Thursday, April 30, 2009

the conspiracy of twitter

Does anyone else think we are in the middle of a vast conspiracy here? You see I am trying to be ahead of the curve on this one. least not too far behind it. I was years late on facebook and on blogging and on our website, so why not jump on the band wagon early with twitter? After all, it is what everyone in the cyber world seems to be talking about.

We are a small group of handicapped craftspeople in Congo. Surely there must be something to tweet about. After all, we are all about the story. Our craftspeople have amazing stories and live amazing lives. And I am sure that is half of why people buy our products (although they are cool in their own right) If all the gigantic faceless companies are using tweets to make themselves personal, surely we can tweet too!

Except that I hate tweeting. I am trying to work up the nerve to have a go at it today, but well, really? It just seems soooooo boring. I mean do you really want to know what I am doing right now? (sitting at a really is pretty much the same whether it is in Africa or in the US) Besides you can see that on facebook. I mean I like conversations. I throughly enjoy reading comments on blogs, and even on facebooks. Even when they're not to me, you find a lot of interesting conversations. And it is nice to know what your friends are talking about (as long as it isn't you!)

But tweets seem like they just fall from the sky and sit there. I don't see a lot of interaction. I mean I can see tweets where people ask questions but I don't see any answers. Surely they must be there. Am I missing something? THis is not a rhetorical question. Please talk to me! I really WANT to get the tweeting thing down.

WHat I do see is that twitter could be great if I was a big company. If people actually talked about me, I could search for my name and that would be a great way to follow what my customers were thinking.

Which leads me to my conspiracy theory. About a month ago I watched CNN. We do not have a television nor a satellite connection, so we do not ever watch CNN. Not sure that I would if I could. Except that when you have no television news for a year, and you go on vacation to a hotel where they have CNN you kind of get sucked in. For about half an hour. Until they start replaying the same blurb that you just watched. But while I was sucked in, they had a feature on twitter, and how it is changing the face of reporting etc... And then I went home and started reading up on twitter, and there are so many websites and blogs talking about how you should add twitter to your site. But I started to wonder if it is all hype. Sure the big people want us to get out there and tweet away. What a great way to be able to search all the random thoughts inside a person's head. Everyone is saying that customer service reps have started searching tweets and responding to people's rants about their products. Well, that could be useful. I tried tweeting against DHL, and got precisely the same response I got from filling out their complaint form. Zilch.

So I am starting to think that it is all hype. People are piling on board because everyone is talking about it. But I truly get the sense that once we get there, none of us know what to talk about. Certainly for all those people, including myself, trying to use it as a promotional tool, twittering gives you one more way to through your links out into cyberspace and hope for the best. I mean you can tweet about yourself all you want. But after a while, a person starts losing the umph to tweet. At least I do. I read an article today claiming that 60% of twitter users drop the service within a month. So help me out here someone. I am fast on my way to becoming one of that 60%.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Honest Scrap

Thank you to Extranjera
for awarding me the the "honest scrap" award. Honestly, I would much prefer an honesty award which doesn't require any work, but I guess we take what we can get. In this case I am required to...

1. List 10 honest things about yourself, and
2. Pass it on to 7 cool people who embody the spirit of the Honest Scrap

SO here is my list...

1. I often wonder what kind of weird joke it is for me to be running a clothing company (admittedly a super small one). My fashion taste generally extends no further than jeans and t-shirts and I have long been known to go for the "rumpled" look. I think all my old college roomates find it equally baffling.

2. I live in an apartment where there is usually no running water, and certainly never any hot water. My refrigerator no longer works and we cook in a toaster oven. People generally see our apartment and say "oh, so this is the real Africa". Yet I have a guy who irons my clothes to perfection (including all the jeans and t- shirts), polishes my shoes and does my dishes. Ah the ironies of Africa.

3. I am an only child. Enough said.

4. I am currently trying to teach about the female reproductive system, in Swahili. Have you ever tried explaining birth control in a language you kind-of know?

5. I tend to bite off way more than I can chew.

6. I hate French. The language of course, not the people. This is entirely my fault, and I am sure that French is a perfectly beautiful language for those of you who can speak it.

7. My blog is heavily edited, and so is this list. But hey don't take away my "honest scrap" award. Honesty in Congo is really more of a state of mind.

9. I work with incredibly inspiring people. No editing needed.

9. I hate flying and love snow. Why do I live in Africa?

10. I don't follow even close to enough blogs to begin handing this award out to seven people.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Anarchy and Goma

We have friends who are anarchists. Christian anarchists to be exact.

They are incredible people and I find many of their positions quite compelling. In many ways I agree with them. They argue

"When Christians engage with the political arrangements of the world, be it communism, socialism, capitalist republics, they have often claimed that their political option is the Christian one, and demonized other arrangements. This is the nature of politics, to divide and conquer. Beyond this, when Christians engage in politics they often sell out the Gospels, particularly on the issue of violence. "

I agree strongly with the difficulty of defining a Christian political stance or even a Christian form of government. The way that Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek is truly counter-cultural, and I have yet to see a form of government that encompasses this command. And it is true, in America and around the world I have cringed at many of the stances that have been taken in the name of Christianity.

August Spies, an anarchist, states "anarchy does not mean bloodshed. It does not mean robbery, arson, etc. These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic feature of capitalism. Anarchy means peace and tranquility to all."

Hmm...interesting claim. Indeed violence and bloodshed have been perpetrated at least as often in the name of government as in the name of anarchy. But are bloodshed, arson and robbery really a defining characteristic of capitalism, or of government as a whole? And does anarchy really promise peace and tranquility?

I find myself thinking about this question often here in Goma, a place where it often seems that everything has failed. Goma has become the murder capital of Congo. People from surrounding towns speak of Goma with a note of fear in their voices and often comment that Goma is the place where people kill eachother "ovyo ovyo" (without order or reason; any old way). And it is true. Here in Goma the war is no longer at our doorstep (although fighting and reprisal killings do continue in many other areas). But even without the war at our doorstep, armed robberies and killings continue to dominate the night. The town shuts down at dusk. I had perhaps lost touch of how strange this is, until we recently were in Rwanda and I was shocked to see all the people milling around the streets at seven or eight o'clock at night. By that time in Goma everyone is locked into their houses and no one wants to open the door for anyone. Who knows what will be on the other side?

This sense of violence and insecurity reaches deeply into the culture here. Recently I listened to to a situation where a person working in an office should clearly be fired. There was ample evidence to support his dismissal. However he won't be fired because people in Goma are afraid. This is a town where people are killed in the night, over cell phones or $20. But they are also killed out of jealousy or an argument at work. No one wants to have enemies here because there are no protections from them. It is simply easier and safer to close your eyes to the mistakes that a person makes, and the wrongs that he does. If you are the one to call him out, you may well pay a price. And this returns me to the question of anarchy. Without the protections of a functioning government, without a police system and a justice system that work, it seems to me that all too often this is where we end up. Everyone ends up locked in their houses, unable to come out to help a neighbor, unable to speak up against wrongs that are done. I often think of "Lord of the Flies" here. The book imagines a group of Brittish boys stranded on an island, and the descent into chaos that follows. After demonstrating the way that the boys destroy themselves when they are forced to function without the rules and order imposed by society, the book ends with the line "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart..."

But it is not really that all of those boys had dark hearts, nor is it that the people in Goma have dark hearts. It is just that even without the structures of state, the strong still dominate the weak, and fear overcomes community. As the anarchists say, systems of government can be used to dominate people: to make people afraid to speak out, afraid to demand justice or seek a better world. And that is something we should fight against. But I am sorry to report that even when the systems of government have been removed, people step in to fill the void. With or without state structures, men with guns always seem to reappear to create their own system of domination. Check out Somalia.

Congo is sometimes described as a failed state, like Somalia. But in both cases what is important to realize is that it is not really that the state doesn't exist so much as that it has been hijacked.

There are so many soldiers here, representatives of the state, with weapons paid for by the state. But the soldiers haven't been properly trained and they haven't been paid for months. So they pay themselves. For a fee they can be hired to rob or kill almost anyone you would like. The fee isn't really that high because they will make up the difference in what they can steal from the house. This is why people are afraid here, it has simply become too easy to kill eachother.

So is Goma an example of the failures of government or the failures of anarchy? In some ways Goma is the worst example of both. It is both government gone wrong and anarchy gone wrong. The question remains can government go right? Can anarchy go right? I am still thinking about anarchy. But as for government, I can say that for all the things wrong with the governments in the US and in Europe, many things have gone right. Living here, in a world where I can't leave my house at night, has made me reconsider some of the ways that the American police and justice systems do work.

If you run into me in the US, when I am living in New York City and trying to find the most radical politician to vote for, I will be happy to list for you all the things that are wrong with our government.

But Goma, as always, is a great place to look at the world from another point of view.

Vacations all around

For those of you SHONA shoppers who have noticed that our stock is low and that I have been promising the arrival of a new shipment for weeks now...
our new shipment has still not arrived.
And for those of you who are the praying sort, you can pray that it arrives soon.

Our shipment appears to have taken a vacation in Kinshasa. We ship with DHL which offers tracking numbers where you can check the status of your shipment online. Our shipment appeared to have stripped and run off in Kinshasa. Kinshasa is not the type of place where this type of behavior is recommended for either people or packages. The tracking info showed that the package had arrived in Kinshasa on the third of April, and never left. AFter a week of theatrics of all sorts, I have been assured that our package was found in Kinshasa, and had merely been set aside because the mailing info had fallen off (that ranks on the believability scale somewhere between zero and negative 10). However I have been assured by DHL officials both here and in the US that the package has now arrived in the US and is sitting in customs. God willing, the package will actually make it through customs at some point, and by the time it arrives at our stock location it will still have something inside it. Vacations in Kinshasa tend to take a lot out of you. Literally.

So for all of you who are waiting to see our new shipment, I'm afraid the wait will continue a little while longer. However please do bear with us as we work on expanding our stock in the next couple months. We have grand plans, it is just that sometimes they take a while to shape up.

While our package was on vacation in Kinshasa, I was on a short vacation in Rwanda. We went camping in the game park. That has always seemed like a bad idea to me. Game parks are where you go to see wild animals, like lions and elephants. Camping is where you sleep outside. Does anyone else notice a problem here?

This is probably the third of fourth time that my husband and I have endeavored to camp in the game park. It is also about the third or the fourth time that we have spent the majority of the night in the car instead of in our tent. One time the tent didn't work, so that wasn't really one fault. And one time a rogue elephant was stomping around our campsite. So you can't really blame us for that either. But this time we didn't see any animals stomping around our campsite and our tent went up quite fine.

We had a friend with us, who happily hung a hammock and spent the night swaying in the breeze with apparently no problems. However as my husband and I huddled on the ground in our little tent, there was an awful lot of growling and crying coming from the surrounding darkness. Hyenas and leopards do exist in the park and so off we went to spend the night in the car yet again.

The campsite was absolutely beautiful though, and I'll try and post some pics soon.

In the meantime I would like to point out that my husband and I have already returned from our vacation. And we are back to work. It is long past time for our wayward package to return from its vacation as well.

Hopefully you will see it in our shop soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


The concept of "saving" is hard here. Or perhaps it is just the reality of it. The SHONA women are currently learning about how to estimate their expenses for the coming month and set aside enough money to cover their expenses and any emergencies that might arise during that month. It is a long process, which involves way more math than one might think. I didn't realize how many calcuations I make in my own head, until I tried to teach the concept to someone else, who never went to school. So we are still drilling away at multiplication tables and learning to calculate wholesale costs. But we are getting there pole, pole (slowly, slowly) as the women say.

But the math is only half the battle. Just because you can calculate the correct amount that you need to save, doesn't mean that you will do it.

I have always been a "saver" myself. I remember the cupcakes that children would bring in for their birthdays in kindergarten. I always ate mine from the bottom up, saving the icing for last, long after my classmates had torn through theirs. My hallowen candy always lasted 'till Christmas and my Christmas candy lasted 'till Easter. Literally. Ask my parents.

My husband is the exact opposite. If something good is in the house, then it certainly should not be left to sit there on a shelf. It should be eaten right then and there, because who knows what tomorrow will bring?

I have often been told that my tendency to save food comes from growing up without siblings. I've been told that anyone who grew up in a large household knows that you sit down to the table ready to gobble down whatever you can right away and reach for seconds as quickly as possible. Saving is a luxury. It is for those who live in a world where their carefully hoarded treasure will not be trampled by a younger brother or stolen by an older sister.

And for that reason, the concept of "saving" is hard here. Responsibilities stretch far and wide. Extended families are huge, and often anyone from the same village as you will also be considered family. And if you have any kind of income at all, no matter how small, it is perfectly normal and expected that any member of your large, extended family will ask you for money, food, transportation, school fees, medical fees, or a place to stay at any time. And, as an African, you can't really refuse. So money goes fast.

I find this to be both a beautiful part of the culture here, and a deeply frustrating one. On one hand I have to recognize that the US culture is overly individualistic and isolating. Most people are probably more likely to ask a bank for financial help than a family member. And look at where our credit culture has gotten us. I appreciate the sense of duty to family here. But it truly is extremely difficult for anyone to get ahead here. As soon as you take one step up the ladder the number of hands that pull on you are infinite. Small businesses fail here all too often because the owner feels compelled to answer the increasing demands for help from all sides, only to find that there is no money left to buy new stock.

I once had a conversation with two fairly well-off men. I asked the one how he was doing. And of course he answer "Hakuna...njala"( there is nothing...only hunger). I answered in a surprised tone "really?" as I glanced at the nice car he was driving. And his friend behind him began laughing and agreed "Don't believe him. Everyone says they are hungy here, whether they are or not."

SO how could you possibly expect anyone to save? The person who puts half his income away for a rainy day will only find that ten of his friends and relatives have all arrived with a rainy day in hand. And how can they refuse?

Yet as much as anybody, poor people in Congo need savings. There is no safety net to fall back on here. The SHONA women were incredibly excited when they opened their own bank accounts for the first time. They desperately want to save, and they are managing it, "pole, pole".

But everyday it is a balancing act. Mapendo's mother needs a new house so that she can move out of the refugee camp. Argentine's younger siblings need school fees so that they can return to school. Elda's brother is getting married. Roy's newphew and niece have fled their rural village and need somewhere to live. Quite literally the list could go on all day.

Like most of life, we must find a way to live with this tension. To accept the pull, without being dragged under.

Monday, April 13, 2009


So, back to that post I was going to write a while ago. The one that has nothing to do with Congo and nothing to do with my sewing project. Because I do occassionally exist beyond those two realms. Or at least I hope I do. It is not that I don't enjoy Congo or enjoy SHONA. It is because I do. Sometimes the people and places we love can become our very existence. But there is a larger world out there. And perhaps that is why I enjoy reading so much, because it takes me somewhere else, and introduces me to other people and places who can steal my heart and attention. And I think that is good to remember. Because it is a big world out there.

Here are a few of the books I have read this year:

The Zanzibar Chest (Aidan Hartley): The book is written by a guy who grew up in Africa and spent much of his life trying to get back to it and find his place in it. He become a journalist/war correspondent for many years, and now lives with his family on a farm in Kenya. The book is an interesting view into the lives of war correspondents and I found it interesting to learn about the conflict in Somalia (from his point of view). He also covers the genocide in Rwanda, but I did not appreciate his treatment of that topic. Overall I found it a quite interesting read.

Quote: "Sitting among that family, I longed to stay in the bush and not return to the towns of Africa where people were killing each other. I decided that my father had led a better life than I. He had chosen to live among simple people out here, whereas in the noisy years of my twenteis I had grown fasincated with all that was wrong with the world."

The Color of Water (James McBride): This book is written by a black man who only as an adult realizes that his mother was white and Jewish. Chapters in the book are split between narrating the lives of the son and the mother. The son is lost, on a quest to find his identity. But what makes the story pop is the mother, who single-handedly put her 12 children through university through sheer determination. I started this book at least 3 times before I got into it, but in the end I really enjoyed it. The honesty in the depictions of both mother and son are striking.

Quote:" I had to find out more about who I was, and in order to find out who I was, I had to find out who my mother was"

Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates): I guess you all have seen the movie or atleast ads for the movie. The story is of a young couple who move to the suburbs, and struggle and fail to find meaning in their lives and in their marriage. I found it a bit dark, even for my tastes, and wished it offered something more than a pretty bleak view of the world.

"We've got to be together in this thing, haven't we."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

SHONA updates

Many thanks to all our friends and customers who have taken advantage of our spring sale, and to all of you who have emailed our sale coupon to others. I guess sales really work! We've had a great turn out. It has been fun seeing some of our earliest customers again and seeing some new customers who appeared out of the blue. Thanks to all of you no doubt.

For those of you have no idea what i am talking about, check out the sale info here. There are still 5 more days to take advantage of 20% off.

And don't forget, if you find that our stock is running low, come back in two weeks for our new shipment's arrival. We have some all new products like APRONS, with matching child sized aprons!

On that note...PLEASE help us. We are constantly developing new products based on the suggestions of customers. Right now we are working on children's clothes, cloth shopping bags and skirts. What do you want in a cloth shopping bag? What do you want in a skirt or in children's clothes? And what else do you suggest we sew?

We have just added a short survey to our website. Please come try it out. And while you are on our website, check out the newly updated Goma page and the all new "challenges" page. It has some good pics.

Or since you are here, leave us a comment on our blog. Leave your product suggestions in a comment right here, and we might start a whole conversation! We love blog comments.

Anyway you do it, we love to hear from you. And bring those suggestions for shopping bags, children's clothes and skirts ASAP because we are quite literally developing them right now and your suggestions will be incorporated immediately!

Thank you all for bearing with the blog entries about our store. I promise I'll write something else soon.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Dear Blogger friends,
I just sent out a special invitation to our loyal customers.
But you are our loyal readers, and we want to invite you too. So here it is.

Spring is in the air. And we need to make room for a new shipment coming in.

For one week only , we are offering an amazing 20% off everything in our online store. This sale is available only with the special coupon code below.

You can redeem this coupon during checkout. Just enter the code in the box provided, and click on the redeem button.

The coupon code is 341cba

Your purchases make a world of difference to the craftspeople we work with. Come visit our store and take advantage of this 1 week sale! And spread the word!
Visit our store at

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Of Books and Street Kids

If you read my blog you know.

I write about life in Congo, and I write about SHONA.

And that is all fine and good. After all i am living in Congo, and working with SHONA.

Except that it occurs to me that my friends usually blog about their families, and particularly their children.

I seem to blog with the same frequency and perhaps the same passion about the craftspeople I work with. It is true that our lives are intertwined. SHONA is a very personal project for me, much more than a job (Although unfortunately it pays much less than a job! At least in purely financial terms.)

And i like to imagine that someone out there finds these topics interesting.

But sometimes I need a break, in which I remember that this is not the only world out there, nor is my work here all that I am.

And so I sat down here to write a different sort of post today. A fellow blogger recently posted a review of the books she read in 2008. I thought i would steal her idea and do the same. Books are often my way of relaxing and transporting myself to another world (along with out ever growing dvd collection)

And then a fight broke out in the street below us. The street is full of street children who on a daily basis manage to be involved in a fight. But it rarely remains between the street kids. In this case I have no idea what started the fight. But i looked out the window to see a street kid take off running, chased by a teenager with a large rock in his hand. Another street kid fell to his knees wailing loudly (a common occurence) at which point an adult man picked him up, carried him to the other side of the street and began kicking and hitting him, and eventually picked him up and threw him. At that point another adult man came to argue with the first, telling him not to beat the kid. By now a whole crowd had developed with everyone shouting their opinion and the two adults fighting. The street kid remained wailing on the sidelines. Eventually the crowd calmed down, I don't know what the end result was, the crowd eventually dispersed, but I can still hear the street kid wailing as i write this.

and tomorrow there will be another similar incident, and tomorrow and tomorrow...

So as you can see, I have not written about the books that I read in 2008. The fight distracted me and my thoughts have yet to return. Indeed there is a much larger world out there, one which I sometimes desperately need to remember, but sometimes the world at my doorsteps is just too loud.