Sunday, December 16, 2012

Too close to home

The town in Connecticut where I grew up, and where my parents still live, is about 20 minutes from Newtown.

The city in Congo where I lived for 3 years, and where the SHONA ladies still live, is Goma.

Yesterday I was listening to a BBC world briefing, and I heard a broadcast  about the tragedy in Newtown, Ct.  Followed by a broadcast about the ongoing tragedy  in Goma, Congo.

Suffice it to say, there is something peculiarly horrifying to hear on the radio, 2 places that are close to my heart and yet truly worlds apart.  And now suddenly, here they are, one after the other, in almost the same horrifying breath.  Tragedy upon tragedy.
Newtown is a beautiful town.  A few months ago SHONA had a booth at a craft fair there.  It was an outside fall festival, and the weather was beautiful, but what struck me most that day was the way SHONA was truly welcomed in Newtown.  I met many wonderful customers there, who cared so much about the women of Congo, about what was happening so far away.

But now tragedy is all too near to that community.  And I, like everyone else, am at a loss for words.

I think of those words so often repeated "this is too close to home".   I hear them from friends I have in Connecticut, those who live in the area, those who know people directly affected.

And yet I somehow feel them too.  Newtown is too close to home.  Goma is also too close to home.

And to be honest, I think everyone is saying this about Newtown right now.  For all of us, this...this...inexplicable horror is far too close to home.  No matter where we live.

Then I think about the ongoing war in Eastern Congo, and all those who have died and those who have been forced out of their homes and who live in fear.  But I am also reminded of the countless people who I don't know, and who the SHONA ladies do not know, but who are following closely each step those women make, and praying for them daily, for peace in a city torn by war.  I have received emails from people saying how they wake each night, in the middle of the night, praying for the women.  I have received fevered phone calls from SHONA customers asking what they can do to help.

I think again of those words... "this is too close to home".

Sometimes these words are forced upon us, by physical proximity.  And sometimes they rise unbidden to our lips, no matter where the tragedy occurred. 

They are painful words, the words we utter when we let ourselves begin to feel at least for a moment the terrible violence that plagues our world.  We let ourselves be touched by tragedy, wherever it is found.

But they are also some of the best words,  the bravest words we could utter.  Because what is the other choice?  To turn around and look away, and hope we can keep our distance?  No, these words are a cry to action, a refusal to continue to accept the violence which plagues our world.

"Too close to home..."
With these words we claim this world as our home.  And those who suffer in it, are our family. 

These tragedies, are all far too close to home.  It is up to us to grab each others' hands, and go out into this world, determined to make it better.   


Friday, December 7, 2012

To Stay or To Go

To stay or to go?

This is a conversation that the SHONA ladies have been having since the rebels seized Goma a few weeks ago.  After all, what do you do, when fighting arrives at your doorstep?  Do you hunker down, or do you try to get out?  And if you leave, where do you go?  How do you get there (especially if you are disabled) and what do you do with all the relatives and children who have sought shelter in your home, because they've already had to flee their own homes?

I remember being told about the volcanic eruption in Goma in 2002.  The nearby volcano erupted and spewed lava onto a huge portion of the town.

  Even then, there were people who  didn't leave.  Afraid that they would lose everything they owned, or perhaps too sick to run.  Or maybe with too many children to carry.  There were a lot of people who barely fled in time.  And by the same token, the population flocked back to Goma, long before the experts declared it safe.  People headed back to Goma while the lava was still hot on the ground.  Or so I've been told.  That image has always stuck in my head, of rushing back into the inferno.

Because it is home.
Because if you don't someone will probably loot your home of all that you have.
Because to be a refugee is to suffer.  And to be a refugee in a place where you are not welcomed, is to suffer even more.

When the rebels attacked Goma, the ladies stayed for a night and listened to the explosions overhead.  The next day, they decided to leave but had to split up because there was no other way to get out.  One of the unspoken tragedies of war is the way it separate loved ones.

For the ladies, they were fortunate to reunite along the way.  And they were fortunate to have the resources from their work with SHONA, to pay for truck rides and motorcycle taxis and any other way they could find to flee. Otherwise, with their disabilities, it would have been impossible.

And eventually, miraculously, they made it to Bukavu.  That is roughly 130 miles, on roads that would not qualify even as dirt roads in this part of the world.  Along the way strangers welcomed them into their homes.

In Bukavu, the hotels were expensive, and the city on a hill during rainy season, was virtually impossible for them to navigate.  Seeking safer ground, they tried to cross the border into the neighboring country, but with 5 disabled people, 3 babies, 5 children, and 2 teenagers they were turned away.  We looked too much like refugees, they said.

So they fled, back to their homes in Goma.  If we are going to suffer, we might as well suffer at home, they said. 

Again, miraculously, they made it safely through an overnight bus ride through an incredibly volatile area.

And they returned to Goma, to find all the food and water in their homes gone, the markets closed and the nights filled with shooting.  The rebels had pulled out of Goma by this point, but the shooting had not stopped.  And it still hasn't.

The shooting is not war...exactly.  It is another of those unspoken tragedies of war.  Goma always has a bit of a "wild west" feel, especially on the edge of town where the ladies live, and where refugee camps are located.  But the seizure of Goma, and the following withdrawal, has left the town spinning out of control.  The night is full of shooting because bandits are arriving at people's homes.  Shooting their way into these tiny wooden homes, with nothing but a small lock on the door, to demand whatever they can.  Who are these bandits?  That is precisely the problem.  Who knows?  Perhaps they are connected to the war, or perhaps they are the young men who live down the street.  As long as there is confusion, there is impunity. 

So the people of Goma take justice into their own hands.  Yesterday when I talked to one of the ladies, she reported that her neighborhood had risen up against a group of thieves.  They caught one of the thieves, threw rocks, beat and killed him.

So do you stay or do you go?  The ladies have tried both at this point, and I can't say that either one has worked out very well.  For now they are back in Goma, but with this question constantly replaying in their minds.  At least when the volcano erupted, it was easy to tell when the lava was cool and firm.  But as for peace in Goma, nothing is ever really cool or firm.

In this holiday season, I can't help but be especially struck by the Christmas story.   I am especially struck because I learned just the other day that Argentine is pregnant.  With her tiny body, and a little one growing inside, I really cannot imagine how she made that trip to Bukavu and back.  But she did.  And there were strangers who welcomed her, and pushed her "wheelchair bicycle" and helped her along the way.  And so have all of you, through your thoughts and prayers, and through your support of SHONA.

This year, in the midst of all the twinkling lights, cheery songs, and colorful packages, my eye keeps seeking out that manger scene.  There is something truthful in it. It is more sobering for sure, but also somehow more miraculous.  And that gives me hope.

Please keep the people of Eastern Congo in your prayers this holiday season.

Argentine, Mapendo, Solange and Riziki, never cease to remind that beauty and hope shine most brightly in the most difficult of places.  I got a new shipment of their stock last week and I was floored by the beauty.  You can find their handcrafted work at


Monday, August 20, 2012

The stories we share

Terrible situation.  Solange's parents died when she was young.  A kind uncle took her in and helped care for her.  She says she wouldn't have survived without him. 

 Solange was recently able to repay his kindness with generosity of her own.  About a month ago the escalating war in Congo forced him to flee their rural hometown with his wife and 5 children.  He borrowed money from neighbors to be able to travel to Goma and Solange opened her doors and welcomed their family, keeping a roof over their head and food on the table this past month (your purchases made this possible!).

 The other day her uncle traveled back to their hometown, leaving his wife and children at Solange's house in Goma.    He wanted to repay the money he had borrowed.  While traveling through the forest in an insecure area on a motorcyle taxi he was stopped, robbed and killed.  These are the effects of a war that never ends.  Not only did this man leave a wife and 5 young children, his wife is pregnant with their 6th child.  

Solange traveled with the wife back to their hometown to bury this beloved man.  The children remained at Solange's house in Goma and Argentine and Riziki went to stay at Solange's house to help care for the children.  They are all broken-hearted and at a loss to know what to do. 

I have no words to express how difficult life is many times for the people of Congo.  But I continue to be amazed at their spirit and their generosity.  Like Solange, many, many people in Goma open their very humble homes and share what little they have with refugees who have nowhere else to go.  And in the face of loss, these women, who are from different families and different tribes, just bind closer together. 

The women would appreciate your thoughts and prayers for this family. 

To me the women never cease to remind me of how we should use overwhelming obstacles to drive us together.  Even when we don't know what to do, and have little to offer materially, we can offer each other the knowledge that we are not alone.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Run For Congo

Are you in the NY area?  This fall there is a great Run For Congo event on Roosevelt Island.  You can walk or run, the island is a super peaceful place, and the money you raise goes to Women for Women International.  They are on the ground in Goma and they do good, solid work.  You can sign up to run/walk on their website at  

As if that is not reason enough to come out for a beautiful fall day, we've got one more reason...  SHONA will have a table there!  
If you're one of our many online friends, let me just tell you that there is nothing like being able to run your hands over all SHONA's brilliant colors and pick one for yourself.  We'll be debuting some new products there, and I'll be there to talk your ear off about Congo!  We had a great time last year, and would love to see you there this year!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Money and Marriage in Congo

The goats given to Mapendo's family as part of a bride price

Kupana mali: To give wealth
In the US, we give fancy engagement rings.  OK, mine isn't really fancy, but I am often amazed by the amount of money that men are expected to spend on engagement rings in this country.  Why do we continue with this tradition and where did it come from?
Surely there is some underlying message to this ring (besides the Diamond industry's success in the marketing slogan "A Diamond is Forever").  
Surely there is some way that we see the ring as a demonstration of the man's love, and perhaps of his ability to provide for his soon-to-be-wife.  We may not like to think of it that way in our modern culture, but I am amazed at the extent to which this material "tradition",which was in fact heavily promoted if not outright created, by the diamond industry, remains central to our engagements and marriages.  I have watched no shortage of women prominently displaying their large diamond engagement ring to flocks of admiring women.  I've listened to those women guessing at how much the man spent on that ring.  Exactly what is being admired here, if not the extent to which this ring communicates the great love of her fiance and his intention to care for her...materially?

In Congo, the giving of gifts is a bit more direct.  We're talking about goats and cows, pots and pans, clothing, and cooking utensils. And this is given not to the bride, but to her family, as a form of a bride price, in an engagement ceremony.  This bride price is negotiated in advance, and represents a very sizable amount of the man's supposed wealth.  As you can imagine, most men in Eastern Congo have very little wealth to speak of, and struggle heavily to arrange for any sort of acceptable bride price.  
Here you see the giving of pots and pans

The gift of new cloth (being wrapped around the head)

And yes, in the middle of those hands being raised in celebration, that is a suit which I assume is another part of the bride price given to Mapendo's family. 

As you know, both Mapendo and Solange recently got married.  Before the civil marriages they had engagement ceremonies where bride prices were given.  These are the photos from Mapendo's ceremony.  We are very happy that Mapendo and Solange were able to celebrate these rites of passage which they thought might never happen due to the reality of living with disabilities (women with disabilities often find it difficult to find a husband since the disability is perceived as lowering their "value" as a wife).  I am sure that both Mapendo and Solange's husbands worked hard to find the money and give the appropriate "mali", and this is a real achievement when resources are so limited.   

In the US, a couple might decide to skip the fancy engagement ring, and spend the money elsewhere.  But in Congo, the decision is not so easy.  The bride price is considered a necessary step prior to a legal wedding.  Many men find that they simply cannot afford to pay it, and so couples end up living together without a marriage.  This is seen as a real offense to the woman's family, both because it represents a sizable loss of income, and because it is seen as disrespectful.  Many men spend years, long after living together and starting a family, trying to pay the debt they owe to their wife's family. 

The bride price is an interesting tradition, and no doubt holds value within the traditional culture.  But just as many American traditions have lost context and become overly materialized and commercialized (can I mention the holiday shopping madness at Christmas time), I think the bride price suffers similar issues in a country where overwhelming numbers of men struggle to find any real source of income.  Still, the tradition remains extremely important to people, and we are very happy to see these photos of the SHONA women celebrating in Congolese fashion, a life they once only dreamed of.

Here is the wedding ceremony, including a"traditional" fanta soda sharing...much like a our cake sharing...and just as sweet!

 Here is the signing of the wedding certificate.  That is the biggest smile I think I have ever seen on Mapendo's face.  In Congolese tradition the wedding party does not smile during any of the ceremonies, especially not in photos.  (Perhaps to show the seriousness of the events?)  I guess Mapendo decided to dispense with that tradition...


~And Best wishes~

Friday, April 13, 2012

Amazing Deal this weekend!

50% off all travel purses


50% off all jewelry


50% off all Tote Bags


This is such a fantastic deal that we can't offer it for long, so stock up now. We need to raise some funds to help us buy cloth and keep the ladies sewing so we're offering this deal for a very limited time! Hope to see you in our store!

Monday, March 19, 2012

A video that should go viral

PBS recently aired this video about HEAL Africa in Goma Congo.

Watch 'The Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman' on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Heal Africa operates what is widely considered the best hospital in Goma, and is one of the pioneers in the region in offering fistula surgeries to raped women.

But HEAL Africa is about more than that. It is about holistic programs and community empowerment. It is about finding solutions within the community.

Lyn Lusi, the co-founder of Heal Africa, died a few days ago and this is a great loss for the people of Goma. She's featured in this video, and you can see how humble she is.

One of my concerns about "awareness-raising" programs such as KONY 2012, is that they often over-emphasize their own effect in a region. In contrast, listen to the way Lyn talks. The organization she founded has had a profound impact in Eastern Congo and yet she says...

" I have no illusions that we're dealing with major issues that are pulling Congo apart.

There is so much evil and so much cruelty, so much selfishness, and it is like darkness. But if we can bring in some light, the darkness will not overcome the light, and that's where faith is, if you believe that.

I don't think HEAL Africa is going to empty the ocean, but we can take out a bucketful here and a bucketful there."

To me, these are the honest words of someone who has worked in the region for a long time, and who was aware of the complicated problems facing the region and who steered clear of easy solutions.

I admit the whole bucket thing is probably not as motivating as the highly amped up rhetoric behind a video like Kony 2012. But that is precisely my concern with such videos.

If we hear too often the simplified promises that we can wipe out the "world's worst criminal" right now with three easy steps, will we cease to hear the words of someone who calls us to empty the ocean by the bucketful?

As we've seen with the Arab Spring, yes Facebook can help mobilize change. And this is exciting. But the work never ends there, it stretches on for years to come.

Such work is rarely glamorous, and the solutions are never clear-cut. And unlike the Kony 2012 video which proclaims an expiration date of 2012, the call to this kind of work never expires. It will take our lifetimes.

Lyn Lusi worked in the middle of complex situation until her last breath, trying to carry a bucketful of water, and help others believe they can do the same. For that, along with countless people in Eastern Congo, I am deeply thankful.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How We Travel

Let me just say it. Because unless you have been to Congo you probably can't really imagine. It is a miracle. Point blank. The fact that you can purchase a handmade bag from Congo. I know we make it seem easy. You order it and it arrives at your door a few days later. But that package, or rather the thing inside it, has made a truly incredible journey. A journey that started like this...

That is Argentine, with Solange behind her, on her kinga. Kinga means bicycle in Swahili, or in this case I guess it means tricycle. Argentine peddles it with her hands, and usually has someone to help push her. When the ladies are done a month of sewing, Argentine loads her Kinga with a 44 pound carton of SHONA goods and peddles it to the main road, on this path...

And that is just the start of the journey...a journey that ends a number of border crossings, bus rides and plane rides later, here in New York... with each individual purchase going out to the post office, carefully escorted by myself and Baby Claire (in her ridiculously large stroller).

You can get a quality, handcrafted bag from Eastern Congo delivered to your doorstep for under $15. A miracle? Yes. How is it possible? It is possible precisely because your bag travels like starts in a tricycle and ends in a stroller. SHONA is truly the work of our hands. So next time you get a bag from SHONA, take a minute and look at that picture of Argentine again. And imagine the journey your bag has made. It will amaze you in so many ways.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

And this is life in Goma

Mapendo sitting on one of the few things she still owns, her wooden bed frame. It is covered with sheets since she no longer has a mattress.

3 weeks ago thieves entered the house where Mapendo lives while she was at the shop working. They stole pretty much everything she owns, except the wooden frame of her bed. She came home to discover that everything was gone, except the clothes on her back.

This is how the new year started for Mapendo. For 3 weeks she has worn the same clothes everyday, because she has no others, and slept on the wooden slats of her bed, since the thieves stole her mattress.

But it is worse than that. Those thieves made off not only with all of her possessions but also all of her earnings for the month of December. Mapendo normally wouldn't keep money at home, but she had been preparing to send money to her mother who has been sick, and to take care of the many other family responsibilities that she carries.

Mapendo with her nieces and nephews, who she helps care for since their father died.

The irony is this. Just that week Mapendo had called in a carpenter to take measurements for a new door on her bedroom. In a country with little security, strong doors matter a lot. Trying to be prudent, Mapendo had set aside her own money to have a new door installed. And she thinks it was this very action that drew attention to her and led to the robbery. In the irony of Goma, the very act of trying to make yourself even slightly more secure, and protect the very little that you have, can make you a target.

Mapendo spent the first 3 weeks of the new year with no mattress, no clothes and no money, and I had no idea of what was happening. I have been busy with the new baby and Mapendo was embarrassed to tell me. When I found out I gave her enough money to buy a new mattress and a few pairs of clothes. But she still desperately misses the rest of the money she lost, money that should have gone to help her family and buy food for the month. The beautiful reality of SHONA is that the money each artisan earns touches the lives of so many. But on the flip side, when that money get lost, so many people feel it.

I asked Mapendo what she has been thinking these past three weeks. She answered, "nilifunga roho". Literally that means "I closed my heart", it carries with it the idea of hardening oneself/steeling oneself for difficult times.

This is life in Goma, where too often it is necessary "kufunga roho"...and yet the people of Goma open their hearts and carry on, again and again. As for Mapendo she is anxious to get back to work, and to start again.

I'm in the process of listing our new stock in our store, so please check it out, and consider buying something from SHONA this month, in support of Mapendo as she gets on her feet again. Or if you'd like to directly send a little money her way click here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Stock thanks to Baby Claire

Three cheers for Baby Claire, who slept for 3 hours in the afternoon, letting me get most of the new SHONA stock photographed.

Keep your eyes on our website for the new stock posting in the next few days, along with a great sale! (And if you're curious about some of our new cloth colors and designs take a look at the photo below!) OK, I better run...Baby Claire is no longer sleeping!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The challenge begins

This is Claire Neema. She arrived on December 27th. She is doing great, at nine pounds, and is super chill and sleepy all day, but ready to party all night!

And these are 2 packages from Congo. Filled with SHONA merchandise. They arrived on January 3rd.

They are also doing great. Except that they are still sitting in my apartment untouched. I only opened them so I could take this picture.

So begins the challenge. Claire is a beautiful new addition to our life and we love her infinitely. But I am also a bit sleep deprived and fuzzy at this point, finding it rather difficult to accomplish...well...much of anything beyond keeping Claire fed and clothed. Well...mostly just fed. Her grandmother seems to have taken over the "clothed" part...delighting in the huge array of outfits we have been given. If it were up to me, Claire would still be in a diaper and t shirt everyday.

At some point I will actually get some pictures of these new products, that the SHONA ladies work so hard on, and you will see me announce new stuff in our online store. I'm not sure if that will be a day from now or a month from now. But at least you'll know the effort that went into getting those new pictures online, in the midst of all the pauses.

So far my experience of having a child seems to be a lot like an African rainstorm. In Africa, you glance at the sky from time to time, and sometimes you see the clouds rolling in. You know it will rain soon, and so life just pauses. If you are out walking, you stand under an overhang and wait for the rain to pass. Often you end up crowded under the overhang with a random collection of people that were passing by. And so you make new friends. Or if you are out visiting someone, they put on another cup of tea, and you settle in for a slightly longer visit. And if you were at home getting ready to go somewhere, you just wait. You put your feet up, listen to the sound of rain hitting a tin roof, and enjoy the pause in the middle of the day.

Now, my days seem to have many of these pauses. Not because of rain, but because of Claire. Claire decides she is hungry and starts crying, and my whole world is put on pause.

The African rain was one of my favorite parts of Africa. It slows life down, and reminds us that we don't really run the world according to our own schedule. Seeing the clouds roll in, and hearing the patter of rain on tin roofs, helped me to enjoy the moment, even when it isn't exactly what I planned to do. It gave me permission to surrender myself and my time.

And so here I am now, with Claire. And I hope that I can cherish these pauses as well. These breaks throughout the day (and mostly the night!!) where I put down my hands full of work and sit in a rocking chair, listening to the quiet breathing (and snuffling) of this little baby...these breaks are precious too.

In fact I've taken 2 of them, just in the midst of writing this one blog entry. So if my blog entries seem fewer and farther between, and my product photos take longer to get online, you can know that they are punctuated by the cry of a little one, who just like the sound of rain on a tin roof, helps to remind me that life is made richer because of these pauses in the midst of our days.