Thursday, December 5, 2013

Home for the Holidays

Recently my husband, my daughter and I moved.  To a new city, a new apartment.  And there is something about this new apartment, or maybe just the cold outside the door, that makes me want to decorate for the holidays.  I want lights in the window.  And a wreath on the door.

So far none of those things have happened.

I have been so busy trying to keep up with SHONA that my head is spinning and I simply collapse into bed at the end of the night.  The ladies have been working for months now, to keep our shelves full this holiday season.  And I have been working to keep your orders going out the door, and new stuff coming in.

I have to admit that sometimes, especially around the holidays, I am tempted to imagine that my home wasn't strewn with packing boxes and colorful cloth.  Instead maybe I could just have that tasteful wreath on the door.  And maybe I could have those silent nights, those ones where all is calm...
And then I think of the SHONA Congo ladies.  Or I hear one of their voices.

And I pack another order. Because this is the busy season, and it matters to the ladies.

A few days ago, Argentine and Mapendo returned home.  Almost exactly a year ago, they fled their homes and their country.  And now they return.

Argentine returned carrying her daughter Rachel in her arms.  Rachel was born in Burundi.  She was born a refugee and now she returns to a home she has never seen.

Mapendo returned with her son, Jonathan.  But she also returned with a new baby waiting to be born.  She is 6 months pregnant.  Hopefully that baby will never know life in a refugee camp.  The baby is the reason Mapendo and Argentine came back to Congo.  The health care at the camp where she was living was very poor, and she wanted to go back to Congo where she knew she could find a doctor...and fruits and vegetables to eat.  Those are scarce in the camps.  So when the peace deal was signed a month ago, and the rebels started disarming, Mapendo began to count the days.  Praying that the peace would last.

Who knows if the peace will last?  Mapendo and Argentine return to a country that is still far from stable.  And they return to look for new homes.  The places where they had been living were long ago occupied by someone else.  But their loved ones are still there, eager to have them back. 

And their workshop?  The one they built with their own money, on their own is still standing.  With table and chairs inside.

I think of that workshop, how silent and empty it has stood all these months.  And then I picture it in a few months, full of packing boxes and colorful cloths.  And the whir of sewing machines and the songs of praise.

And I turn back to the project at hand.  Unpacking a new box of stock that has just arrived and then packing an order for a customer.  Sending joy and hope in both directions.   Happy holidays to you all!


Thank you all for keeping us busy this holiday season.  Your purchases mean so much.
I promise I would still love to pack your order! 
 We just got in our last shipment before the holidays!
 Now is the time to order!!

**And for those of you wondering about the other 2 SHONA Congo ladies, Riziki and Solange are still in the refugee camps in Burundi.  Solange is recovering well from her operation, and Riziki is expecting a baby this month.  They are both still sewing.  They will return to Congo in a few months if all goes well.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Life on the Edge: Part II

Because sometimes there is a happy ending!

After almost 2 weeks missing, Neema and Ziada have been found!  They are OK and they were reunited with Mapendo this afternoon!  We are all extremely thankful.

Let me go back a bit to tell you what happened.  As you probably already know, Neema and Ziada had been traveling with Mapendo.  They had last been seen waiting for a bus in the city of Bukavu.  Mapendo had bought them tickets and told them she would meet them at the other end of that part of the journey because her son was sick.

The girls sat and waited for the bus.  But then the bus was canceled for lack of passengers and the girls didn't know what to do.  They had only a little money and were in a city far from home.  They tried to call family but as is often the case, the phone didn't go through. 

So they sat at the bus station watching the sun go down, and a woman finally offered to take them to her home.  They went with her, along strange winding roads, far from the center of the city.  They were given some food and a place to sleep.  The next day they asked to be taken back to the bus station but the woman assured them that Mapendo would come to find them, that she was being notified.  And so they waited.

After a few days Neema, the older girl, waited for the woman to leave the house, then snuck outside.  She made it down the road, to a place crowded with many cars, and had no idea where to go.  Afraid of becoming lost and leaving her sister behind at the house, she went back.

After 10 days, the woman finally decided to take the girls to the local radio station to make a public service announcement and find their family.

The radio station saw the 2 girls and immediately called Mapendo.  Mapendo had been to the station more than a week earlier.  As soon as the girls were lost, she went there to make her own public service announcement, asking for help in finding the girls.  That announcement had been playing on the radio,3 times a day for over a week.  This is common procedure for lost children in Congo.  With no amber alerts or police investigations to turn to, you can only ask your neighbors for help, and the radio reaches into almost every household.  Unfortunately this leads to a lot of false leads.  Mapendo had already raced back from Burundi to Congo once, with the promise that someone had the girls, only to find it was someone demanding a cash payment, with no proof that he really knew anything of the girls. 

But when the radio station called Mapendo directly, her heart soared.  She thought this story could be true, if the radio station was involved..  They said there was a woman who had found the girls and that Mapendo could come and pick them up, but that the woman was demanding "compensation" for her expenses.

And it turned out to be true.  The girls were there, and they were safe.  Mapendo says they are much skinnier than when she last saw them, but that they are by all accounts unharmed.  They are all extremely happy to be going home together.

I talked to Mapendo on Thursday, a day before she got the call from the radio station.  She kept using the word "ninaishiwa".  The verb means "to have none left", it is often used for money or food but Mapendo was using the verb on herself, as in she had nothing left, inside herself.  She'd come to the end, of herself. 

And so, it is truly a miracle that these girls appeared in what seemed to be the darkest hour.  It is a miracle that there is a happy ending to a story that was far more likely to go the other direction.  Bad things can happen anywhere, but with a war escalating, a population that is in flux, and far too many young men with guns...

But the girls are found and they are well!  And yes, perhaps the woman who took the girls in, seized an opportunity to make some money.  She certainly could have brought them in sooner (like the day after she found them).  

But then again, she could have left them there.  If she hadn't taken them, imagine who else might have. So we will take this happy ending and celebrate it for what it is.  2 young girls brought home safely.  Mapendo's voice was trembling with joy when I talked to her today and I am pretty sure that she will sleep tonight for the first time in 2 weeks.

Mapendo sends her deepest appreciation to all of you for your prayers and your encouragement, and for making it possible for her to get Neema and Ziada and bring them home.

Neema means "grace" in Swahili.  Ziada means "an increase, an addition".  To me, this ending feels like just that, an overwhelming addition of grace.  And we are so very thankful.  


Friday, August 30, 2013

Life on the edge

This is the story of Neema and Ziada, Mapendo's nieces.  They are currently missing.  

This video shows Mapendo making a purse. The girl with the gorgeous smile in the background is Ziada. 

Here is how the girls got lost. It is kind of a long story, but gives a clear picture not only of this individual catastrophe, but also of what it means to live on the edge.

Last week Mapendo returned to Congo in order to visit her mother who was very sick in the hospital.  Unfortunately last week, the fighting also escalated in Congo again.  Mortars and rockets hit the city of Goma and also the bordering town in Rwanda, leaving at least 13 dead and many more wounded.  Mapendo was in the center of town with her 2 nieces, Neema and Ziada, when fighting seemed to escalate, the population fled to their homes and the road back to the girls home on the outskirts of town was unsafe.  

Mapendo decided to board a boat right away from the center of town and leave with both girls.  In fact both girls had been begging her to take them with her, but she had previously been unable to take the older niece because she didn't have the correct paperwork for crossing the border.  But then bombs hit, people were scared, and Mapendo decided that the best thing to do was to get out of town with the girls.

They crossed the lake in a boat, and arrived at the town of Bukavu.  But then Mapendo found herself in an impossible position.  Her son, 16 months old, became quite sick.  She wanted to get him back to Burundi as quickly as possible.  But her young nieces didn't have the correct paperwork to travel with her on the most direct bus route (through a neighboring country).  She knew they needed to go the long way around in to avoid problems at the border crossing.  So she decided to send the 2 girls on the longer bus route while she and her son took the shorter bus.  Meeting at the other end.  The girls are 9 and 14.  They never made it to the other end. 

Mapendo returned to where the bus had left from, and it turns out that the bus never left, because it didn't have enough passengers.  The company decided to cancel the trip.  They said they had returned the ticket money to the girls and told them to come back the next day.  That was Monday, and Mapendo has now been searching for them for 4 days.

Perhaps in the US, this wouldn't have happened.  Children of this age would be able to call home.  But in Congo, where there is no home phone and cell phone connections come and go, it is not clear whether they would have known a number to call, or whether it would have gone through.  The girls are in a different city, and telling someone their home address isn't so easy.  Houses on streets aren't numbered, and in poor areas streets don't even have names.  Announcements have been made on the radio, Mapendo's husband left Burundi and traveled back to Congo to help Mapendo with the search, and they have used every ounce of their resources, and borrowed what they didn't have, to try and find the girls.

These are Mapendo's nieces, both of whom have lived with Mapendo on and off for the past few years.  Their father died a few years ago and since then Mapendo has taken them under her wing and they have been helping with her son.

When we, as Westerners, hear about people living in poverty and war, it is sometimes hard to imagine what that looks like.  The first thing that pops into my head is often those infomercials that show starving children with bloated bellies and flies swarming.  But, even though that does exist, that has never quite matched up the worlds I saw.  I have always been struck by the vibrancy in the midst of poverty and war, people somehow go on living.

The thing is, they go on living, but they live on the edge.  They live without back-up systems.   They live without a thousand little protections, all those small resources, that help us recover from disaster here.   For Neema and Ziada there is no investigation and there is no amber alert.

But what the people of Congo have, is what we all have.  Faith and love.   For Mapendo and her family they are praying for the kindness of strangers to bring those girls home.  The kindness of others. And to tell the truth, sometimes that is all any of us has.  Thank you to all our friends for keeping these young girls in your thoughts and prayers. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Orphans in Congo

Can we talk about orphans without talking about international adoption?  Bear with me here, I'm going to try.
Because "orphan" can mean a lot of things.  There has been massive confusion about the term in the last few years.  Many people have cited the statistic that there are 163 million orphans in the world.  And so we picture 163 million children languishing alone in orphanages.

But of course, that is not the case.  The statistics from UNICEF and other global organizations refer to children who have lost at least 1 parent.  Only about 18 million of those orphans are double orphans, meaning they have lost both parents.

And of those 18 million children, many, if not most, have extended families that could potentially care for them. 

 In Congo, and in many other places, there is in fact a strong culture of extended family care. Solange, one of the SHONA Congo women, lost both her parents when she was a child.  Despite extreme poverty and living in the midst of a war-zone, Solange's uncle still took Solange in.  I doubt it occurred to him to do anything else.  In the face of extremely difficult situations, Congolese families regularly take in relatives, even distant relatives.  They take in children who have been orphaned, or whose parents just can't care for them right now.

But wait.  That doesn't mean the rest of us are off the hook.

Because what they are attempting is a Herculean task.  The loss of a parent is crushing, and even with the best of intentions, a remaining parent or an extended family often struggles to care for children in this type of loss.

Here is the reality.  Orphaned children often have some form of family that is able to take them in.  But what they and their families often don't have is support, emotional or financial. 

 And that can make all the difference in the world in whether that child will eventually end up on the street.

Consider this...One of the first things that often happens to children after they lose a parent is they are pulled out of school.  The family just can't continue to pay.  But imagine how that feels to the child.  They lose their world, twice-over. How likely is it, that even with family around, they will feel isolated, stigmatized and lost?

And how can they find words to express the loss, in a world where so much energy is expended just on keeping food on the table?  Suddenly the extended family finds one more mouth at the table, and it is all they can do just to make sure there is enough food.

But we all need more than food on the table.  Consider how much access we, in the Western world, have to grief counseling, to therapy, to support.   In Congo, there are precious few programs offering any type of therapy to grieving children and almost no one offering support and education to their caregivers.

 That is why the New Hope Center  matters.  It is a small program in Goma, which serves this population.  They work with children who have lost loved ones, keeping them in their homes, helping them find a safe place for their grief, paying their school fees and supporting and educating their families, so that together they can find a way forward.   It isn't easy, but it is possible.  And isn't that our first responsibility?  To support what is possible, locally?

 In the 6 years I have worked with the SHONA ladies, one of the most humbling things to me  has been watching how they accept responsibility for their extended families.

Argentine and her mother, with a orphaned baby (the mother, a relative, died shortly after the birth).  Argentine pays for food and medicine for the baby.  Argentine's mother has taken in the baby despite extremely difficult circumstances and very limited resources.  You can support Argentine and her mother in their generosity by buying the work of Argentine's hands.

  They regularly take in nieces and cousins and all kinds of relatives, even when they have so little themselves.  I can't count how many school fees they pay, and medicines they buy for what to me seems like an unending crush of family members.  I have often been tempted to say "Come on!  You don't have have to do that!".  But I finally realized that what to me what seems an unreasonable request, to them is an honor, a privilege.  Even when they are pressed to the edge, they desperately want to throw open their doors, and care for others.   

But the SHONA ladies aren't unique.  Daily, Congolese families are doing just that.  They are throwing open their doors and taking in children who have been orphaned.  Let's make sure they have the resources they deserve.

Check out the New Hope Center, and please buy the necklaces and bracelets that these children make.  As part of the programs at the New Hope Center, the children draw pictures of their experiences and turn them into these amazing paper-beads.  The money from these sales goes to keep the children in school, and that can make all the difference in the world to them.  So let's do it.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Happy Mother's Day, a little late

I've done a lot of thinking in the past year about motherhood.  With a little one in my arms, or actually racing through our far-too-small apartment, I suppose that is natural.

But I've also been thinking about motherhood because Mapendo, Solange, Riziki, and Argentine all became first-time moms this past year.

With their high risk pregnancies, and all the challenges they have faced, I feel like I have been holding my breath all year.

Mapendo was the first to give birth.  When her son was born without any complications, we all celebrated. 

But then, in those following months, he got sick so many times.  And I think every parent can look at this picture of Mapendo in the hospital with her son, and know the feeling...the feeling of waiting, with your back against the wall, and hoping your little one will be ok. 

And then Solange's daughter arrived.  A fiesty little girl, full of life, just like her mama~


 And Then Riziki's son arrived 2 months premature.  And I spent countless hours wondering what 3 pounds feels (My daughter was born at 9 pounds!) 

And miraculously, after months in the hospital, Daniel,turned out just fine!  And with a very thankful mother!

And then the war escalated, and all these mamas had to flee with their little ones.  And I wondered what it feels like to sit with in a refugee camp with your baby in your arms.  
  And at the same time, I imagined how hard that cement floor in the refugee camp must have felt to Argentine, at 7 months pregnant (above, in the red hat).

But somehow, miraculously, we got Argentine out of the camp and into a good hospital.


And her daughter arrived, a stranger in a foreign land, yet incredibly healthy, and somehow, in the midst of it all, safe .

So I have spent much of this year, thinking about the joys and the traumas of motherhood.  The way that none of us can protect our little ones from all that exists in this world, and yet the ways that we try to.  Because when given the choice, we all will leave home and country, sleep on cold, hard floors, and carry all our possessions on our backs, if we believe for one second that it might buy our children even a little more safety.

But when I talk to the SHONA women, we don't usually talk about all of that.  We talk a lot about how Promese and Jonathan are learning to stand and walk.


 How Victori Rachel Ruth loves to eat!  How Daniel is feeling just fine.  About how my daughter, Claire, makes so much noise while we're trying to talk!  We talk about the challenges of childbirth and breastfeeding, and about how many clothes there are to wash now.

I wanted to write something about SHONA for Mother's Day.  Because so much of this past year for the SHONA women has indeed been about becoming mothers.  And, I might as well be honest, because Mother's Day would be a great marketing tie-in for SHONA.  But in case you haven't noticed, I'm a bit late on my marketing strategy.  All the flowers have been bought, and all the gifts given.

But then again maybe that is all beside the point.  All the mamas are still here, no matter what the date is.  And SHONA isn't so much about celebrating mothers for a day, but about empowering them for a lifetime.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In Celebration

Recently stumbled upon these photos which were taken a while ago, before the SHONA ladies had to flee Congo.  They are photos from celebrations of births and weddings.  The SHONA ladies have had a lot of both in the past year.

I love these photos because they are what Congo looks like.  They are what Congo feels like.  And they are home to the SHONA ladies.

The ladies are doing well in their new country.  They are slowly getting back on their feet.  But it is never easy.  And they think often of their family and friends.  They worry for their families, many of whom are in areas that continue to be shaken by fighting.  It is hard to keep in touch, with cell phone connections that barely work at best.  And they think of all the joyful times.  Here are a few...


Preparing Food

Bringing Drinks

 Argentine, with a pot of food on her head, in traditional celebration

Generations meet (Mapendo's son with a great grandmother)

 Hands raised in celebration! (Solange with her husband)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Stronger Together

It was around midnight when I received a text message.  It read
"banataka kutuua."
In English that is
"They want to kill us."

I had been happily selecting cloth for our spring collection.  It had felt so good to finally be getting back to normal.  The SHONA ladies had spent the last 2 months running in circles it seemed.  They fled Goma when rebels invaded the city in November.  After a few long weeks they returned home, but then 2 of the ladies chose to flee again because they still didn't feel safe.  Now finally we had 3 of the ladies home again, feeling comfortable and ready to sew.  Not only that, the 4th lady, Argentine, who had remained in Burundi, had found a good hospital, and after a very anxious month, was finally receiving good healthcare as she waited for her child to be born.  I could finally breathe.  And look at all the pretty cloth. 

And then I got that message.  The one that just falls like a stone to the pit of your stomach.  It didn't help that it was midnight.  Or that I was home alone with Baby Claire, because my husband was in Haiti on a work trip. 

The ladies had been attacked during the night by armed robbers.  The robbers went to each of their houses.  They had targeted the women because of their work, perhaps because they knew the ladies were getting ready to buy cloth.  At any rate, they were convinced there would be money around.  So they went to all 3 houses waving guns and knives.  But the worst was at one of the houses.  They broke down the door, found one of the SHONA women inside along with the children she cares for.  Frustrated when she didn't produce enough money, they put a knife to her and said they might as well go ahead and rape her.  She responded "well, you might as well kill me then."  One of the other SHONA women, who lives next door heard what was happening and started to scream.  That raised the other neighbors who also started to scream.  And the thieves ran, but not before threatening to return the following night. 

I've always hated old Western movies.  But after living in Goma, I understand them a little better.  This is what it feels like when there are no police to call, no system to rely on.  In Goma, at night, everyone stays behind locked doors.  And if you hear thieves outside, the last thing you do is go out there.  But there is a sense from the population that they have to rise up.  Every once in a while a nieghborhood bands together and mobs a group of bandits, often throwing stones and killing them.  But the rest of the nights, the bandits usually win. 

In this case, I cannot state how thankful I am that the SHONA women are safe.  For whatever reason, the shouts of neighbors were enough to scare them away. 

You know what I did after getting that message and talking to the ladies? I was restless at 1 in the morning, and sick with worry about whether we would be able to move the ladies to a safer place.

I prayed.  And I posted a small plea for thoughts and prayers on our facebook page.  This blog entry is no advertisement for Facebook, a format I alternately love and hate.  But you know what? Someone responded right away, and then someone else.  And by the next day I knew, if nothing else, these ladies were a little less alone. 

And I think of the SHONA ladies, one with a knife to her throat and another next door, hearing what is happening, and all she can do is shout.  But somehow, miraculously, that was enough. 

Sometimes I feel like that.  I feel powerless, shouting into the darkness.  But then someone grabs my hand, or my heart.  And I remember that which I have always known to be true.  We are all stronger together.

Thank you to all our SHONA friends for your love and support this past week!