Friday, December 11, 2009
Christmas is the season for the preposterous.
A king born in a manger.
And so I believe it to be SHONA's season as well.
SHONA started as a preposterous project.
I don't know why I thought it would work.
Who starts in internet-based business in Eastern Congo, on an internet connection that makes dial-up look fast?
Recently I visited a bookstore and looked at the business section, where I found all of these guides for starting small businesses and organizations. They contained chapter after chapter of carefully organized plans, to be created BEFORE starting the business.
In fact we are in the business of the preposterous in almost every way. SHONA started by making small cloth bags. I assure you that the idea of shipping small, handcrafted cloth bags out of Eastern Congo, does not strike the average Congolese person as clever. Congo exports gold and coltan, and other precious minerials. Things that are worth their weight in gold, literally. Cloth bags? Not so much. In fact I have hardly ever seen a Congolese person even using a cloth bag. Almost all of the bags used in Goma are plastic bags from China or Western hand-me-down bags.
And so we embarked upon a rather risky venture. And we embarked with some of the most "unqualified" people in the world. I knew nothing about starting a business, and nothing about sewing. And our craftswomen, while immensely talented and determined, are handicapped young women who had never been to school and were easily taken advantage of in other groups. That's it. That is all we started with. There was no funding, no studies, no managers and directors. Just us.
And here is the kicker. Almost three years later. We are still going in precisely that fashion. We still have no outside funding (except a few gifts from friends) and no managers. Each item you see is truly the work of our hands.
Four months ago I returned to the US, with the plan that my husband and I will be based out of New York for the next couple of years. We loved Congo, but we need to be closer to family for a while. And in many ways, in order to continue with SHONA I need to be on this side for a while.
But it was a risk. I left the craftspeople in Congo to stand on their own. The test of a project, is not what happens when the "founder" is hovering over it, but what happens when she is not. Many, many people advised me that I needed to leave a manager or director, a boss of some sort, but I wanted to see each craftsperson operating as her own small business. I think that is the best way to empower the craftspeople and the best way to avoid many of the issues of corruption and mismanagement that doom many groups in Congo.
And the craftspeople have exceeded all expectations in terms of taking ownership for their work. I speak on the phone with them often, but almost all of the details of our work are done through text messaging, believe it or not. The craftspeople are far from computer literate (although this is a goal for the future) but they are well versed in text messaging. So I text message an order to each craftsperson each month. She goes to the market, buys the cloth, works for weeks to sew the order, calculates her earnings for the order in a simple accounting book, and submits that total plus the shipping cost to me via text message. And so it goes. Preposterous, except that it works. Really well.
Of course there were years put into making it work. My relationships with the craftspeople were built over years of living next-door to them and working with them daily, not through text messaging. Without the courses I taught them in math and writing, and without the skills they taught me in sewing and Swahili, this would not have been possible.
But my move back to the US was a risk for another reason as well. I need to work. I have spent the last three years of my life working on SHONA full-time for free. I was able to do that because my husband had a job in Congo and we didn't need much to live on. But life in the US is a tad bit more expensive, and I knew that I would need to find a job, at least a part-time one.
And for that I am sheerly amazed as well. I have just taken a position teaching ESL to women in cooperatives (they have a nanny cooperative and a house-cleaning cooperative). The goal of this organization, as you might imagine, is to empower these women through employment and education. Sound familiar? In many ways SHONA has been a wild divergence from my expected career path, and yet it comes together in surprising ways. This job is a combination of my teaching experience and my experience working with SHONA. In fact my experience with SHONa is probably why I got the job.
And it is a 25 hr. a week job, leaving me time to continue working on SHONA. This is precisely what I needed, but hadn't really imagined that I would find.
Don't get me wrong, a lot of blood sweat and tears go into SHONA. Things don't always line up right the first time around. But I have to say this: I am amazed at how much is possible, in ways that I never would have dreamed. I am, indeed, thankful for this season of the preposterous.