Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Just in time for Christmas, SHONA has been given a wonderful gift. There is a full-page article on SHONA Congo in the new edition of BBC's Focus on Africa magazine. Yes, that is it, right there, the impressive magazine pictured above. We are in there!!
See that? Well, maybe you have to squint a little, but that is Argentine sewing.

What? You don't believe me? You want to see it without squinting? You want to actually read the article? You can subscribe to Focus on Africa's digital edition. They offer a free trial edition but I recommend that you splurge on the annual online subscription, which is a fabulous deal for under ten dollars. Either way you will be able to read the article, and a whole collection of other fascinating articles. Focus on Africa is an excellent magazine. It is a great way to read about many of the issues facing Africa today, from African perspectives, in an extremely readable and interesting format. I promise I would recommend it even if we weren't inside! So check it out today. You won't be disappointed!

We deeply thank Nam Kiwanuka, whose column we are featured in. Not only is she a columnist for Focus on Africa, but she is a talented free-lance journalist, director and producer, not to mention a celebrity in her own right. A while ago, SHONA caught her eye. Since then she has worked tirelessly, determined to find ways to tell our story. Thank you, Nam, for believing in us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

SHONA bloopers

Interesting cloth, right? Nice and bright. Very eye-catching. has little people on it....wait a minute. Exactly what is going on here? Are those scantily clad young women on a bib? Are they serving beer? Yes, I believe that is the famous African Primus beer, to be specific.

Perhaps there has been some mistake. What is this item anyway? Surely it is not what I think it is...a baby bib.

And yet, indeed, it is. This must be the only bib in the world, made out of Primus beer cloth, for your guzzling toddlers?!?!?!

Welcome to the SHONA bloopers round. When I asked Roy, one of our craftspeople, to sew some children's bibs, I suppose he thought he was being.. well... thematic. You know food and drinks go together, beer bottles and milk bottles... Or maybe he just thought the design looked snazzy.

I do not think this was his idea of a joke. I am quite sure he sewed these in all earnestness. But I have been giggling for days, imagining the horrified looks I would get if I tried to sell these. Actually I am probably getting horrified looks just for including this in a bloopers round on my blog, but I just had to share it.

One of my favorite parts of working in different cultures, are the inevitable bloopers that result, on both my part and others. I mean if we can't laugh at all those things that didn't quite translate as planned, we'll be in for a long road.

Here is another one...

Last month I opened my latest SHONA shipment to find quite a surprise. Nestled amidst the tote bags and purses was a curious and yet familiar sight. A two pound bag of rice, fresh out of the Goma market.

"Oh no!!!" I exclaimed. "What am I going to do with a bag of rice! I'll have to create a whole new category in our store for "food items" that will never work. What about eBay. People buy all kinds of crazy stuff on ebay. Maybe bags of rice from war-torn countries are a novelty item of some sort.... No, probably not."

I mean it. This was a bag of rice, straight from Goma. Well, actually probably originally from Asia. The rice is still mixed with rocks and dirt, so that you can tell it is authentic. I suppose there is no market for it, even on ebay. Certainly not if I mark-up the price to cover what it cost us to ship it. I would have to mark it up at least 10 times over.

And yet my craftspeople sent me a two pound bag of rice. And when I translate it, it turns out to be be just about the most precious of bag of rice in the world.

You see the SHONA women knew that my husband and I returned to the US without jobs, and they knew that getting jobs isn't easy in this economy. They knew that I had been doing everything I could to keep SHONA going, while at the same time relocating and looking for a job. And they knew that we miss Congo. And so they sent us a little rice from Goma, to help along the way. This is the most normal thing in the world to them. They would have done the same thing for a neighbor in the next house, or a relative in the next town over. They share what they have. I am just a little further away.

And I cherish that , because in Goma I often struggled with NOT being like other people. By virtue of my skin color and my passport, I was often seen as the rich American, and to tell the truth, I often was the rich American. I often did have more money than others, and I certainly had more resources. And yet I struggled to communicate to people that I was just another person, like anyone else, that I could run out of money and that I too could get hurt and bleed.

Argentine and Mapendo sent me rice. So what if it cost a ridiculous amount of money to send? Don't worry, I won't be selling it on eBay anytime soon. That two pound bag of rice, which looks exactly like every other 2 pound bag of rice in Goma, is one of my most prized possessions. Everytime I look at it, I smile and am thankful again.

(However if you have any suggestions for what I can do with some beer bibs, let me know!!)

( I must point out that these beer bibs are also incredible examples of hard work at SHONA. Do you see how perfectly centered those scantily clad women are? This is not a naturally occuring phenomenon, this is the result of me insisting time and time again that the design must be in the center! Apparently I never thought to mention that the design should not involve beer bottles on a child's bib. Alas. )

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Crafts

Dear Friends of SHONA,

Just in time for the holidays, we have a treat for you!

Not only do SHONA crafts make excellent holiday gifts, we now offer "one-stop shopping" for all your holiday needs.

How would you like a African Batik Christmas card to go with your SHONA tote bag? Or some Kenyan earings to go with your SHONA dashiki? Or a handcrafted Rwandan basket to go with your cloth placemat set? We have it all and more!

At SHONA we are introducing a new line of crafts called "ONE FOR ANOTHER". Here you can find crafts from Rwanda and Kenya that we have bought in the local markets and are selling to help support SHONA Congo.

We invite you to come and check us out. And give the gift of hope this holiday season!

Merry Christmas!

Dawn, Argentine, Mapendo, Solange, Riziki, and Roy

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.