Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Just enter new year sale into the discount code box at check out and you will receive 40% off your whole order!
How about stocking up for all those little occasions that come up throughout the year? SHONA makes a great, meaningful gift to have on hand. Or what about a African pillow or table runner to bring a fresh new look to your home in this new year.
In the end, nothing beats starting the new year by helping another person. Your purchases at this time of the year, make a huge difference to these amazing women. Your purchases make it possible for them to continue to work, support their families, and change their worlds. How about starting the new year with that?
Monday, December 27, 2010
and am taking the liberty of stealing it in honor of the new year.
Who doesn't want to start the new year by stealing something good?
In the past year, I have settled my feet on the ground in NY, after 3 years in Congo. For my husband and I, coming back to this country, in the midst of an "economic downturn" with no money under our belts and no jobs lined up, was not exactly a prudent move. Let's just say the health insurance debates, and unemployment statistics, were very real to us.
But this year I have been amazed.
Somehow, in the midst of it all, I have been able to continue working with the SHONA women. And they have astounded me with their strength and commitment. For over a year, they have plugged away, month after month, making good decisions when bad ones would have been so much easier. Being reliable, despite the fact that nothing in Congo is reliable.
I have been amazed at my students and friends here in the US, adults who dearly want to learn English, and who daily count this country as a blessing. Too many of them celebrate Christmas far from their own families, and unable to visit. They work in the back of restaurants on Christmas Eve and ride bicycles in the midst of a blizzard to deliver food. They are an honor to teach and to live beside.
And I shake my head.
At the inexplicable blessings on my own table.
And how quickly I grow accustomed to them.
As this poem says,
I want to live my life "married to amazement",
because truly this life calls for it.
When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
when death comes
like the measles-pox;
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
as a field daisy, and as singular,
tending as all music does, toward silence,
precious to the earth.
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Mapendo has faced a ridiculous amount of pressures lately. Barely into her 20s she has become the primary breadwinner for a struggling family. Her brother-in-law died recently, leaving her sister nearly homeless with ten children, and her mother is getting kicked off the land she built her house upon. It has been a particularly rough couple of months for Mapendo.
What amazes me is the juggling of it all. Right now, through her sewing, Mapendo has more resources than anyone else in her family. But those resources are still very limited and the needs seem limitless. So how do you divide up the money you earn, for a family whose needs stretch far and wide? How do you give today, knowing that more needs will arise tomorrow?
In the non-profit world, they talk about "donor fatigue". It is hard to continue giving over and over again when problems seem never ending. We all like to give, when problems seem finite and manageable, when it seems that our one gift will make a world of difference, and there won't even be a need again next year.
But I've never heard a Congolese person talk about donor fatigue. And if anyone deserves to, it is probably them. Every Congolese person who takes one step out of poverty, is probably paying school fees for countless family members, buying medicine for at least a few people who are sick and being asked for no shortage of "loans". They know someone will come knocking on the door each night.
So what strikes me, is the way they open the door, time and time again, whether there is anything to give or not. How quickly I get fatigued and frustrated when the needs are too great or I have too little to give. To be honest in Congo I stopped answering the door sometimes, and here in the US, I switch off the news. And indeed, we can't meet all the problems of this world, nor fill every hand that is outstretched. But neither can they. The challenge is the living in the midst of that knowledge, without shutting down or shutting it out. And that is what I admire about so many people in Congo.
Mapendo has chosen to buy land for her mother to live on. A small piece of permanence for this family which has too long been refugees. It's a tiny piece of land on the outskirts of town but it's a beautiful act, and an incredible accomplishment. It deserves celebration. But Mapendo's sister and 10 children are still close to homeless and there are still so many more needs. And that is where life is, in the midst of that tension.
Friday, November 19, 2010
The SHONA women were expected to be burdens on their families, at least financially. For poor families, in a war zone, a child who cannot walk, is going to be a struggle. She can't go to school, she can't carry water, she can't work on the farm, and she can't run from danger.
So it is an amazing accomplishment, when these young women go on to live independently and support their families. In fact, they have become the main breadwinners for their large families.
Suddenly they are the ones carrying the responsibility for their mother and father, brothers and sisters. It is a heavy responsibility, but they carry it with grace. I think that is the beauty of paradox. The person who has been carried herself, is in fact the most likely to carry others.
Instead of spending the money they earn on themselves, they buy medicine for countless family members, put children in school, and keep a roof over their heads.
Here are a few of the things SHONA women did, through your purchases, just this month.
*Riziki paid for a hernia operation for her younger brother. He was waiting until she got paid because there was no other money in the family to pay for it. Riziki also paid for medicine for her mom who is sick.
*Mapendo gave her mother money to rent a new parcel of land. The land that she was living on had been reclaimed by the government for road construction, and she literally had no where to go.
*Argentine paid the school fees for 4 of her younger siblings so that they could return to school. Argentine never went to school as a child.
*Riziki paid the school fees for 3 of her younger siblings so that they could return to school.
*Solange rented a small house by the road for her 2 younger siblings. Solange and her siblings are orphans, and the area they grew up in remains unsafe. Her younger siblings had been living in a refugee camp, and then had returned to their rural home to try and farm the land. However it is so unsafe in that area that the population farms during the day, and hides in the forest to sleep at night. Her siblings were literally sleeping in the forest. Solange rented a small house in a more secure area by the road so that her siblings would have somewhere to sleep.
*Argentine started saving money for a new set of metal leg braces for herself. The metal leg braces that all of the women wear have to be replaced every year and they are quite expensive for them. The women were previously able to obtain them for free, but now, because they are seen as successful women, they have to pay for them. Argentine started saving for her own leg braces...
but only after paying her siblings school fees.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Okay, many raw materials, not just those listed as "conflict minerals" do come out of Congo. But the point is, they come out as raw materials. Where is Congo's industrial sector?
Obviously there are a variety of different answers to that question. But it is an important question to ask. Because as long as there are so very few viable industries in Congo, not just in terms of export but in terms of any production at all, people will be exploited. They will choose to mine in dangerous, unhealthy conditions because it is the only way to make a living. Young men will continue to become young men with guns, and young men with guns will continue to plunder the local population, because...well...everyone's gotta eat.
Congo Siasa has a great little post entitled "the agony of doing business in the Congo" citing Congo's current ranking as 175th in the Word Bank report of on how easy it is to start and operate a business around the world. In other words, it is easier to start a business in Iraq or Afghanistan than it is to start one in Congo.
I am not really the business type, and had I not lived in Congo, I might have skimmed over this whole report as something for MBAs. But, having seen the Congolese economy in action, I know that this report does reflect a huge problem for the average person in Congo. There just aren't enough legitimate businesses in Congo. Because it is soooooo dang hard to make it work.
Everyday that the SHONA women are able to sew, and ship their handiwork, I consider it a small miracle. Not because of the work they do, they are talented and committed and it doesn't take a miracle for them to produce beautiful work. Unfortunately it takes close to a miracle for them to be able to share that work with you. We have been fortunate only because we are very small, and we keep things very local.
Check it out for yourself. Google fair trade crafts from Congo and see what you come up with. When I tried it, links to SHONA were in the first nine spots. Now of course that is awesome and I would love to claim some talent at "Search Engine Optimization" which has placed us there. But the reality is there just aren't many other groups out there. Congo is a huge country, full of talented artisans...where is their work????
Friday, November 5, 2010
It seems there was a snake incident. Apparently some snakes have appeared in the SHONA women's house. After a long, convoluted story about these snakes which seemed to involve references to burning the snakes and digging holes (keep in mind this conversation was in Swahili over a long distance phone connection!), I established that three of the women are currently tucked into bed on top of the large table that they normally use for cutting cloth and eating dinner. I tried to establish why it was that they thought the snakes would not be able to climb up the table (or drop down onto the table), but it seems there was debate about precisely this question. You see there are actually 6 women living in the SHONA house, the four SHONA women plus Mapendo's niece and Riziki's younger sister.
Three of the women had decided that they had to leave the house all together. They went to sleep in the new apartment that we have just rented right next door (they haven't officially moved in yet, as the owner is still fixing the apartment, but apparently they decided that an empty apartment under repair is significantly better than a house with snakes). The other women appear to have decided that a house with snakes is better. As long as you sleep on the table, that is.
I have tried to give my strong opinion on this issue, and hopefully they will abandon the table tactic. But then again, nyoka (snake) is a very broad word in Swahili, and perhaps they have more information than I do about the situation.
Either way, we are very anxious for the SHONA ladies to move into their new home. Hopefully the repairs will be completed and they can move this weekend. Beyond the snake issue, their old home has also started leaking, and it really is time to move.
We have paid part of the required 5 month deposit on the new apartment already, and the landlord has generously given us a few extra weeks to come up with the rest. Please do continue shopping with SHONA and take advantage of our SALE this week (10% off everything!). Your purchases will help to make sure that we can pay the full-deposit, and the ladies can stay in their new home. This new home is very important because the ladies current house is being torn down (not to mention being taken over by snakes), and finding a safe, clean place for the women to live and work, with access to electricity and bathrooms that they can get into with their crutches, is not so easy. This apartment will give them all of that. And besides they won't have to sleep on the table!
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
So what did he say now? He wrote a piece about "Do-It-Yourself foreign aid". In this piece he was talking about the current trend of Americans (and people around the globe) to start their own aid projects, rather than work with big, established aid organizations. It seems that thanks to the internet and social media more "regular people" are learning about large, global problems, and then feeling empowered to actually start a project to address that problem themselves. This is what he means by a do-it-yourself approach to foreign aid.
The aid community has come back talking about the importance of professionalism and accountability.
But I'd like to talk about something else. Don't you think we're misusing the term "do-it-yourself" here? When we take on a do-it-yourself project isn't it usually in our own homes? We work on our kitchen sink that won't stop leaking, or remodeling our bathroom. And yes, the problem with do-it-yourself projects is that we aren't professionals, and we don't usually know exactly what we are doing. But then again, that's OK, because it is our house, and when we remodel the bathroom and discover that new tile is all crooked, we can debate the value of taking it out and starting it over again. And when that sink develops another leak in a month, we can go back in and try and fix it again. Usually we have to live with the results of our own do it yourself projects. And that makes us both invested in the project, and uniquely qualified to decide whether bright pink is really the right color to paint the bathroom wall. And for precisely that reason, do-it-yourself projects tend to be more like open-ended discussions, where the wall changes from pink to blue to beige, as the years wear on.
I'm not really sure about the idea of do-it-yourself projects in strangers houses. I mean who really proposes a do-it-yourself project as a way to get to know random people, or to make friends? At best, it would be an incredibly awkward way to start a relationship.
So I think there is often a contradition in the term "Do-It-Yourself" foreign aid. D0-It-Yourself probably shouldn't be done in a place we consider "foreign". I agree with Kristof that we have become too dependent on big companies and big organizations, and we have lost faith in our own abilities to affect change, indeed our own responsibility to affect change. But that responsibility to affect change starts in our own communities and in our lives. Sometimes it is easier to go global. The problems that exist in hot spots around the globe can seem overwhelming but they have a unique power to motivate. Because the further away a community is, the less experience we have of the community, the easier it is to romanticize the problems and simplify the solutions. And the further we live from that community, and the fewer real relationships we have in it, the easier it is to believe our own publicity and fool ourselves about the successes. Do-It-Yourself does have successes but it also has a lot of failures and a lot of changes to make along the way. And when we are working in a community that we learned about on the internet, and visited for 2 weeks, chances are we aren't well-equipped for the long haul.
That is not to say we can't affect change in the global community. But instead of surfing the internet for the next hot cause, we could stand to look carefully at our own lives and the inequalities that exist in the midst of them. Ultimately we'll find that we do have real connections to our neighbors, both across the street and abroad. The way we shop, where we choose to live, the way we treat the environment does matter to real people around the globe.
Tales from The hood mentions Greg Mortenson (3 cups of tea) as an examples which is often used of "do-it-yourself-aid". Indeed Mortenson is an interesting example. He went half way across the world not because of altruism, or because he was inspired about some problem, but because he wanted to hike a mountain. And he got to know the people in a small village because he fell sick and they cared for him. His project was born not out of some big vision, but out of a promise he made to some friends he made there. And it was born not out of altruism but out of relationship. He had no idea what he was doing, and was certainly not professional. In fact he came back to build a school only to discover that what they really needed was a bridge. But he had the investment in this community that had first cared for him, and a sense of responsibility to those people. Wherever we find ourselves we have similar responsibilities.
Our responsibility to our fellow man isn't reserved for professionals. In fact it is a responsibility we have no right to hand off to professionals. But that responsibility should be born out of our long-term investment in communities and in relationships.
To tell you the truth, sometimes I get frustrated. Sometimes I wonder why SHONA doesn't get the spotlight. Why couldn't we be the next Oprah guest or whatever? But that is the point. Is that really what SHONA is? I work on SHONA because I have a responsibility to my neighbors in Goma, to these incredible women who daily remind me what it means to live humbly. If I have given them the tools that I have, and they can now stand on their own and create change in their lives, that's enough. We are "do it yourself". And this is our home. We don't have to build a mansion or give neighborhood tours, to make what we do valuable.
I'm not a professional, but then again I don't have to be. Because this isn't "foreign" aid. These are my friends and my neighbors, and no one needs a degree for that.
"Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." —
"What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family." — Mother Teresa
Sunday, October 31, 2010
A big shout out to the AWESOME customers who turned out this week to do some holiday shopping at the SHONA website and to help make it possible for the SHONA women to move into a new home. The women haven't moved yet and we are still trying to raising money for the deposit on their new home, but your purchases have made a huge difference and we really appreciate it! Thank you!
If you haven't yet stopped by the SHONA website, we hope you do sometime soon. We think you can find some great, meaningful holiday gifts, and to be honest, right now, your support is more meaningful than ever. The SHONA artisans face a lot of challenges these days, and yet they are working diligently to complete a wholesale order we received. They could use a little encouragement and support along the way, and truly what better way is there to celebrate the spirit of the holiday season?
Monday, October 25, 2010
It is a humble home. But it has been their home for more than a year. And in many ways it is a proud home. 4 young disabled women in Eastern Congo have rented this home through the work of their own hands. It is hard to explain exactly how amazing this is. Young women rarely live independently in Goma, and least of all, those struggling with disabilities. The fact that the SHONA women can rent their own home, and live and work in it, is in fact quite astounding. But not only that, their home has been an open one. They have taken in younger siblings and other relatives, who needed a place to stay.
None the less, their home is being torn down. This happens again and again in Eastern Congo, where small shacks are routinely thrown up on top of piles of stone and dirt, only to be taken down as soon as there is a little more money to build a bigger building. And so poor people are pushed further and further to the outskirts of town.
For the SHONA women, that is a risk they cannot take. The outskirts of town are insecure, prone to armed robberies. The outskirts have virtually no access to running water or electricity. Moving to the edges would put at risk, both their own lives, and their work. So for the past few months the SHONA women have been looking for a new home that is both a safe place to live and a reliable place to work. They are not rich, and they are no longer so extremely poor. But in Goma there is very little in between.
Fortunately the women have found a good option. It is an apartment in the same compound where they live now. For the first time in their lives they will have running water in their own home. They will be able to go to the bathroom at night, without stumbling with their crutches, in the dark, over rocks, to get to a public outhouse. It is not a fancy apartment but it is a solid one. I know it is a good apartment, because in fact, it is the same apartment I lived in while I lived in Goma.
But the women need your help. Renting a home in Goma generally requires at least 5 months rent up front. Although the women can pay the monthly rent, they don't have the money for this kind of deposit up front. It is a lot of money, and comes at a time when many of their families are experiencing very significant struggles of their own.
So would you consider making an extra special purchase this holiday season? We've taken some of our favorite household goods and made them even more. When you purchase one of these special household items, you will not only be purchasing a beautiful handcrafted item for your home, but you will be making a donation to the SHONA women's new home. You will be sharing the gift of a warm and safe home with these amazing young women.
We also have a special section of items that the SHONA women have donated freely in order to raise money for Mapendo's sister's family, a family with 10 children, who recently lost their father, and who are also fighting to keep their home. Even in the midst of struggling themselves to raise money to move, the SHONA women have chosen to donate some of their hard work to a family who deserves a little more help. Thank you for joining hands with us!
Friday, September 17, 2010
In sewing, it's indespensible. Cloth gets ironed, cut, ironed, sewn, ironed, packed. In the cloth business, it is hard to do much of anything without ironing. Or at least, it is hard to do it well.
And ironing, takes electricity.
But in Congo, that is hard to come by.
In Goma, and throughout Africa, the solution is a charcoal iron, which doesn't depend on electricity. It is basically a hollow box of iron, with a handle. You can open it, pile charcoal inside and close it again. Then you push it along the cloth, just like an electric iron. Except of course that the heat is a tad bit hard to control. First you have to start a fire, and heat your charcoal, which incidentally does not come in neat little bricks like it does here. In fact, it looks remarkably like exactly what it is. Chunks of wood turned black and ashy. It is light-weight and prone to flaking. So the charcoal iron, unless you are very careful, can get soot and ash all over your carefully sewn work. It also goes from too hot to too cold in a matter of minutes. For the SHONA ladies, whose work will be rejected if there is a single black spot on it, the charcoal iron is not their friend.
So we need electricity. In Goma, electricity comes and goes. The SHONA ladies have been known to leap out of their beds in the middle of the night, when electricity finally arrives. They carefully plan and re-plan their work, around the appearances and disappearances of electricity.
For the past three days there has been no electricity in the neighborhood. Why? because three days ago a fire started down the street. It burned down eight shops, and those businesses lost everything (no reported deaths thankfully). What caused this fire? A gas lamp, a charcoal fire, a cigarette? Nope. Too much electricity.
Ahh...in the city of Goma, there is never enough electricity, until, there is too much. The power surged in the neighborhood, started a fire, and then was cut off completely. Sometimes you just can't win.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
As you may know, since we returned to the US, I have had to work. I mean, do a job that actually pays me. Life here is simply too expensive for me to spend all my time volunteering on SHONA for free. So I work 25 hours a week teaching here in NY, and spend my remaining time on SHONA.
Other than the fact that it is somewhat impossible to balance these two tasks, and find any time left to breathe, I love it. I love my job teaching English as a Second Language to adults. I really love my students, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. Having also taught high school in the public schools here in NY, I greatly appreciate how hard my adult ESL students work...and the fact that they don't throw papers across the room! :) Many of the people I work with live on the edge of society here, much the same way that the SHONA women live on the edge of society in Congo. Sometimes people ask how I deal with the contrasts of my life, working with disabled artisans in Congo and Spanish speaking immigrants here in NY. But to me they seem more like the common threads woven throughout. It's true it can be hard to go from life in Congo to life in the US. It can be hard to go from the poverty and insecurity in Goma to the relative comfort and security we live in here.
But its the people who keep me sane. In Goma I was asked the famous question at least once a day "why don't you have kids?" Of course most people here in the US, would never dare such a question, we love our privacy. But my Spanish-speaking students have quickly taken up the slack, same question, same laughter when I respond in an exaggerated tone "But kids are sooo much work!!"
When I was living in Goma, nothing crossed language and cultural barriers faster than food. Ugali, a common staple, is a kind of sticky paste that you pick up with your hands and dip in sauce. Meals centered around a big pot of ugali and another of sauce, with everyone digging in. Nothing seemed to make my friends in Goma sadder than if I refused a meal, and such a refusal was usually followed by the SHONA women eyeing me up and down and discussing why I needed to gain wait (I really don't!) and why I might not be eating. This discussion would of course take place with me standing right there. Likewise, my students here feed me all the time. They bring me coffee in the morning, with a Mexican roll. They bring me tamales and mole and guacamole. All homemade. Neatly packed for me to take home to my husband. Clearly, while they think I'm a good teacher, they are not so sure about my talents as a wife! This too is a common theme from Goma! Let's just say I'm not really the "home-maker" type.
My students declare parties all the time. Another favorite activity in Goma. And those parties are a big deal, involving intense negotiations and secretive plans. And most of all, lots of laughter.
My point is that if my students here, and the SHONA ladies ever met, they might not be able to speak a word to each other, but they would have a rocking party. They would love each other. And so I switch from Spanish to Swahili, making a fool of myself in both languages, but knowing that underneath there is a common language. There are people in all societies who live on the edge. And, I, for one, believe they throw the best parties.
Note: Don't get me wrong. Life's not easy on the edge, and people work incredibly hard. Harder than I'll ever know. But consider the music. Much of the greatest, most exuberant music in this world comes from the poorest, most difficult places. Have you heard Congolese music? The music and laughter doesn't erase the hardship, but neither does hardship erase a person's capacity for joy. In fact to me, it seems to make it greater.
Monday, September 6, 2010
It means the end of summer vacation.
To teachers (and students alike) it means that 2 month stretch of summer possibility is over.
Those endless summer days that we imagined, and never quite materialized, have slipped out of our grasp for another year.
Among parents, I swear there is a collective sigh of relief. Yes, I know you love summer. And I know that gearing up for the school year is hectic to say the least. But I have heard no shortage of mother's murmur a word of thanks for the start of a new school season. We all know that routine can be a good thing.
Somewhere in the midst of my musings on the importance of Labor Day as an end-of-summer celebration, I do occasionally remark that the holiday is named "LABOR day"
To be honest, this seems completely normal to teacher and students. Who wouldn't associate the end of summer with the start of labor?
But of course that is not its real meaning. According to the US government, Labor Day was founded as a "workingmen's holiday", a celebration of labor and labor unions. It was a celebration of the working class, at a time when the working class was celebrated as "the creator of much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership".
Ahh...how far we've come.
Fallen... I mean.
The working class are no doubt still with us. Though in smaller numbers it seems. Or maybe simply with less fanfare...and less voice.
But it is no wonder that we have recreated Labor Day as a celebration of the end of summer. We have to recreate it as something.
How ironic would it be to continue celebrating the working man in an era where the working man has become increasingly hard to find, not only because he (and she) is fewer in number, but because we've all come to believe that we are something else. I've worked at vocational schools where "the vocation part" was being phased out. Why? Because all students are college material, our government says so. We are all on career paths. And we've got the Bachelors, masters and PHDs to prove it. And the debt as well.
What happen to celebrating working men and women as the backbone of our country? How have so many of us become managers, consultants, experts, academics, social-entrepreneurs, bloggers...
Or how have we come to redefine ourselves this way?
How many of us would define yourself as working class? In the real traditional sense?
In an era where unemployment is high, but equally high are the number of hours that Americans work each week, we've somehow ceased to define ourselves principally as workers. And we've certainly ceased to unite as such.
Labor Day (and even more so the International Workers Day around the globe) was a celebration not of the individual workers, but of collective workers. And there in lies the rub. Today, we all might define ourselves as hard-workers, but it is on an individual scale. Few of us see ourselves as part of a collective group of workers. This is where the American working class has gone. It's not that we've all gotten lazy and stopped working, it's that increasingly, we are all in it on our own. We jump from job to job, change careers, put it long hours, chase the American dream, largely on our own.
"Social-Entrepreneurship" is one of the hot new majors at university. This myth of the individual entrepreneur, kind of like the pioneer of a different century, fits perfectly with our ideals of the American dream as something that we chase individually. It's interesting that we've come to see entrepreneurship as a solution to our social problems as well. As though even our collective problems, will be solved not by group action but the brilliant ideas and energy of a few. Indeed we've created a form of social activism that comes complete with its own "rock-stars".
In honor of a different "Labor Day", one with its roots in collective action I am quoting again Marge Piercy's poem (that I love so much).
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real. "
Thursday, September 2, 2010
After what seems like FOREVER...
We have a new online store, and we are super excited!
The SHONA ladies have been sewing up a storm and I've spent weeks staring at HTML, taking photos, counting our stock, and adding lots of new features to the store,
And we have two new shipments in, with bags, aprons, placemat sets, table runners, throw pillows, blouses, boubous and fabulous skirts. Check it out today!
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
The message went like this...
"Shemeki wa Mapendo alikufa bila kugonjwa. Tuombeye."
Translated, that is
"Mapendo's brother-in-law died without being sick. Pray for us."
I promised the SHONA ladies that I would pass along to you this request for prayer. So there it is.
Here is the backstory...
Mapendo's brother-in-law died suddenly. He had not been very sick, although he also had not been feeling particularly well as of late. He went into the bedroom to lie down, and when family came in later, he was dead.
He leaves behind his wife (Mapendo's sister) and 10 children (8 of their own and 2 orphans they care for). The oldest child is 20 years old and the youngest is a year and a half old. This is a huge responsibility for Mapendo's sister to bear.
Inevitably, this responsibility will come down not only on Mapendo's sister but on Mapendo as well. One of the children was already living with the SHONA ladies. You may remember that she came to help the ladies around the house. Their sewing has paid for her to go back to school.
Mapendo's sister will struggle to provide for these children. And in one of the great injustices of life in Congo, she will also face attempts to take away her home, or anything else that she might have. When the Bible talks about fighting for the rights of widows, I never really took it literally. I didn't realize precisely how vicitmized widows can be in cultures, even today. But in every death that I have seen in Congo, the widow has faced an onslaught of pressure and the fear of losing the little that she has.
In addition to all of this, this idea of "dying without being sick" has a particular undertone to it. When people die of no clear cause in Congo, they are often assumed to have been poisoned by someone. This is a particular tragedy in Congo, where healthcare is extremely low, and the ability to actually diagnose illnesses is very limited. While there are real incidents of poisoning in Congo (and around the world) there are also many, many incidents where people just die. When you have no medical equipment to diagnose problems, and no investigative police to diagnose crime, the two are often confused. In a world where tragedy hits so often, we grab onto any explanation we can. And unfortunately, the poisoning explanation is often the most readily available. It may be hard to prove, but it is also hard to disprove.
Congo can be a hard place, full of inexplicable tragedy, and uncertain fear.
But it can also be a place of beauty. Where a community comes together to carry burdens. The SHONA ladies have been sleeping at Mapendo's sister's house for days now. Mourning with them. They heard of the tragedy, put down their sewing materials, and went. This is a common Congolese response.
You notice that in their message they say "pray for us." This is not a selfish "us", as though they are the ones who need prayer. It is an inclusive "us", a recognition of their place in a community, a community whose responsibility it is to now carry this family, and bear their burden together.
I rarely say "pray for us". In good American fashion I say "pray for them". As though a person's loss or struggle is somehow separate from my own. I should practice saying "tuombeye"("pray for us"). Perhaps it will serve as a reminder to myself that, in reality, we are all in this life together.
Sharing our burdens and our joys.
Monday, August 16, 2010
This is Roy's house. A couple weeks ago he had to pick it up. And by that I mean...actually pick it up and carry it somewhere else. His family was forced to leave the land they were living upon. They had to take apart their home and carry it to a new location.
When we talk about insecurity in Goma, we think about war and armed robbery and the general chaos which can overtake the region.
We don't necessarily think about picking up houses.
But this too is part of the insecurity of life in Goma. The vast majority of people in Goma live in this type of perpetual non-permanence. This awareness that at virtually anytime, you may be told to move. Even if that means picking up your house.
Roy built this house about a year and a half ago, on top of this pile of lava rock. He paid about $10 a month to rent the land on which he built his house. That worked out for a while, until the owner of the land decided he wanted to take back the land and build on it himself. And so Roy's family had to move. As in, they had to move the house. So they looked for another piece of land to rent, they dismantled the house, and carried it on their backs to the next location.
So now they are living in the same house, on different land. And you can imagine how long it will last this time. If they are luck another year? People in Goma get used to picking up and moving a lot.
True, there is nothing that shocking about the transitory nature of life in Goma. Goma is a city, largely composed of people who have fled there, from the surrounding areas. It is full of people who have had to pack up and leave, again and again. The city itself has been overtaken by soldiers, rebels, and lava at varying points in the last ten years. In Goma, one most always stand a bit poised on the edge of departure.
What I find most striking is that Roy built the house in the first place. He could have rented a a similar house. But he chose to build a house on land that he did not own. Of course options were limited. If he could afford to buy land, he surely would have.
But think about it for a minute. Imagine renting a plot of land and building your own house. With your materials, your own money, the sweat from your brow.
No one does that in America, because who would take that risk? We build on land that we own, or we rent a house on land that we don't. No one goes through the work of building a house if they can't own the land.
It gives me pause.
Roy knew that building on borrowed land was a risk. But what in Goma isn't a risk? Actually it was more like guaranteed non-permanence. You build knowing that in the not-so-distant-future you will have to take it down again. Or maybe the volcano will erupt again before that happens, and cover your house with lava. Or maybe the war will explode and you will be forced to leave your home and flee. You see, when everything is a risk, it almost becomes beside the point to try and calculate risk at all. What's built today, what stands today, is really all that you have the energy to think about it.
So Roy, picked up his house and moved it to a new plot of land. Let me not understate this. By no means was this an easy process for his family. Yet he will probably face it again next year, and the year after...
It is a living example of the insecurity of Goma. The poor move again and again, as landowners try and turn a profit on their land. Community breaks down when a population is constantly being forced to move from one place to another.
But it is also an example of the extraordinary sense of hope and determination in Goma. Even if you are simply too poor to buy any land, you'll start by buying the materials to build. What greater evidence of hope is there? Maybe you will own a roof and walls, long before you ever own a place to rest them upon. But in that there is a determination to believe in a better future.
In Goma, where the ground is constantly shifting, you learn to build your home on moving ground. It's not blind faith that the ground will stop moving. It's the knowledge that that it never does. And the determination not to lose hope in the midst of it. I suppose, in the end, that is the type of faith we are all called to.
"What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway."
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
~ Hebrews Chapter 11 Verse 1
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
But it is amazing what we have accomplished. What we are accomplishing. What many of you have helped make possible.
It is real change and real lives.
And we can't do it without you. SHONA's growing and we have lots of exciting things on the horizon. But we are looking for a few more people who want to get involved. We're not looking for donations, or even sales (although we always appreciate them).
What we are looking for is a few people willing to donate some time, some energy, some excitement to these amazing women.
Don't worry about what skills you have. The question is do you love these women? Those are the people we are looking for. If you have got that, and some time you are willing to share, we'd love to hear from you.
"Be the change that you want to see in the world"
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get back to you soon.
It truly is amazing what we can accomplish together.
Monday, July 19, 2010
It could be that I am just trying to drive traffic to this blog and cash in on what has been termed one of the "biggest buzz" words of 2009.
But I believe strongly that our focus on the conflict mineral trade deserves scrutiny, not because it is inherently wrong, but because it is incomplete. Our concern about the way that minerals are sourced in Congo needs to be part of a larger concern about the way products are sourced, produced, and distributed around the world. I would argue that in the same breath that we talk about conflict minerals we should be talking about conflict corn, conflict fish and conflict cars, but more on that in my next entry.
For now one reader takes it even one step further with a look at our whole economic system and describes "conflict capitalism". If you think this position is taking it too far, check out a fascinating excerpt from the book Hoodwinked.
I'd love to hear more of your thoughts. Shall we take that popular buzz word and go global? When we talk about Conflict Minerals should we also be talking about Conflict Corn? Or shall we drop the specification all together and talk about "Conflict Capitalism"? Is the focus on one particular product positive, in that it gives us something that we feel we can actually do to change the system? Or is it negative, in that it ignores the larger problem? Check out the thought-provoking comment below and I'd love to hear some more voices weigh in.
"What you are identifying is that the issue is really "conflict capitalism"--the division of labor of the world's economic system depends upon inequities and relies on supply chains which are often exploited by state and non-state entities to extract surpluses either by explicit force or its implication. We in the United States, but also elites throughout the world, are often the ignorant beneficiaries of these supply chains.
The recent emphasis upon "fair trade" or the desire to expose the blood adhering to diamonds, coltan or other conflict minerals, are simplified means of alerting people in the west to the moral implications of their consumer choices. This is not a bad step in the wrong direction, if it offers a wider critique of the conflict inherent and inevitable in the way in which goods and wealth are distributed world wide. In other words, if we don't feel that by buying "fair trade coffee" or not purchasing "blood diamonds" we have done our part.
What the focus upon "blood diamonds" or conflict minerals does, and what your blog reveals is that it misdirects attention away from not only the local complexities of deeply intractable conflicts, mostly for the purpose of assuaging western guilt and to encourage simplistic fund-raising calls, but these approaches misdirect the attention from the underlying conflict which must and inevitably will result from neoliberal international policies which enrich us at the expense of the matatu tout, the water carrier, the coca cola vendor on the street, the second-hand clothing peddler, the coltan and diamond miner, the coffee producer, and on and on." (Thanks for the comment Dean!)
Monday, July 12, 2010
“No one is trying to over-simplify the issue, Shona. See our report on a comprehensive approach to dealing with conflict minerals, which offers policy recommendations on key security, governance, and livelihood issues. http://bit.ly/15jWDn
Security sector reform, diaspora support for ... (armed groups) and land issues are also among the keys to dealing with the war, and those of us leading the conflict minerals campaign raise these squarely with policymakers. But dealing with these issues requires political will, something that has been lacking to date. But this political will can be generated through attention on conflict minerals, since everyone owns a cell phone and has some piece of Congo's minerals in their phones and laptops. The armed groups also generate far more money from minerals than they do from taxation of agriculture, as commanders have confirmed to us in meetings several times.
As former policymakers, our targeted aim is to generate the right momentum for a real solution to the war in eastern Congo, not offer silver-bullet straw-man solutions. Thank you.”
Thank you for your response, Sasha.
I appreciate that the Enough Project has published extensive reports on the many, complicated issues in Congo and solid, thoughtful suggestions for addressing some of the issues related to the conflict in Congo. My suggestion was not that advocacy campaign such as yours, do not understand the complex realities, but that unfortunately those complex realities are not always communicated in the “talking points” created around such campaigns.
You said that no one is trying to over-simplify things, but you didn't address the quote that I was referring to.
The quote I was referring to was from the Enough Project's website and the comment is attributed to John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project. He says
“Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo is rich in the minerals that make electronics work, and the battle for the resources has left over 5 million dead. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Congo, making it the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or girl.
We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution.
Although you say that no-one is trying to over-simplify the issue that seems to be the result in comments such as these.
I believe it is an over-simplification to state that “the battle for resources has left over 5 million dead”. The conflict in Congo can't be boiled down into a battle for mineral resources, as you are quick to agree throughout much of your research.
Likewise, I believe it is a large over-simplification to state that we as consumers hold the key to the solution to the conflict in Congo. As you well know, there are many complex factors involved in the conflict, most of which the average consumer in the US is unlikely to hold the solution to. You point out that most of these issues require political will that is currently lacking, and so by mobilizing consumer support for conflict mineral trade reform, you can then use that leverage to press other issues politically. I understand this strategy and I think it has some merit. But I think we need to be honest in its implementation, and in our eagerness to get people's attention, we still need to careful to reflect the situation accurately. Portraying consumers as holding the key to the solution crosses that line.
In its campaign geared at students, the Enough Project states
“If students use their collective power to pressure companies to stop buying electronics components made with conflict minerals, rebel and militia groups will no longer have funds to terrorize the civilians of eastern Congo.”
Wouldn't it be wonderful if it were that simple? If by cutting off funding we could put an end to groups terrorizing civilians all around the world. No doubt cutting off funding helps. But I am sure that you know how sadly little money it takes to terrorize civilians around the world. and I am sure that you know that cutting off the funds related to the mineral trade, even if it is possible, will not result in an immediate end to the banditry, armed robberies, pillaging and general disorder which ravages Eastern Congo.
In your policy paper you state
"There is no silver bullet solution to Congo’s conflict minerals. But if the Congolese and regional governments, the international community, and the private sector can align their efforts on the common goal of a revitalized legitimate mineral trade in eastern Congo, it would have a major impact in resolving the conflict”.
I appreciate the honesty of that statement. That is a lot of ifs, and unfortunately it is the reality. Bringing together all of those players in an honest commitment to reforming the mining sector is a monumental task, especially since most players are benefiting from the current system.
Encouraging students to demand “conflict-free minerals” is one piece of a large puzzle, and we need to be honest about that. Promising them that this lobbying for conflict-free products at their schools will end the conflict in Eastern Congo is misleading. And in the end where will that get us?
What happens when students succeed in their lobbying and the war and chaos in Congo does not end? If so much energy is to be spent on “raising public awareness” of the issues, it is imperative that the awareness reflect a genuine understanding of the issues or it will disappear as readily as it has come.
On Enough's blog there is an excellent piece by Laura Heaton, on the recent assessment of the failures of the Kimberly Process and the lessons that it can offer Congo. If there is one thing that the Kimberly Process has demonstrated it is how complicated the idea of “conflict-free” is and how lengthy and difficult a process it is to create effective change. 10 years into the process, Zimbabwe's diamonds are still not certified as “conflict free” and abuse and exploitation is still rampant.
On the Enough blog, you say
“The Brownback Amendment that is currently part of the financial reform bill will make companies accountable for making sure they do not source minerals from conflict areas. Companies that source from Congo or neighboring countries will have to conduct an audit to make sure that they did not source from a conflict mine. This tracing and auditing is possible - Intel and Motorola are already starting credible audits on one of the minerals, tantalum. Moreover, the process is inexpensive: the audits will only cost one penny per product, according to electronics companies...
But the real question that Americans asked themselves last week was: Is one additional penny for a cell phone really too much to pay for accountability? A clear majority said no...”
This, again, is a frustrating simplification. Unfortunately, as the Kimberly Process suggests, accountability is not easily bought and certainly not with a penny. The Brownback Amendment is one small step in a rather large battle. Effectively holding companies accountable for their supply chains is a long, and difficult task, but one which we should engage in with all companies not just those related to electronics. Identifying mines within Congo as "Conflict-Free" would be at least as difficult as it has proven in Zimbabwe. Your policy paper calls for establishing conflict free mines by “Properly integrated Congolese security forces—supported by MONUC and international military observers—should secure these mining sites and the transit routes associated with their trading chains, including select airfields, ports, and border crossings. To the maximum extent possible, this should be carried out via negotiation and with positive incentives for commanders willing to relinquish their hold over these sites and enter into DDR programs.”
Anyone having spent much time in Eastern Congo is aware how difficult such a task would be. In 2008 Congolese security forces and MONUC struggled to simply hold Goma in the face of advancing rebel troops. Legitimately securing mines across Congo in an orderly, non-corrupt way, so as to be able to certify those mines as conflict free, would be an incredible feat, and should not be glossed over as a simple and obvious step that we can ensure simply by paying a penny.
Ultimately I believe that using consumer products to draw attention to a larger issue is good. But I think we need to be careful not to commodify our call to activism. We, as consumers, and more over as global citizens have a responsibility to ask hard questions about where our products come from and to buy ethically made products. We shouldn't need to be promised that it will only cost a penny, or that we will single-handedly stop a war. The issues are complex. I know the Enough Project is willing to engage with those complex issues but I wish that you would expect the same from the consumers that you are trying to reach. By watering-down some of your communications to consumers, you may find that it is easier to draw attention to the issues, but is this really the type of sustained, thoughtful attention that such a long and difficult process will require?
Thursday, July 1, 2010
So what is it that bothers me about the lobby against "conflict minerals in Congo"?
I think it is the specificity of the argument.
By making the argument so specific, we are lying to ourselves about complex realities both in Congo and in our own backyard.
Myth #1:Congo Conflict=Mineral Trade
Enough Project claims...
Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo...the battle for resources has left over 5 million dead...We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution."
The conflict in Congo can not be boiled down to a battle for resources. The situation is far more complex than that.
The Enough project knows better than this. In other places they are more careful to state that the conflict minerals trade is one of many factors fueling the conflict.
But that is precisely the point. They know that the situation is far more complex. But that doesn't make a good advocacy campaign. Mobilizing support and outrage here, requires a simple villain. And a solution that we can control. So there it is... let's call them “conflict minerals”...or perhaps “blood phones” (hat tip to Lynn).
By doing this we lie to ourselves about the complexity of the situation in Congo, and about the types of changes that are needed to create real peace in Congo, and unfortunately we make the quest for peace far easier than it actually is. Besides which, even if controlling the mineral trade was a concrete solution to the conflict, this US legislation is unlikely to get us there. It relies on the idea that there can be meaningful verification, documentation and monitoring of mineral resources within Congo. This assumes the existence of structures that simply don't exist in Eastern Congo at this time. You have to build the structures first, or the paperwork is meaningless in Congo.
That is not to say that the legislation isn't important.
Legislation here in the US, requiring companies to be more transparent about and responsible for their supply chains is important and , and so is pressure for companies to produce and trade more ethically . But by limiting the problem to “conflict minerals” we make the argument so specific as to pretend that the larger problem doesn't exist. The supply chain problem isn't a Congo problem, and we aren't the heroes rushing in to save the day. Our corporate systems, our regulation systems, the types of products that make it to our shelves, and the amount of information we have about those products is deeply broken. By reacting in horror to the unjust, exploitative and irresponsible ways in which minerals are sourced, somewhere in the back of our heads, we assure ourselves that the rest of the stuff we buy doesn't have the same problem. This leads us to...
myth #2: The problem is limited to minerals.
But I'll be back next time to talk about that.
Monday, June 28, 2010
But now that I am back in the US, following the hot celebrity trends and flashy advocacy campaigns, and conflict minerals is all I ever hear about Congo.
Well, besides the fact that Congo is "the rape capital of the world" of course.
So is it true?
Are there minerals in Congo? Absolutely. I could watch young men sitting around a water tap and washing off coltan from my balcony from time to time. (coltan's that mineral that makes our cell phones work)
Is there conflict in Congo? I don't think I even need to answer that question.
Are the two related. Of course. The mining of minerals helps fund many of the armed groups in the region. But so do truck loads of cabbages traveling from farm to market. Road blocks on the insecure roads throughout the countryside in Eastern Congo are used by various armed groups to demand money from anyone and anything needing to pass by. Including cabbages. Roads are a valuable (and scarce) resource in Congo, and just like the minerals, they are seen as a revenue stream for no shortage of armed groups.
And that I think is why I never heard much talk about conflict minerals in Congo. Along with the fact that I hung out with women who were far more likely to be talking about the best way to prepared ugali (a food) than the best way to mine minerals.
But primarily, I think I never heard much about conflict minerals because it would kind of be like talking about conflict cabbage. It's not that it is incorrect, so much as it is incomplete. The reality is that most of the produce you can buy in Goma probably paid a roadblock "tax" at least once to get to you, and part of the price you pay for those goods, is going to support the armed men who demanded that money. There is little in Congo, that the conflict hasn't touched in some way. If people in Eastern Congo started adding the "conflict prefix" to every applicable word, where would it stop?
And yet, Western consumers don't buy conflict cabbages. And they do buy products made from conflict minerals, especially trendy little devices like iphones, hence the suddenly popular use of the term.
There is a bill in congress aiming to reduce the use of "conflict minerals" by requiring electronics companies that trade on the stock exchange to identify the source of their supplies.
I am all for shortening supply chains and making them more transparent. I believe that one of the great evils of our times is that we have become so disconected from the things that we buy, and the ways that they are produced.
What we buy does matter, and the fact that we buy from very large companies, who in turn outsource many stages of production, makes it ever more difficult to know exactly what we are buying and how it was produced.
Any move to demand greater accountability from international corporations, and greater responsibility for all levels of the supply chain, is good.
So in principle, how could I argue with the conflict minerals legislation?
But still there is something that bothers me about this whole movement, and I just can't let it go.
I think it is the ease with which "conflict minerals" rolls off the tongue. It's like it was ready-made for a marketing campaign. Or maybe it is the fact that I never really did hear it roll off the tongue much in Congo.
While in Congo I would often ask people what they believed the solution to the conflict was. Most people found this question extremely difficult to answer, and would often remain silent or respond "Mungu anajua" (God knows)
So when I read this statement from the US based advocacy group behind the push for legislation, I start to get nervous...
"Our demand for cell phones, laptops and other electronics is ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo... the battle for the resources has left over 5 million dead. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Congo, making it the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or girl.
We, as consumers of products made from Congo's "conflict minerals," hold the key to the solution."I'm glad we have all the solutions. Especially for such a complicated war. It is quite convenient and all.
But just in case there might be a few more words that need to be said on this topic...I'll be back tomorrow for the second half of this blog.