Friday, February 27, 2009

Roy Part II

I met this morning with Roy and his beautiful little girl. They were on their way to testify at a hearing for the man that attacked her. I admire this little girl and her father in their determination to see justice done. Justice requires money here in Congo, perhaps everywhere, but certainly here.

So what can be done for Roy and his family? I have decided to add Roy as the fifth craftsperson with SHONA. He is a man. And so far, I have worked exclusively with women. I believe that handicapped women need to be empowered here in Congo, and when they are put in groups with men, they tend to take the lower position.

But I also believe that Roy's daughters and wife will continue to remain extremely vulnerable as long as he has no means of supporting them. And it seems such an incredible waste for such a talented man to lack work. So Roy will be our fifth handicapped craftsperson. He will rent his own small shop, and work independently from the women.

So we expand in a way that I hadn't planned. But it fits well with the stage that the women are at. The women too are renting their own space and opening their own shops. They have chosen to work in teams of two. It is an exciting stage. As they rent their own workspace and begin to set up shop, the work becomes theirs. And this in the end is the goal.

Roy often says "I'm already getting old and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing to give my children." Hopefully SHONA will allow him to start to build a life, for himself and for his family. Mapendo, our youngest member, recently began building a house for her elderly mother, who has been living in a refugee camp. There is something beautiful in a nineteen year old handicapped woman building her mother a house. There is something equally beautiful in a 40 year old father building his little girl a house. I think the heaviest weight of poverty, is not the price it exacts on us, but the price it exacts on those we love.

For Roy, the price has been heavy. I watched this man leave my house with his daughter in tow, and imagined how hard it must be for both of them to testify. But Roy walks with a lighter step now. He is eager to take on as much work as I can give him, to finish his debts and begin building a life. His little girl has tested negative on all sexually transmitted diseases, she is back in school, and next month Roy will have sewn enough to pay her school fees.

I am always amazed by the small scale of hope. Given the incredible difficulties Roy has faced in the past two weeks, I might expect him to need so much more. But his wife and child are home from the hospital, his little girl is doing ok, and he will be able to take care of them. That is all the hope he needed.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A father's nightmare?

Introducing Roy

Roy is a handicapped, middle aged man with a wife and seven children. His oldest child is nine years old. He owns no land and no house. For the past 5 years he has lived with his family in a two room shack constructed of plastic sheeting and cardboard, and literally built on top of lava rock. He does not own or rent the small plot of land where he built his shack, but rather was offered by a friend to live there temporarily while he saved money to rent his own land. That day never came. And soon the friend began demanding that Roy find somewhere else to live.

It isn’t that Roy doesn’t work. In fact he is talented at sewing. He is the man that taught the SHONA ladies much of what they know. And he goes to work in a sewing group every day. It is just that there is no money in that group. A corrupt manager, stole $5000 from the group, vitually all of the profit from a huge order that the group has been working on for the past year. So there was plenty of work, just no pay.

This past week, Roy’s wife became seriously ill and was hospitalized at a clinic, and then transferred to a larger hospital. And this man who hasn’t received a salary for months was faced with the question of how to pay the hospital fees. Then his youngest child also became sick and was taken to the hospital. As he cared for his wife and baby at the hospital, his other children remained at home. The oldest child went to school, leaving a seven year old girl to care for her younger siblings. Perhaps this was not the wisest thing to do. I have conversations with people on a regular basis trying to convince them not to leave young children home alone. But in a world where existence is so hand to mouth, young children are regularly left to fend for themselves as parents and older children go off in search off work and food and water. And in the midst of an emergency, two family members hospitalized, it is not surprising that these young children found themselves alone. So they were alone when an older man arrived. This was a man that the children knew, they were taught to call him “grandfather”. He was often a visitor to their house. But this day, he came in the house and sexually molested the seven year old girl. Seven years old.

I read the letter that this man wrote, confessing to having molested this young girl. He offered to pay the family a goat to get rid of the bad luck which his action might bring. A goat.

How do you protect small seven year old girls from a world like this? Following the thread back is long and complicated. Why was her mother sick in the first place? Why wasn’t this little girl in school? Why couldn’t they afford someone to look after the children? Why did this man believe he could pay for his sins with a goat?

I am happy to report that Roy did not accept the offer of a goat, but rather is determined to see justice done and this man put in jail. He has reported the incident to the police, testified in a hearing and taken his daughter to a rape clinic. But how many families with no income and no food to eat close their eyes and accept the goat?

Surely the protection of this little girl begins with the protection of her family. Perhaps her father was able to refuse the goat because I have given him some additional sewing work and advanced him the money for his work. He has paid the hospital fees for his family, bought the medicine they need and they will eat dinner tonight.

And if he had work, paying work, everyday, what else might this father be able to offer his family? Children are so vulnerable here because parents are so vulnerable. They have so few choices. And so many responsibilities.

So I am left to ponder how we at SHONA could offer this family the stability they need. Stay tuned for our solution for one family, and one little girl.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Technology and all that

Many thanks to all the loyal SHONA customers and friends who have visited our new store and updated website.

And many thanks for the technology which has brought us here.

The SHONA women were taken advantage of in the past. Before they joined us, they were part of a sewing group where the manager ate first, and then the men and only at the end were these young women given a cut. But where else could they go? They had no resources to open up their own shops. They had no strong legs to circulate through the market, looking for work. And to be honest, they would have found it hard to convince many customers of their abilities. People see first that they are handicapped, not that they can sew.

But through the miracles of this age, the SHONA women have been able to land themselves in the middle of one the most promising markets of all. the internet. Without having to pay off ten people in the process. The reality that we are able to set up shop online, that we have customers that somehow find us, that we have people across the world who read our stories and is a reality that I wouldn't have dreamed of ten years ago.

Think of all the things you buy everyday. What percentage of the profit from those sales goes to the person who made that item? What percentage of the things you buy are made by a person at all? With the warped speed of technology, in many ways we have lost the personal. Too often our food is cultivated by machines, our clothes are made in assembly lines and when we answer our phones we find machines on the other end. But in another way, the internet has made the world infinitely more personal. I can read status updates on facebook and discover that my friend went to bed at 11:00. I can read status updates on all my former high school students and be scandalized...again and again! I can see pictures of people I went to grammer school with. And you. You can come and visit us, here in Congo.

So please do. Keep reading our blog. Visit our website.

As I exhault in all of this technology, I must admit that I have spent this past week banging my head on the keyboard. As we open our new store online and move away from ebay, I have to figure out how to get traffic to our site. Don't worry there are plenty of resources online. An infinite number of resources with infinite lists of all the things I should do to publicize our website. There are inlinks, outlinks, metatags, search engine submissions, trackbacks, blogrolls...and that is only the beginning.

After a while my eyes start to glaze over. And I go and get a cup of coffee and sit on my balcony for a while to listen to the sounds of Africa and remember where I am. And when I drag myself bag to the computer I remind myself of why I do this. It is so I can introduce you to some incredible women, who deserve this one break.

And I know that if the internet can do anything, it is because it brings us together. SO that I am not really alone staring at this computer wondering how to write a metatag.

So won't you join us? Please share the link to our website! Post it on boards, put it in emails, blogs, websites...As I have come to realize, anything that shows you are reading our website will lead more people to us. And that is all we need.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A woman I admire

A woman I admire died this week. It is a great loss. She was a scholar who was determined to document the truth even when it was not popular. She believed that justice must be applied to all sides in a conflict. And she spoke up when it would have been easier to remain silent.

This morning I spoke to the mother of a boy whose school fees we have paid for the past two years. When I met him, he was 9 years old and had been to school for a total of 3 months in his life. I taught him to read and write and then put him in school. I held his hand when he started school, had him do his homework at my house. And he was doing ok.

Except that in the past month he fell apart. He stole two phones from our house. One of the phones had over $200 worth of credit on it, although he didn’t know that at the time. That money could have paid for his school fees until high school graduation.

And he lied, and he started skipping school, and he falsified his grades…

I required this boy to tell his mother what he had done. I’m not sure what result I expected, but I know I didn’t get it. She took the news in stride, appearing only mildly interested. She did not demand explanations. She was not enraged. She really didn’t have much to say to her child, this 11 year-old boy who has just destroyed his only chance of going to school.

This corner of the world is known for being loud and chaotic. But there is another side to the culture that fosters silence. Silence in place of “calling someone out”. The people who do wrong, the people who steal, the people who lie and even the people who kill are not often held to account. News of theft and corruption, even when it is personal, is often met with a shake of a head rather than indignation. Sometimes this is because those who do wrong hold power, but it goes beyond that. There appears to be little to say, even to the child who has so thoroughly lost his way. A common response is “nifanye nini?” What can I do?

Perhaps to speak requires believing; believing that change is possible. That a better world exists. Whether you are documenting the atrocities of war or the mistakes of a child, to speak the truth you must believe that a better world, or a better person, could exist. Indeed, refusing to fall silent in the face of wrong may be the ultimate act of hope.

And perhaps this is why it grieves me so much. To see a parent who has lost the will to demand better of her child, and a world that has lost the will to demand better of those in power. It is the loss of hope.

The woman who died this week, spent her life documenting the horrors that we inflict on eachother. She counted and recorded atrocities. She must have been a woman of great hope. To regard with open eyes the depths to which we fall, and demand that we remember the people we could be, the people we should be.

This corner of the world is loud and full of noise, but at the same time, I have begun to realize that it is way too quiet here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Empowerment is an unweildy thing.
What empowers you?
What is it in your background, your education, your faith, your culture, that empowers you?

Think about really is a difficult question.

Perhaps in order to see yourself clearly you have to stand in someone else's shoes.

I certainly would never have considered myself a particularly "empowered" person.

But the fact is that I am. When someone mistreats me I am surprised. And indignant. When I face a new task, something I've never done before, I generally give it a try. Yeah, I might screw it up, but I might succeed. Who knows? When I talk to someone, I assume they will listen. Maybe not agree, but listen at least. I assume I can go somewhere new, do something else, or try again on something I've failed before.

But what if you never learned to do those things? In Congo, handicapped women are pretty much on the bottom of the totem pole. They are never seen as adults, because to be an adult woman means to be married and bear children. And handicapped women are unlikely to have the opportunity to marry. But to be a child forever?

So when I see the ladies that I work with, as they struggle for independence, I see the many ways that my life has empowered me. And I wonder what it is like to be treated badly, and not stand up and shout. To not expect more. Of the world...or myself.

And so the SHONA ladies and I, struggle towards the goal of empowerment. And I wish I had some magic formula. I wish empowerment could be handed around on a silver platter. But it is hard work, as it is supposed to be. And they tackle it with both hands. Last month we started an adult education program. The SHONA ladies are currently taking math, French, and a course in "Faith and Action" (studying the lives of people around the world who have demonstrated faith through their actions). As a teacher I don't think I've ever seen more motivated students, and I guess that is the point. That is where empowerment begins.