Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Black History Month and African Clothes

"Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others."
Rosa Parks

What do black history month and the SHONA women have in common?

Quite a lot actually.

While living in Congo, and working with the SHONA women I taught them about Harriet Jacobs. We talked about this courageous young slave woman, who ran away from her "master" and hid in a crawl space above a house for 7 years. She hid in a space where she could not stand upright, literally depriving herself of the ability to stand or walk.

The SHONA women too have been deprived of the ability to stand and walk. For Argentine, Riziki, and Solange growing up with polio meant that they could only crawl. Today, finally, with the help of the handicapped center in Goma, they can stand with metal braces and crutches. But for a long time that was impossible.

They have also all had the experience of hiding. Growing up in the midst of war zones, and even today when they return to visit their families in rural areas, they are only too accustomed to the sound of gun-shots, the bolting of doors, and the hunkering down.

Harriet Jacobs' story resonated with the SHONA women.

But perhaps what struck the SHONA women most was the book itself. I showed them Harriet Jacobs' book, with her own words inside. Harriet Jacobs came out of slavery to write her own story. You could see the glimmer in the ladies eyes as they passed their hands over the cover.

Sometimes, as an American living abroad I have deeply regretted so much of the American "example" to the world...the war in Iraq, the corporate greed, the growing gap between rich and poor...

And surely slavery is one of those terrible examples. But I am thankful for the countless African-American lives who have reclaimed that story, and turned it into one of struggle and triumph. Surely those many African American voices are some of America's greatest strengths.

I am thankful for black history month. For the opportunity it gives to reflect on the struggles that have been fought over generations, and the powerful voices that have been forged in the midst of those struggles.

If you wear African clothing as part of your celebrations, or simply as part of your life, would you consider wearing clothing sewn by the SHONA women, women who are still struggling to find a way to make their voices heard, but who definitely have a story to tell. Your purchases make a huge difference to them.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Visitors from Congo

This week we had a friend from Congo visit us here in New York. It is funny when two worlds collide. When people from one part of your life, suddenly appear in another context...when a guy you have only seen in Goma, in short sleeves, appears in NY in the middle of winter, bundled in a winter jacket and hat.

Alain is a young Congolese man. He was student of mine at one of the universities in Goma. But he also became a friend, who continued visiting the SHONA women, long after I left, and in fact helped take pictures for SHONA, and translated for our visitors on occasion. In August, he came to the United States to study and this was his his first visit to NY.

While he was here, we called the SHONA ladies, who were clearly overjoyed to hear his voice, and fascinated by the fact that Alain and I were together, half-way across the world, speaking Swahili, and thinking of Congo. All of us, throughout our lives, carry those we love with us. We all have "homes" that sometimes seem very far away. But we also have the joy, on occasion, of seeing our lives come together in surprising ways. Of building bridges between people that we love, and occasionally glimpsing a world where we are all together. It's great to have visitors from other parts of our lives, and it is great to see the ways that our lives still come together in the midst of it all.

Here is a blog entry that he wrote about his visit...

I am in New York since last night. I am staying in the Shona Congo, New York base for a few days. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to experience Shona from the United States after living it in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In fact, I know Shona since very long, since I was in the Congo. Mapendo, Roy, Riziki, Argentine and the rest of the team are like my brother and sisters. They are wonderful people with so much courage and strength notwithstanding adversities. I have worked with them as translator, photographer and have had some fun time with them.

I am so happy for the impact Shona has had in the lives of these brothers and sisters of mine. They are really blessed to have learned craftswork for their lives would have been so different otherwise. In my country, handicapped people are usually neglected by society and even by their own family. They do not have access to education and therefore not to employment. The result is that handicapped people end up begging in the streets.

All my passion about collaborating with Shona is from my joy to see how these people have had a chance to live better, to help their families, to have access to basic education and to pay for school for their relatives. I have been telling people in Congo about Shona and how they can help it grow and in that way help the Shona team in their effort to live from the work of their hands.

I came to the United States five months ago for College. I have been meeting people who are interested in my country and in Africa. They want to know how life looks like, what is going on out there these days and so on. To those who have asked me if there was a way to help with little means, among the so many possibilities I know of, Shona Congo is where I direct most of them because I have been on the Congo side of the fence and I can testify of the impact of any purchase anyone does on Shona's online store or any donation they do.

Have you ever made any impact in some one's life?