Born and raised in Senegal Africa, Ondine Saglio speaks very fondly of the first years of her life. Through her father’s work as an ethnologist, the free-spirited, Ondine lived and went to school in the Island of Gorée until the age of 8.

Her description of that time lights up her face. She speaks of freedom, running and playing barefoot, rich olfactive memories from spices and local markets, meals shared generously by her neighbors and schoolmates. The first years of her life are idyllic and picturesque. An African dream.

This dream was cut short when at age 8, she moved to Paris. Uprooted, she had to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle. No more barefoot running. Her life was now in Saint Germain des Près. Labeled “the strange kid from Africa,” she was feeling homesick and yearning to go back.

As a teen, she returned to her homeland every summer, going back to her roots, always guided by the deep love and attachment she holds for Senegal.

At age 21, she decided to move back permanently to Senegal. She wanted to dedicate herself to a cause or a project that would reflect the love and affection she has for Africa. She started with photojournalism in Dakar, covering and documenting the living condition of streets kids. Along with her mother, she then decided to dig a little deeper and proceeded to meet with several foundations and organizations.

Their attention was naturally drawn towards artisanal workers and artisanal objects. They both felt that the promotion of artisanal work would spruce several opportunities for local communities. With this in mind, Ondine and her mother created the CSAO (La Compagnie du Senegal et de L’Afrique de L’Ouest). The CSAO creates jobs and provides artisan workers with sustainable incomes. It provides them with the tools they need to start small businesses in their communities, and it preserves the rich craftsmanship and talents of African artisans.

The CSAO has now been in business for twenty years. The items (often one of a kind and unique pieces) are available in Paris (3 locations in Le Marais) and online but also in department stores: Le Bon Marché, Bergdorf Goodman, and The Conran Shop. The Brand is also known for its hugely successful collaborations with luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin and Bonpoint.

The CSAO represents over 300 artisans which include painters and embroiderers, leather makers, and weavers. The CSAO is also sourcing products in Mali and Burkina Faso and Nigeria, empowering woman through various NGOs.

When asked what she cares about most and what motivates her actions, Ondine states the desire to create sustainable jobs for all the artisans of CSAO and to give back all the joy and happiness that Africa gave her.

She aims to provide a platform that can convey and feature all the beauty of Africa: through its arts and craftsmanship. The CSAO is an expression of her love for craftsmanship and her desire to modernize artisanal work, keeping alive ancestral methods of weaving and embroidering. She hopes to keep providing steady jobs to all her artisans stating: “When you provide jobs for 300 people it provides a livelihood for 2000 people, that is a real responsibility to me and I feel responsible for all of them”. Hence the importance to keep this ecosystem alive and bustling with new projects which can be a challenge. Another challenge is to convey the message that artisanal goods from Africa are luxury items.

“Often there is the false notion that artisanal work coming from Africa is not luxury, but all products are handmade by skilled artisans often using ancestral methods to create: eco-friendly, sustainable and fair trade unique items.” This false notion has also been met with another challenge, counterfeited products, items made with a machine and cheaper materials. “I have people telling me “but I can get the same item elsewhere and cheaper. But what they don’t know is these items are entirely different than our products. They don’t fare with the quality, the hour’s work, the attention to detail and the impact it has on local communities.”

“Bergdorf Goodman has been a great partner, as they know the value of our items. Our throw pillows take two days to produce, and they are entirely handmade. Our products have a story and an impact. One pillow requires the work of a calligraphist, an embroiderer, and a tailor.”

Sitting in the middle of one of her stores in Le Marais, (on a rainy and cold Parisian morning), I am transported into Africa by the warmth of the place, the colors, the music, and the cozy and exquisite hand beaded chair I am seated on. All of this makes me wonder, and I candidly ask her “you said that you feel responsible like you would of your family, you are a Mama Africa.” Mama Africa is a term used by Africans that have left Africa to show love for their place of birth.

She kindly replies, “the real Mama Africa is my mother. My mother has dedicated her life to this cause; she founded the CSAO, she gave her all to this, she lives for this. My mother started it all, and she is my inspiration as I try to help her keep this project alive. She is a true philanthropist, she lives to give and I have learned that from her.” Valerie (Ondine’s mother) created many projects and platforms over the past twenty years, she is currently working on a new project which aims to help formerly incarcerated women in Senegal. She also started a project for street kids in Dakar and “La Maison Rose”, a halfway house for women with young children.

“My mother speaks Wolof fluently, I used to speak it as a child but I sadly have forgotten.” Her fluency both in language and in culture allows her to navigate seamlessly through it all. “She is a true Senegalese and she is very attached to the country, even though she is a French national.”

“I am there about 4 to 5 times a year, and even though Africa has evolved from the Africa I knew as a child, it is still as beautiful as it was in my childhood memories. Women walk elegantly through the streets of Dakar, incredible colors and laughs can be seen and heard, and the hospitality and generosity is at the heart of all dealings. My mother wanted to work with women and Africa is built on the strength and dedication of women: African Queens leading the way.”

When I ask her to share one of her fondest memory that can sum up CSAO, she replies that she recently opened a second embroidery atelier. “There are now 70 women working in that Atelier, and it is the most joyful and happy. Women are teaching other women. To see this is incredibly rewarding to do more and to keep building this ecosystem of artisans and foundations”.

In the dictionary, luxury is defined as “a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.” Elegance and comfort do set the tone in Ondine’s stores but what is most present in the sense of great expense. The expense of Ondine and her mother who tirelessly work at providing better lives for women, children, and men while preserving and enhancing craftmanship. The sense of expense that oozes from each furniture, each plate, each pillow, all extends beyond the widespread notions of luxury. Perhaps luxury needs to be redefined, to something that spells the provision of the comfort of others not just our own. Ondine claims she has learned it all from her mother, and a mother herself she is providing yet another proof that caring and empathy may be the best ingredients in life and in business…food for thought.

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