Monday, May 31, 2010

Stolen cloth

People often ask me where the cloth we use comes from, and how the craftspeople get it.

There is a "cloth district" in Goma which contains 30 or so shops like the one pictured above. However this picture probably gives you the wrong idea. This shop looks quiet and peaceful. But these shops are invariably crowded with women pushing in the door and yelling out their cloth selections to the people behind the counter. These are wholesale shops, where the market ladies come to buy the cloth they will sell. Each woman is calculating in her head, the price she will pay and the price she thinks she can sell the cloth for. And the trick is that there are tons of varieties of cloth, including a number of knock-off cloths, that often have the name of a high quality brand written on them, and demand close inspection to determine the true quality.

So you can picture Argentine and Mapendo in the midst of this. Pressed in on all sides, and determined to inspect their cloth with a sharper eye than anyone else.

Last week they went home crying. They had lost two vitenge (about 18 feet of cloth each). Or rather someone had stolen those cloths. Someone took advantage of the crowd and the hustle and simply ran away with two of their cloths.

We can replace them. The loss amounts to about 28 dollars.

Of course 28 dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but I think there is a more important story behind this loss.

The cloth district is located in the worst, dirtiest and most chaotic part of Goma. I used to shop there as well, and I always felt like I had to have eyes on the back of my head to keep up with half of what was going on around me.

Our craftspeople go there all the time, with crutches and metal leg braces. They haggle with vendors, buy cloth, and figure out a way to get it home.

In all of this time, they've never lost a piece of cloth, or a dollar. I think they deserve congratulations. It is no surprise that someone stole their cloth, sadly. It is more of a surprise that it didn't happen sooner. But the story that deserves to be told is not of the shameless people that would steal from these young women on crutches, but the strength and determination of those women who have braved this crowd week after week.

I used to come home from the cloth district exhausted. I can't imagine doing it on crutches.

Sometimes I talk about empowerment and forget what it looks like. I forget about the sweat and blood that gets us there. I talk about empowerment as though it is a beautiful statue I can keep on a shelf, but for the SHONA ladies empowerment is a living and breathing reality. Empowerment throws them headlong into the hustle of life

And they jump in astonishingly well. They do so well, that sometimes it leads me to wax poetic. Empowerment is beautiful. But it is also covered in the mud and sweat of everyday life. It means going to that market month after month to choose your own cloth. Empowerment doesn't separate us from the realities of life, it throws us into the midst of them, and asks us to swim. The SHONA ladies have been doing just that, sometimes they come back covered in dust, but they never once have considered sending someone else to the market. They rely on having the best cloth to sew, and they can think of no one more qualified than themselves to choose it. Isn't that what empowerment looks like?

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