holiday because of its message of gratitude and reflection. We typically celebrate by inviting a handful of international friends over who have never celebrated Thanksgiving. Some have never even heard of the holiday before. Everyone brings a scrumptious dish to share from their native country. I furiously cook up a storm for several days before. My girls help. The kitchen is abuzz with activity and sublime smells. Sound familiar? The dining room table resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa with its massive stash of delightful dishes from all over the globe. We even have my favorite; a teeter-tottering dessert table. Because Thanksgiving just is not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie and homemade ginger-whipped cream.

Yet once again, the sharing takes center stage. We occasionally have an impromptu acting out of the Thanksgiving story by the kids. Someone inevitably puts on a goofy turkey hat with massive wings on the side. There is always a ton of laughter. Kids flying by, playing, yelling, singing. Music from all over the world resonates throughout the house. And afterwards, late into the evening, everyone pitches in to clean up. Every year, I am grateful for my little family; for my children and for my husband-even if they drive me a wee bit batty, for my life and health and opportunities that we have. And I want to share this with others.

By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger





On a scorching hot, dusty day in 2004, in the rural town of Boujad in Central Morocco, former Peace Corps Volunteer and Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill had a life-changing, eureka moment. She witnessed a group of female weavers, seated in a circle, waiting patiently for their carefully hand-crafted rugs to be sold by an unknown middleman.

Heather recalls, “I just knew there had to be something better for women in this position. These incredibly talented artisans put their whole lives into these gorgeous rugs, day in and day out, and they were gaining so little in return. The men buying the rugs to, in turn, sell them at another souk (market), were the ones making the real profit. I realized then that I could make a huge difference. I always knew that I would gravitate towards development and helping others. But I then recognized that it would become a lifelong mission and much more than a job. I had an obligation. It became my calling.”


Many years before, as close sisters in suburban New Jersey, Heather and her younger sister Katie knew they were destined to have their own custom fashion and accessories business together. Katie would eventually become the creative and artistic designer of Mushmina; specializing in her trademark mastery of African hand-crafted accessories. Katie’s expertise in distinctive metal-smithing and textiles places her in a unique field in which women are not typically found. Heather would be the connecting force behind this inspiring business with her knowledge of business and materials sourcing and her interest in working in developing nations. The two sisters; yin and yang, best friends, and now business partners and creative collaborators were fated for Mushmina.

Heather and Katie’s mindful plan was slowly coming together. Heather had successfully completed two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco teaching small business skills to local women. Katie was a flourishing designer in New York City. Fast-forward a few more years to 2009, the sisters returned to Morocco with a business plan in their backpacks. Heather has remained in Morocco ever since. Katie continues to live in the US, but threatens (lovingly) to move to Morocco as well. After all, they are a team.

This month, in honor of Small Business Saturday, which always held on the Saturday after American Thanksgiving, the sisters have chosen to tell the story of a particularly inspirational Moroccan female small business owner.  Zohra’s story below is one of perseverance, determination and plenty of heart. Read on….


Zohra Mellouk, native Moroccan and founder of Souss Saffron, a USDA-certified organic co-op that cultivates “natural products of the Moroccan earth”-saffron, argan oil, and prickly pear seed oil, (as well as many other chemical-free products) has a similar story of dedication and epiphany when it comes to realizing her lifelong ambition of helping women in need.

Souss Saffron’s name comes from the rugged, agrarian Souss region in mid-Southern Morocco, just below the High Atlas Mountains.

Zohra grew up in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco; she was one of eight children and had everything could possibly need as a young girl. However, her father’s story always inspired Zohra-he had come to Casablanca as a 15-year-old youth, traveling 700 km on foot from his tiny, Berber village in the Sirwa Mountains of southern Morocco. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and the wish of making a better life for himself. And that he did.

Zohra never forgot this. As a child, visiting her father’s family in Tinfat, a village so small that it inevitably blends into other miniscule hamlets in these rural mountains; the nearest large town being 180 km away in Touradant, Zohra said she witnessed “suffering on a huge scale due to unemployment and lack of schooling. But it was the women-the girls, mothers, and grandmothers who always touched me the most. I wanted to do something to give back to them. Because they were the cords that held our community together.”

Later on in life and ironically, after her retirement from a successful career in business, Zohra finally intended to bring her dream to fruition. She briefly thought of opening a guesthouse, but then, a genius idea practically dropped into her lap. Why not use what was already there, already part of the land, embedded in the people, distinctive in their livelihood? And even better, why not work with the women from her parental village? Those who needed employment, education and empowerment the most?

At first, Zohra approached a (male) cousin who immediately belittled her idea. Employ women? Of course not, he told her. Zohra then had a lightening bolt moment. She quickly realized, “We have everything already here that is essential for producing these gifts of the earth; we just need the work force. Women in this region already know how to cultivate these natural products; they have been practically doing it since they were walking, as well as caring for entire households. All they need is a little training in Western regulations. The rhythm is already there. The work ethic was put in place many years before. The experience is there now. We just need to put it into motion.”

Starting with just twelve women in 2011, Zohra now heads over 160 experienced female cultivators today in her successful co-op. The women work at home in the mornings and with Souss Saffron in the afternoons. During the height of saffron cultivation, (October-November), every able-bodied person works and reaps the benefits of the busy season. “What’s not important is the paperwork, what is necessary is that everyone has a job. A purpose. Our youngest female member is 18 and our oldest is (she thinks) 90. Everyone joins in.”

And her biggest challenge? Zohra feels personally responsible for changing as many girls’ lives as possible through education. “I feel a desperate need to send the girls of this co-op to school. The level of poverty and misery in rural villages is astounding. To keep young girls in school through their secondary education and possibly even on afterwards is my ultimate goal. At the moment, we have ten girls at a boarding school in Taroudant. This is huge accomplishment for our small cooperative. There is nothing for them in the villages unless they have been to school. More and more, their families, and even the girl’s fathers, are realizing this.”

Zohra still spends her rare moments of free time, pondering how to create more revenue; the goal being to ultimately employ additional women and send more of their young daughters to school. These thoughts keep her up at night. It’s not for her that she does this. In fact, she is incredibly humble when she talks about her business. She talks about it for the women that she is helping; not for herself. She talks about the future for the women she is supporting, not for herself.

This is what small business owners do; and particularly ones whose missions are linked to free trade and sustainability-they spend their whole lives envisioning and carrying out their dreams-they live, sleep, and breathe this hope. They don’t actually dream for themselves but for others who are less fortunate. Heather and Katie had a goal of helping women and men by empowering and leading talented groups of artisans throughout Morocco. As much as it’s a job for them and a source of income for these two sisters, it’s so much more-it’s a devotion, a duty, and a necessity. Zohra had this same relentless fire within her-to encourage Moroccan women to be independent using the resources that they know best-their land, their earth, their hands.

There is a well-known Moroccan expression, in the local language of Darija, that translates to “Drop by drop, we fill the river” (Nqta b nqta kay hml l’oued). Perhaps for Katie and Heather, this could be measured in the thick fibers of a vibrant Moroccan rug, lovingly woven by master weavers whom the Mushmina sisters have meticulously employed and empowered. And maybe for Zohra, this can be determined by delicate twines of vivid orange-yellow saffron, tenderly cultivated by her co-op of tenacious women in Zohra’s ancestral village.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger



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Just outside of Marrakech’s all encompassing magnetism is but another level of living ~Starting my day venturing away from the bustle of the souks towards the climb of the snow capped landscape of the Atlas mountains is truly soul enlivening. One of my favorite parts of our work in Morocco has become our visits with the women artisans of The Eve Branson Foundation. Their berber village along the cliffs of these majestic mountains hosts a creative center for the local community to learn and grow their artistic skills setup by the Branson family and outstanding staff.

Just before working on a project I experience this familiar inner “excitement” as to how things will go, which direction it will take and hopeful it will be successful for all of those involved…you see, every effort is that of a community here in Morocco. This trip was yet another reminder that we all need one another for survival and success to abound. It is in this humble and artistic community that I find I am continuously learning almost more than I’m teaching while I visit for a workshop. My designs are inspired by my surroundings here and it is a joy to see them translated through the handwork of the artisans in this collaborative process. Just opposite the enchanting Kasbah Tamadot Branson hotel, the foundation offers the locals programs on seamstress work, embroidery, woodworking and a now hand loom for women, traditionally a craft of men. The growth of the center is inspiring and we’re thrilled to be a part of the journey. From color theory workshops to new clothing patterns, as Mushmina grows so will our ability to provide artisan employment opportunities with a focus on women’s empowerment while offering inspired pieces in partnership with EBF and beyond.

Something I’ve learned in this unpredictable work which continues to propel me is that when you follow the pull of the universe, in this case into the lure of the mountains, you will be rewarded with confirmations. I’m easy to please and the spirit of the women I meet is reward enough but I’m not opposed to a glass of wine at the end of the day while soaking in the energy of the Atlas Mountains on the veranda of Kasbah Tamadot. Life is majestic.

Cheers,                                                                                                                                                                    Katie O’Neill                                                                                                                                             Mushmina, Creative Director

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Mushmina Khamas and Tea

Why do we fear what we don’t understand?

I am an American living in Morocco.  People ask me all the time if I feel safe living in the Middle East, in a country and culture far from my own. My husband is Muslim and so is 99% of the population in Morocco. I first came to North Africa 12 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer with the mission of promoting better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served and also better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. I cannot tell you how much this experience changed my life and how grateful I am that I had the education of living in another culture. It is humbling, eye opening, and yes I feel safe. I never met a Moroccan who wouldn’t stop what they were doing to welcome a foreigner with a pot of tea.

At Mushmina, one of our goals is to create positive purpose by sustaining the beautiful traditions of cultures. Developing relationships with the artisans that we work with and with our customers promotes understanding between cultures. It is the way we promote peace in the world.

Last night  as I meditated with Deepak Chopra on healing the division between ‘us and them,’ I couldn’t help but think of the state of the world this week. Katie and I did not want to let this important subject go unaddressed. Our hearts go out to Beirut , Paris, Syria, and all individuals living in war torn countries.

It has been our experience that sometimes people generalize a group based on the actions of a small minority that painfully misrepresents so many individuals.  It’s not a race or a religion that is evil, it is individuals who have lost their purpose and have been misguided.

This is why we feel so strongly about education, empowerment, and creating opportunity in the world.

Wishing you and yours a peaceful Thanksgiving.


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Did you hear that Mushmina is moving!?

We have a new location in the lovely, Wayne PA. Join us on South Street for our final weekend and moving sale in Philadelphia.

Items under $50 -15% off, items over $50 -20% off, footwear -10% off this weekend only, jewelry over $60 -15% off

Boutique Hours at 1540 South Street:
Today Friday May 15th 5:30-8pm
Saturday 11am-8pm
Sunday 11-5pm

It’s our final weekend on South Street, but Philly don’t fret… you will see us at festivals and in our VW mobile boutique in the city this summer!

Thanks to all those who came out last night for Night Market on South Street. We are sad to go but were happy to see so many people come out to give us hugs and wish us luck at our new location.

Many thanks for all your best wishes and support!

“Trust the timing of your life!”

IMG_4164 Chefchouen Blue Size 7.5 (3)

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