Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Small Victories

For those of you who are wondering, I have not fallen off the face of this earth. I am just up to my ears in cartons of tote bags and placemat sets...

We spent our first month back in the States visiting family in Kansas (which was wonderful!), and have now arrived in Connecticut, where my parents are located, and also where our SHONA stock is located.

It has been great to see my parents, except that I have barely caught glimpses of them over the cartons of stock. You see I arrived and walked into my parents living room, to find five cardboard cartons staring back at me. They were elaborately wrapped with packing tape and had large lettering all over them.

My parents do not live in a large house. 5 cartons in their living room is not exactly convenient for them. So I embarked upon the task of opening them and taking out the new products that our craftspeople had shipped to me while I was traveling.

I do a lot of talking. I talk about how capable the SHONA craftspeople are and how often they amaze me... But this was the test.

These were cartons full of the products they had sewn AFTER I left Congo. Products I had never seen. It is one thing to start a sewing group in Congo, while you are there to supervise it. And quite another to see it carry on while you are gone. Would these young women really be able to carry the full responsibility for themselves?

I had no shortage of people who told me "no". They told me to hire a manager or a supervisor. But in Congo, managers and supervisors usually end up eating most of the profits in a group. And besides, why couldn't the women do it for themselves?

This means that each craftsperson goes down to the market, buys material, and finds a way to get that material to her house (no small feat when transportation is usually on the back of a motorcycle and each craftsperson carries crutches and wears metal leg braces)

Then she reads the text message I sent, requesting certain products and sizes for her to sew that month. Then she has sews them. Then she quality controls them. And then packs them up in a cardboard box, transports the box to a shipping location, has it weighed and addressed and paid for. During the month she is also responsible for keeping a record of the items she sews and calculating her profit. In each shipment she includes that record, along with a budget for her income.

Let me just remind you that these are women who have never gone to school.

And I can't tell you how proud of them I am. They have passed the test with flying colors, shipping exactly the products I asked for, sewn with even higher quality than when I was there.

And sometimes I just stand back and marvel at how much can be accomplished when I just get out of the way. Well, that is not entirely an accurate picture. We didn't come by this by chance. Years of work have gone into lessons on math and quality control. I handed over responsibility over time, so that they were already doing most of the work before I left. But still. You never really believe what someone is capable of until you stand back. And more importantly, THEY never believe it. Now, I think, they are starting to believe.

So I am ear deep in cartons of stock. And it takes forever to get photos of each item and list it properly in our store. That is why our store is currently "closed for restocking". But it will be back up by tomorrow. And when you check out the new products, take a minute to remember who picked that cloth, sewed that tote bag, and shipped it on its way. I promise, you will barely find my fingerprints on it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

sharing a meal

This is the way meals are shared in Goma. Shared being the operative word.

It kind of makes you rethink the way we "break bread together" here in the US.

How often do we have our own separate plates and silverware and glasses? We even have separate little table cloths that we call placemats. I mean do we each really need our own placemat? Oh, wait, that is one of our best selling items in our SHONA store. Please ignore my earlier comments. I am sure placemats are of the utmost importance in eating a meal.

But just in case you are curious about other approaches, this is what it looks like in Africa most of the time. People gathered around a pot or a dish. There are always lively debates about whether hot pepper should be added to the dish. For example, Argentine doesn't like hot pepper. Mapendo does. So Mapendo is always instructed to put A FEW careful drops in her corner of the pot and NOT to stir it around. As you might imagine, that never actually works.

But sometimes it amazes me what does work. After years of setting the table with endless supplies of dishes and cursing the stacks of dishes that result at the end of every meal, it seems strangely simple to realize that actually we could all just eat from one dish. I mean think about it, you might get a little hot pepper where you don't want it, but you only have to wash ONE DISH. In fact you only have to buy one. There are some serious advantages to sharing.

And today I am thoroughly amazed. While I was talking to the women this morning, they informed me that Neema and Zawadi are at school. Zawadi is the younger sister of Riziki (one of our craftswomen). I wrote about her recently, about how she has chosen to return to Goma and live with the SHONA women, to be near her older sister. And this is Neema, a 12 year old cousin of Mapendo who is also living with the SHONA ladies. Both Zawadi and Neema help to cook and clean and run to the market. Neither of them has ever been to school. So it was a bit of a suprise to me to hear that they were suddenly off to school. These are girls whose own parents have never sent them to school. And here are the SHONA women, themselves having never gone to school, pooling their money to pay Neema and Zawadi's school fees. This blows me away.

I often think of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The ones that Jesus multiplied. Except sometimes I wonder if we have missed the miracle all together. What if the food didn't really multiply? What if the miracle is that they shared it and were satisfied? Wouldn't that be the greater miracle? Africa is full of kids begging in the streets. Have you ever stopped to give one a cookie? I don't recommend it. The kid will immediately be mobbed and chaos will ensue. I feel like I have seen too much of mankind at our basest. When push comes to shove, I am not convinced that our natural instinct is to share.

So today I marvel at the miracle of sharing. I don't know what inspired Argentine, Mapendo, Riziki and Solange to put their money together and send some girls to school. But I count it a miracle.

Then again perhaps I should start counting miracles more often. There are many difficult things about life in Africa, but in the hungriest place on the planet, look at the way they share meals...I, for one, consider that a miracle.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The roads in Africa

When I first moved to Africa, the thing that struck me most was the roads. Or rather the lack there of. Ok, I know, this is not what makes for poignant imagery of Africa. I mean no one has ever said to me "oh, so you are living in Africa....What are the roads like over there?"

But that is because we have grown accustomed to our richness. Our overabundance of roads I mean. Believe it or not, I have been asked the reverse question quite a few times with thoughtful looking Congolese faces peering at me and asking "what are the roads like in America?"

The roads in Congo are notoriously bad, even for African standards. It is estimated that Congo has 300 miles of paved road in the entire country. This is a huge country, 1/4 the size of the US. The US has at least 5.7 million miles of paved roads. hmm...

This leaves cities like Goma, with perhaps 800,000 people living in them, and one paved road. These pictures are of the main road in Goma. It is a two lane road, eaten away at the edges and crowded with at least 5 lanes of traffic, including two lanes of cars, at least 2 lanes of motorcycles and pedestrians on both sides. Now the word lane is quite deceptive. Please do not take this to mean that there is any order at all. The motorcycles and men pushing wooden cars weave all about, the cars sit in traffic and honk, and the people endeavor to actually cross the road and reach the other side.

But this is not the problem with roads in Congo. The problem is that roads, even such as these, often do not exist, or are simply unusable. Years of neglect mean that the roads built during the Belgian colonial period are collapsing, and during the intervening half century, very few new roads have been built. Add on top of that the high levels of armed robbery,and check points manned by a variety of rebel groups and government soldiers, and traveling by road simply becomes untenable.

Here, in the tiny town in Kansas which we are visiting, my eyes keep being drawn to the roads. The roads seem laughably wide, probably because of all the farm equipment that needs to make its way through. But I still can't help thinking "this town's got some good roads!"

So as you make your way down the road today, as almost all of you will, maybe you will take a second glance at the road stretched out before you and begin to see it in a whole new light.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The gifts we give

See the girl in the very front, staring straight at you? That is Zawadi. Her name, appropriately enough, means gift.

She is the younger sister of Riziki, one of our craftspeople. She is not handicapped, and is in fact, perfectly healthy. But she spent two years as a young teenager, living at the Handicapped Center in Goma. What were you doing when you were thirteen? Going to school, playing sports, making friends? So was I. But this young girl was in a city where she had no friends and no family, living in a treatment center for handicapped people so that she could care of her older sister.

Zawadi is not unusual. She was doing precisely what was expected of her, what is expected of any family with someone in the hospital. In the US we have nurses and nurses aides. We have people who come in and change the sheets and feed us when we are sick. We have little buttons to push and call for help. In Congo there is no such thing. You bring your help with you. You bring someone to bathe you, cook for you, feed you, and help you stand.

At a hospital, people tend to leave quickly. They either get better or they get worse. And few people can afford to stay in the hospital for long. But at the handicapped center, people are there for years. Riziki was in the Center for an operation, traction and intensive physical therapy to straighten her legs, a process that takes years not days. And her younger sister was at her side every one of those days.

I find the Handicapped Center to be one of the most humbling places. It is filled with young girls like Zawadi and old women too. Carrying their loved ones, as though it were the task they were born for. And I suppose it is. I suppose it is the task we are all born for.

And I guess it is the same even here. We may have nurses and nurses aides, but I always think of my grandfather sitting by my grandmother's bed in the nursing home. Closing the door, he insisted on bathing her himself. And I think of Henri Nouwen the writer and Catholic priest, who was an esteemed professor at Harvard and Yale before he left to work in a center for developmentally disabled people, bathing them and feeding them...

In this life where we rush around, so full of plans and accomplishments, I am humbled by those who sit by that bed, day after day. Life in the Handicapped Center is full of lives interrupted. There are man and women, interrupted in the prime of their life, by a debilitating illness or accident. And beside them, are others who have allowed their lives to be interrupted too. No one chooses the disease or the accident, but there are those who choose to sit by that bed. They choose to put their lives on hold for the sake of others.

And that is my mistake. I am looking at it all wrong. I am quite sure that Zawadi never considered her life put on hold. This summer, she returned to Goma to live with her sister again. Only this time she is living not at the Handicapped Center but with the SHONA women. Riziki no longer needs her sister's help, but that isn't why Zawadi came. She came because she loves her sister and wants to be with her. And that is the same reason she sat by that bed at the Handicapped Center years ago.

I am reminded again that there is no such thing as a life put on hold, or a life interrupted. In fact it seems that life is found most in the very places we choose to lay it down.

On another note, we would like to thank each of you who have become SHONA members. We have already raised over a third of our goal and are deeply grateful to each of you. Your gifts have made it possible for us to keep cloth in our craftspeople's hands. There is nothing they appreciate more. We still have 27 days left, and if you are interested in helping us become self-sufficient please visit this link. Truly a small donation makes a large difference to us.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Our shelves are empty! We need your help!

This is it. If there is one critical step for SHONA, it is right now, right here.

We have the chance to become a self-sufficient organization.
And we absolutely have to take it.

We are a completely independent organization with no outside funding. Becoming a self-sufficient organization is the only way we can continue our work.

Now this is quite a proposition, when you consider that our income is built exclusively on the work of of handicapped craftspeople in one of the war-torn regions of the world. Can we really do it? That is what I have spent the last year and a half figuring out.

The answer is a resounding yes. We can and we will. The market is there, and our craftspeople are more than capable.

But we need your help. We need to maintain a much larger stock. In order to do that we need a Working Capital Fund to cover the upfront costs of material, shipping and wages. Those are costs that we must cover long before products arrive in our store. When products do arrive, and they are sold, those costs will be recovered and the fund will be renewed, providing a foundation for our work for years to come.

We know this is a stretch. “Working capital” just doesn’t have emotional appeal. It would be much easier to ask for donations to...
  • help put food on the table
  • provide medical treatment for handicapped women
  • send poor children to school
  • rebuild the homes of refugees

But the truth is that this fund literally will do all of the above. Or rather it will allow a small group of handicapped craftspeople the honor of doing these things themselves.

Our craftspeople use the income that they earn from SHONA to do all of the activities listed above, and many more. That photo above is Gloria, one of Roy's six children. With his income from SHONA he has put four of his children in school this year, two of them for the first time. In the past year our craftspeople have worked hard and created incredible change in their own lives, and in the lives of others. Will you help us make that change a lasting reality? We are starting a membership club for SHONA. If we can find fifty members, we can become a self-sufficient organization.
Join us today!


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