ST. ALBANS CITY — A card table. A sewing machine. An email.
Throughout Winnie Wilkinson’s life, such simple things changed her trajectory and impacted entire villages along the way.
“When you start a business, you don't know where you’ll end up, and you don’t know the lives you’ll change,” she said.
At 61, Wilkinson runs Winnie’s International Market—an online store specializing in rare spices and African-made clothing. She got her business started at a St. Alban’s farmers market.
Wilkinson’s story in Vermont began in 2001. Prior to moving, she had been living in New York City and working at Citigroup, but the events of Sept. 11 caused her to re-evaluate her life. She wanted to find somewhere safe. Vermont seemed like a natural fit.
Culturally, however, it was a struggle. Even with her experience, it was difficult to find a job in the area. Because of her roots in the Caribbean, she has a strong accent, and she said local banks had concerns about hiring her.
She had also come with certain expectations about city life that St. Albans didn’t have in 2002. The calls she placed to order Chinese takeout or laundry delivery were met with confusion. And she just couldn’t find a reliable source of international spices, such as curry powder, jerk seasoning and garam masalas.
“It was a rude awakening,” she said.
A friend suggested that it was a business opportunity. Wilkinson grabbed a $25 supply, borrowed a card table and set up a space at the farmer’s market. At her first outing, she sold out. That’s when Winnie’s International Seasonings was born.
Wilkinson’s business evolved a second time after she sought out DNA evidence of her heritage, which pointed her towards Ghana and Togo.
“There was this yearning to get to know more,” she said.
She sent out an email to start a conversation with people in that area, and eventually, she sent a sewing machine—one she didn’t want in the first place. They invited her for a visit.
She remembers when she got off the airplane for the first time in Ghana. The people waiting for her had made a sign with her name, and as she approached, they looked over her head trying to spot a white person, she said, because of her anglicized name.
When she introduced herself, the Ghanaian woman fell to Wilkinson’s feet to thank her for the gift she sent before her arrival.
“The sewing machine changed her life,” Wilkinson said.
In return, the time Wilkinson spent in Africa changed her life, and the cultural exchange opened up her worldview. She witnessed communal life and built relationships with those she met. She learned Ghanaian dances and wore Ghanaian clothes. She ate Ghanaian food, and she watched how they used their resources to ensure that nothing was wasted. Even hooves and horns found a purpose.
“I’ve learned so much — that what I have is more than enough. And I’ve learned to share. Accumulating wealth is not happiness,” Wilkinson said. “I’ve learned to live with what I need.”
The economic realities also showed her where she could help. Instead of forcing American methods of production on those she met in Ghana, she could help connect them to American markets without devaluing what they do.
“They must be paid for their trade,” she said. “Why is it that they have to change everything for the international traveler?”
Her experiences overseas also helped her understand her own past. The government of Ghana has made efforts to connect with the descendants of the African diaspora, and while in the country, she took time to visit historical sites associated with slavery’s origin.
She recalled touring the small holding areas—18-by-18 foot spaces meant to house 1,000 men — used to process slaves before they were shipped west, and as she made her way through the complex, she could empathize with the pain of those historical events.
Bridging cultural gaps
Today, she uses those experiences she had in Ghana to try to bridge cultural gaps and create the conversations needed for people to understand each other, their cultures and their histories.
Wilkinson said such work can be accomplished in St. Albans. She serves on the City’s Police Advisory Board to help break down sometimes unseen assumptions and embrace change.
She’s also planning an international festival to celebrate the cultural heritages of peoples around the world, including those living in St. Albans. The festival is scheduled for the last weekend of Oct. 2022 and will be held at the Collins-Perley Sports Complex.
“It is something so needed for the area,” she said. “We’ve come a long way, but we have got to exist to coexist. Let’s sift it out to come to a place of common knowledge.”