Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On family separation

"My daughter was 2 the last time I saw her. She is seventeen now. "

The first time I heard these words, my heart caught in my mouth.

These particular words belonged to a middle-aged woman, working diligently to learn English in my ESL class. She came to the class after long shifts at a local restaurant, cleaning tables and serving food. I had known her for several months before I even realized she had a teenage daughter. Had she never said anything? Maybe I'd never asked.

Since that first conversation, I've learned to listen more. And I have heard this story a hundred times. In a hundred different ways.

"My son is is Mexico. I haven't seen him since he was a baby."

"My girls, they grew up with their grandmother. They call me mama but they only know me as a voice on the phone."

At some point I realized, this is not just a collection of individual stories. This is THE story of our broken immigration system.

Recently, a lot of attention in the US has been given to the horrific policy of separating families seeking asylum at the border. We are all rightly horrified. And there is something uniquely horrific about witnessing our own government officials tearing apart mothers and young children and placing them in what appear to be warehouses.

But let us also recognize that our immigration system tragically separate families in more ways than this.
In the US we have created an immigration system in which it is virtually impossible for our poor and working class neighbors to immigrate to this country legally. There is no line for them, or if it exists, it is decades long. And at the same time, the US pursues international policies that gut local economies in the interest of corporations, destabilizes governments and pursues misguided "drug wars". In effect we have made it increasingly impossible for our neighbors to lead stable and secure lives in their own countries. At the same time our economy benefits from the hard labor of workers left with the only option to kiss their children goodbye and come here "undocumented". Nobody chooses that heartbreak. Not if there are other choices.

We are all responsible. Collectively we have failed to listen to the costs of an immigration system built to force a population into undocumented existence.

I don't have any easy answers. I believe that we need to change our immigration policies and our economic policies. And that is just the start. But I believe that first we must understand the true human cost of our current situation. For that, I am thankful for the outcry at toddlers being torn from their mothers. May the horror of it startle us awake. But may we not settle too easily for the myth that these are the only children separated from their parents. May we have the courage to see the story that is not just in our news feeds but all throughout our local communities. We all have people in our communities who are separated from their families, we just have to find the courage to ask.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Top 5 things I have learned from Congolese Mothers

1.  Hit the wall.
In Congo, when a young child gets a little hurt, for example by running into a wall, the adults in the room will often offer a simple solution.  Vengeance.  Against the inanimate object of course.  The adult will say "Pardon! Pardon!" as though the wall had somehow attacked the child unfairly.  And then the adult will offer to hit the wall for the child.  Literally.  It is retribution straight up, and perhaps offers some concerning models of conflict resolution in the long term. But on the other hand, I often have witnessed tearful toddlers crack a smile at the suggestion, as though even they can see the ridiculousness of blaming the wall.  Perhaps that is a world view we could all afford to share.  

2.  Nobody has just one mama.  In Swahili, an aunt is a "mama mukubwa" (big mother) or a "mama mudogo" (little mother).  But the term is often applied generously to women friends of all sorts. And the relationship is real.  Women often take on the role of loving and carrying for and correcting eachother's children.

3.  Carry your baby on your back. 
While sewing.  And cooking.  And walking.

Or let someone else carry your baby.
While African women are often recognized for carrying their children on their backs, what is often left unsaid is that African women often ask OTHER people (particularly older girls) to carry their children on their backs.

Solange carrying Mapendo's baby.

5. Forget the stuff.  Carry a cloth.
I have rarely seen a woman in Congo carrying a diaper bag.  There aren't a lot of baby wipes, pacifiers, or dangling toys.  Children just don't come with the same collection of supplies.  But one thing that every woman has is an extra "kitenge" cloth.  It seems like no matter what has gone wrong, a Congolese woman will always have a "kitenge", quickly unwrapping one from her waist or head.  With that cloth, she can wrap a crying baby on her back, or fashion a diaper, or wipe a runny nose.

4.  Feign Seriousness.  But make a joke.
There is an approach to parenting young children that I will identify as "feigning seriousness".  Congolese women often seem to take children's dilemma's very seriously, but you can always catch a glimmer in their eyes, and the undertone of a joke running through the adults.  Sometimes, I hear myself here in the US, attempting to navigate a bedtime gone awry ("If you wiggle one more time I am going to leave!"), and I think I have lost the thread of the joke.  How serious can wiggling be?  Perhaps it is because of the communal nature of Congolese mothering, and the ever presence of multiple adults, that the jokes keep running.  Or maybe because they are a little less inclined to tie their self-worth to their children's behavior.  Whatever the reason, the undercurrent of joking definitely makes life with many children more enjoyable.

25% off all SHONA Congo bags for the next two days.  
 Discount code: mzazi at checkout. 

 Buy a SHONA Congo bag for one of your friends this Mother's Day.  These bags are great ways to connect to other women and to find strength in our shared journeys.  Each bag comes with the individual story of the woman who made that bag.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Happy Ending

I don't believe in happy endings. 

But we are a culture in love with happy endings.  And this story begs for one. 

This is the story of Argentine and Mapendo, two young women from rural villages in Eastern Congo.  They started with nothing.  Survived war and poverty.  Worked hard. And now they are about to board an airplane and arrive in Canada.

You see how it is a Cinderella story, right?

So let me say up front...I never wanted Argentine and Mapendo to leave Congo and move to Canada.  And I don't believe it is a happy ending.

I believe it is a tragedy, that these young women couldn't build safe lives in the country they are from. What does it feel like to have to travel halfway across the world, and leave everything you know, just to find a safe place to call home?

 May we never stop asking that question, and fighting for a world where 50 million people don't have to live in that reality. 

This last week, Argentine and Mapendo's family's scrounged any money they could find to buy bus tickets and visit Argentine and Mapendo one last time.  They gave Argentine and Mapendo their blessings, on this next step in their journey. 

And that it is what it is.  A next step, not an ending.  With more joys and more sorrows to come.

In 2 days I will board a plane and go to Canada.  I will meet Argentine and Mapendo in the airport and I will celebrate with them. This is a moment worth celebrating.

But I will also remember that just a few days ago Argentine's mother hugged her goodbye.


Then we will stand there in the airport in Canada and look at each other, imagining what is to come.  We will bundle up 9 refugees in more clothing than they could ever imagine.  And we will open the door and walk out into the frigid Canadian air, and see how their crutches work on ice.

Join the Journey.

Countdown: Arriving in 4 Days. Here is Jonathan, and his younger brother, Joachim after they fled Congo for the second time. They were in a refugee camp. No matter where you go, children will play. What's next for these little guys? Join The Journey.

20% off all SHONA bags for the next 48 hours. Give the gift of SHONA this holiday season and tell someone about the beautiful, handcrafted work of Jonathan and Joachim's mama. Your support has carried us so far. discount code: siku4 at the end of checkout.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Countdown: Arriving in 5 days! This photo is of Mapendo, Joseph, their baby and their niece, just before Christmas 5 years ago when they first became refugees. They were at a transit camp in Burundi, having fled Congo with nothing and they had no idea what lay ahead. Jonathan was a baby in Mapendo's arms in this photo and now he will be entering Kindergarten when he arrives in Canada! Mapendo's niece will be entering high school. Imagine where the next 5 years will take this family! Join the Journey. 

Argentine, Mapendo and their families will be resettled as refugees in Canada on December 7th, 2017.  Riziki and Solange remain in Congo.  We are incredibly grateful to all of you for supporting each step of this journey.  Your purchases continue to matter infinitely to these beautiful families.

Give the gift of SHONA Bags this holiday season and invite your friends to join this journey with us!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Why we should buy Argentine a Mic this holiday season

"Wait, what?" you say. "Has SHONA made it so big that we no longer have to worry about putting food on the table?" 

I wish. That's not it at all. We still face all those daily struggles.

But a Microphone is powerful. And in this world, we in the "West", have been holding the mic for a long time.

Look at Argentine's face when she is holding that mic.

One of the things that the SHONA Congo women talk about the most is what it feels like to be walking in the street and be mistaken for "beggers". Because of their crutches... people just assume. That is where the word "handicapped" comes from "Cap in Hand"...begging.

So how about flipping the script? How about "mic in hand"? You see why it matters right?

That is why we need your help to start "Congo Voices", a video channel where the SHONA Congo women will share their lives with you, from their own perspectives. You can donate to our start-up costs at and help us literally buy that mic. Or for just a few dollars you can become a monthly sponsor of our channel at

I just got off the phone with Solange, in Goma, where every night she continues to hear shooting and violence in their poor neighborhood on the edge of town.

She was so excited and ran off to start shooting a video with her phone. Because a microphone matters. The chance to share your experiences with the world matters. And it doesn't matter less just because you are poor, and struggling to put food on the table. Maybe it matters more.
I don't know what this channel will end up looking like. Will it be a place where Argentine teaches you how to sing a song in Swahili? Or where Solange shows you what it is like to live in her neighborhood. I don't know what it will look like, because it depends on the women...And it depends on you.

Join us this holiday season, as Argentine and Mapendo get ready for the biggest journey of their lives. And Riziki and Solange fight for their own lives in a place full of more beauty and more chaos than any other place I have ever been.

Join us, and let's make sure these amazing women have a MIC IN HAND. Because I know they've got something to say.

Monday, October 9, 2017

And then it came...

When Argentine and Mapendo and their families went in for interviews with the Canadian government a few weeks ago, they were hoping to come out with medical forms. They knew that was a sign you were really going to be resettled, when you got to the medical exam stage. They left the interviews with no medical forms, and only the promise that soon they would be contacted about the next step! It has been a long couple weeks of holding our breath.
Today they received their medical forms! And onward they move to the next stage in this journey. Medical exams, background checks...With each step it becomes more real that soon (just in time for winter?!?!?) they may find themselves in Canada.
Let's celebrate this latest step on Mapendo and Argentine's journey and at the same time also remember Solange and Riziki, who remain in Congo. 
Many times on this journey I have wondered about the different paths we all take. When do you stay in your home and when do you flee? Which road will prove safer? Please keep Solange and Riziki in your thoughts and prayers these days. Living the daily work of life is never easy and in Goma, it can be a real struggle. Yet these women endlessly impress me with the beauty they create, and the steadiness of their hands each day.