Friday, October 17, 2014

Would you pick up that baby?

Imagine you hear a newborn baby crying.  The mother has died, leaving the baby alone and shaking as she cries.   Would you pick the baby up?

Now what if that baby might have Ebola and you have no protective gear?  What do you do then?

It is a horrific question, but one which is shockingly real in West Africa.  (Read this shocking story from the NY Times here to find out what happens far too often and from NPR here)

In this culture it is easy to imagine a world of medical solutions.  We can comfort ourselves with the idea that we would call 911.  We can imagine loving nurses in protective gear.  And there would be an incubator to keep her warm,  Formula to feed her.  And maybe a happy ending.

But in the West African countries reeling from the Ebola crisis, these solutions most often don't exist. These are impoverished countries whose medical systems were struggling even before the crisis.  For example before the Ebola crisis the Liberian Ministry of Health listed just 50 doctors working in public health facilities serving a population of 4.3 million".(according to the President of the World Bank)

How can we expect a country like this to respond to a crisis of this scale largely on their own?   Yes, we have sent some help.  But not nearly enough.  And so we have left the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in an impossible situation.  Every day families bring their sick loved ones to the hospitals only to be turned away at the gate because there are no resources to care for them.  The Washington Post reports that as the epidemic rampages,there is increasing fear of providing maternal care for women in labor.   So pregnant women, who might possibly have Ebola, are turned away at the gates, sometimes dying in childbirth. This leaves an orphaned newborn behind, and the question of what to do with a possibly infected baby. 

And so imagine yourself in a place like this when you hear that  newborn baby cry.  With no one to call for help and no protective gear in sight, honestly, do you touch that baby?  What if it was your grandchild?  How could you not reach out a hand?

So how can we expect anything else from the people of West Africa?  As long as we continue leave people stranded with an impossible choice, the epidemic will continue to spread.  Because as long as medical care is  unreachable and protective gear is unavailable, people will continue to offer their sick loved ones the only thing they can, a comforting hand and a place to die.   No matter how much that puts them at risk of spreading the disease. 

But there should be another option.  We may not have a cure for Ebola but we definitely do have the resources to care for people much more safely.    We could provide a massive response in these 3 hard-hit countries, with adequate protective gear, medical equipment, and trained professionals.  Our government is capable of mounting massive wars, we are capable of this.  And it would make a huge difference to the course this epidemic takes.  But there is no will politically.  And that will not change until the American public begins to demand it.

So how is it that we have fallen silent?  Or worse, fallen into circular discussions about how much we are in danger here in the US.  No matter what you think about grounding flights or closing our borders, these are only secondary measures and will never contain the epidemic on their own.  The best way to make ourselves safe here is to end the epidemic there. 

But the epidemic in Africa continues to spread.  And we continue to remain largely uninvolved.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be human.  I have full faith in the humanity of the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.  Without any other resources, and in the face of very real danger there are still people carrying a bleeding woman to the hospital or picking up an orphaned baby.  They refuse to turn away.

The question is whether we ourselves will find the humanity to share our resources and help them do it more safely.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

In honor of Labor Day, I thought these words from Argentine were fitting.  Here they are translated into English and in the video you can listen to Argentine speaking in Swahili.  

"Me, I am thanking God very much because of this work we have... Before we had a very poor life...we were sewing in a shop...and they were "eating us" (taking advantage of us). We didn't even have the hope that we could get that we could see is helping us and helping our families."

Those words strike me...
"work that we could see is helping us and helping our families."  What a seemingly small thing to ask for.  The video continues and Argentine goes on to list all the things that they do with the money they earn.  She mentions "small things" like buying vegetables to eat and soap to wash their children's clothes.  And then she talks about the money having made it possible for them to flee Congo when the war escalated and find safety in a refugee camp.  And then she goes on to say that she probably would have died in child birth if she hadn't had the money from her work to pay for a good hospital and medicine.  Finally she points to the young woman sitting behind her in the video, with the baby. She explains that this  is her sister in law with a new baby, who has also fled the war, and who Argentine is providing for through her earnings.

To my American mind it is a scattered list with vegetables and laundry soap in between references to near-death experiences.  And yet in a world like Congo it makes perfect sense.  On the edge of poverty and war, there are no small things.  Buying vegetables is as vital as fleeing war.  And the SHONA Congo women have done both through your purchases.

In honor of Labor Day we would like to thank each of you for creating a world where Mapendo, Argentine, Solange, and Riziki can labor and reap the fruit of their labor.  Thank you for supporting the work of their hands.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My problem with "reusable bags"

This is how it happens.  I am at the grocery store.  

Finally, miraculously, with my 2 year old daughter in tow, I am finished shopping.

I get to the check out line and realize I have no cloth bags with me.  I stare at the clerk as she readies her stockpile of plastic bags.  I calculate how many of those bags she is going to use on my purchases.  10? 15? Does she really have to double bag everything?  I consider the possibility of juggling my purchases home.  Or simply abandoning them on the counter.  But then I glance at my daughter as she ogles the candy display, and decide I have to get realistic.  And I have got to get out of here.

So I reach to my right.  Where I can happily buy a few brightly colored reusable bags for 99 cents each.  "What's a few dollars for the environment?" I tell myself.

But somehow it never quite sits right.  Either way, disposable or reusable, my stomach churns.   

Because there is something wrong with a disposable plastic bag.  But there is also something wrong with a reusable bag that costs a dollar.  Or 59 cents.

It's too cheap.
I want to know who is making these bags.  And how much their workers are getting paid. 

Because what on earth is the value of my "going green" so that I can support sweatshops?  

Still, stuck in that line, wavering between disponsable and "reusable" I choose reusable.  I promise myself I will really re-use this bag.  I will hang it by the door, and remember it next time I go to the store.

But sadly, this bag is utterly forgettable.  More likely than not, this bag will be stuck, like a dozen similarly colored bags, in a drawer somewhere I never quite remember.

So what is one to do?

I don't have any easy answers, but it strikes me that maybe this is part of the problem.  Maybe real bags don't belong in the checkout lane next to tabloids and cheap candy.  If I can buy new "reusable bags" every time I am at the store, something has gone wrong.  Maybe we have made "going green" just a little too cheap and easy.  Maybe all those "eco-friendly bags" are still far too forgettable and expendable.   

I would like to issue a challenge today.  Buy one of our stunning new SHONA shoppers.

 Yes, at $20, they aren't that cheap.  But this is a real bag which will carry your groceries for years to come. Do we really want it to come cheaper?  These bags honor the real work it takes to handcraft them in one of the most war torn regions of the world.  They are beautiful, durable, and they come with amazing stories behind them.  Leave the tag on and tell someone the story.


Because here is the thing.  These bags, and the stories behind them, are unforgettable. They are the bags you will not only remember to bring with you, but you will look forward to it.  And isn't that the point?  Buy a bag you will remember.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The difference between 12 cents and 7 dollars....

Before you buy that brightly colored bag...
the one that looks like it must be "fair trade"
Consider the difference between 12 cents and 7 dollars.

Stop and ask the person selling tthe bag, "Who made this bag?"
And then ask how much that person actually earned.
And if they can't tell you, then let's be honest.
It is probably a mass-produced, factory-made bag, just like you would find at Walmart.  Just in a different color.

Changing the color doesn't change how it was made.
And just because something looks like a celebration of another culture, doesn't mean it wasn't made in a sweatshop.  

Consider the graphic below and you will see an average $14 shirt allows for 12 cents for labor.

 A similar graphic could be made for most bags.  The person who made the bag usually earns only cents for their work. So when you see those trendy, "ethnic" looking bags for sale at a street festival, don't assume they have a beautiful story behind them.  They usually don't. 

 Pick up a Signature SHONA Congo bag instead. And you will know exactly who made your bag. It is written right there on the tag. right next to her picture.  And more importantly you will know that the woman who sewed that bag earned $7 for that bag. Compare that to 12 cents in a factory.

SHOP SHONA and celebrate real beauty.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Do the SHONA women blow your mind?

Have you ever noticed that most of the links on Facebook promise to be "mind-blowing"?   
I mean the lead in to almost every video that is posted proclaims something like...

"at 1:00 my jaw dropped."
"at 2:37 my mind was blown."

Almost nothing is posted without a promise of...

"This is unbelievable!" or perhaps "This will change the way you see everything"

Clearly we live in a world that is endlessly fascinating and shocking.  Or so they tell me.

It becomes hard to compete.  I mean should I even bother posting a link if it doesn't promise to change the world, or at least blow your mind?

I struggle with this question a lot.

For the past 6 years I have worked with 4 amazing women.  In all honesty these are 4 of the most poor and vulnerable women in the world. 

I could traffic in catch-phrases.  After all the women are refugees.  They are disabled.  They are poor and vulnerable.

And they are amazing.  And inspiring.  And complicated.  And their lives deftly refuse to be summarized into any kind of 3 minute clip.

One of our customers recently wrote  a review which read
I have been astounded over the years about the stamina, hard work ethic and product quality and development of the Shona Congo women. In the face of overwhelming odds they have continued their work...these women are the strongest I know in this day."
  And that's the thing that most of our customers would attest to... Watching these women on such a personal level, year after year, is truly mind-blowing.  But it isn't a 3 minute clip.  It is a friendship that lasts a lifetime. 

SHONA is tiny, with no outside funding and no staff.  This sometimes drives me crazy, because it is hard for us to get our message out there. 

But it has also made us incredibly real.  You all have followed the very real lives of these women.  You, our friends, have fled war with these women.  You have followed them to refugee camps, prayed as they gave birth to their children.  And touched the stitches they have sewn with their own hands.

And I'm willing to gamble that somewhere along the journey these women have blown your mind. That they have changed the way you see the world.

If that is true, would you do this for us?
1:  Share this video
2. But before you hit "share", make it personal. Add your own story, telling your friends 1 way that the SHONA Congo women blow your mind.  Or 1 way that they have made you see the world differently.

In the end, I think back to all those 3 minute clips on Facebook.  The ones that promise to blow my mind and change the way I see the world.

Mostly they have just blown my 3 minutes.  In an amusing way of course.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Sometimes, we all just need a little amusement.

But we also need real friendships.  We need to share this journey of life.  My guess is that you buy SHONA because Argentine, Mapendo, Riziki, and Solange are real to you.  Would you take just a minute, and help make us real to somebody new? You can hit email this post to a friend directly below, or visit our Facebook page and share the video from there. 
Thank you!



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

One Mama in Congo

This is a small shack in the heart of Goma.   It is where Mapendo's sister lives, with 7 of her children.    She is a widow, with 9 children, raising her children on her own, with extremely limited resources.  Mapendo has taken in 2 of the girls (Neema and Ziada), and the other 7 remain here.

This is the shack, that 2 nights ago, thieves invaded.  Breaking down the door.  Threatening guns and taking everything.  The mattresses, the clothes, the pots and pans. Mapendo's sister provides for her family by selling beans in the market, and had recently borrowed money to buy beans and other items to sell. The thieves took all of those supplies, leaving only the debt behind.   

Eventually the neighbors heard the family's cries for help, and started raising a commotion, scaring the thieves away, before they could harm any of the kids. We are very thankful for that.

Here is the family (Mapendo's sister is on the left, all the others are her children).  Here they are in their stoic poses, as is traditional for photos in Congo.

And here they are, the older ones breaking into laughter, and even Mapendo's sister biting her lip to keep from laughing.

These photos were taken today.  2 days after being threatened with guns and losing virtually all that they had.

This is Congo.  Where a family this poor can still be robbed.  Where the next day you wake up, and go on.  Stoic faces, and laughter interspersed.

Let's do this for Mapendo's sister, and all of her children.  For every single item we sell today, SHONA will donate 25% of the sales price of that item to Mapendo's sister.  Buy a $20 bag and you are putting $5 directly into Mapendo's sister's hands.  Keep in mind that the SHONA Congo ladies are paid for every item they sew, when they sew it, so you are supporting 2 amazing causes: the dignity of an incredible group of artisans, and the emergency situation of one mama with a home full of children.

Shop by the end of the day on Thursday, May 1st and we will donate 25% of your order's total value to mapendo's sister. Can you think of a better gift for Mother's Day?   

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The waves in Mapendo's life

So what is happening with Mapendo?

Mapendo is a strong and stable young woman. She works really hard.  But lately she has been wondering where her family's next meal will come from.   It is not one thing that went wrong.  It is a thousand little things.  One after another.  The waves keep crashing.

It started in the fall.  You may remember how Mapendo was traveling with her 2 young nieces and they got lost. For 2 weeks she searched for them. She couldn't sleep, could barely breathe, fearing the worst. And thankfully they were found. But not before she spent all her money looking for them. And then she had to pay what amounted to a ransom fee to set them free. But still, they were safe.

Around that time, people started telling Mapendo that she looked pale. Something wasn't right. She went to the clinic in the refugee camp and they told her she was pregnant. She refused to believe it. She was living in a refugee camp with her husband, her 2 nieces and her 1 year old son. She was not ready for another child.

For months she had been trying to get on birth control. But the doctors in the refugee camp refused to give her birth control until she got her first period back.

Suffice it to say that first period had never come. So here she was pregnant again.

The refugee camp had very poor medical care, so she went to the local Burundi hospital where Argentine had given birth the year before. It had an excellent maternal health program and Argentine had a very good experience there. But Mapendo was no longer welcome there. The doctors said the prices had been raised and Mapendo would never be able to pay. They advised her to go home to Congo.

You see in Congo a peace deal had been signed with the rebels, and there was increasing pressure in Burundi for the refugees to go home.

So Mapendo used all her money to get back to Congo as quickly as she could, before her pregnancy made it impossible to travel.

Thankfully she made it back to Congo. But immediately her son became sick, and she spent a week in the hospital with him. And then her husband got sick, and he was in the hospital for a week.

None of these hospitals are free. You pay for the bed, you pay for the medicine, you pay for the doctor.

And Mapendo began eyeing her situation warily. How could she sew enough to save some money for the new baby's arrival? She had only 2 months until the baby was due.

And then the doctor declared that she wasn't 6 and a half months along, as he had thought. In fact she was 8 and a half months along. The baby could come any time. And Mapendo sewed madly. Trying to save up what little money she could.

That money went for the entrance fee to the hospital. And there she was in the hospital, with a new baby in her arms, and a lot of pain from a difficult c-section. And no money to pay the remaining hospital bill. If you don't pay your hospital bill they don't let you leave the hospital in Congo. They hold you there until you pay. But each day they hold you, the bill goes up, another night is added to the stay.

So her bill kept going up and meanwhile her first born, Jonathan, who was at home with his father, developed a hernia. He cries a lot and can't sit down. And Mapendo couldn't even comfort him because she couldn't get out of the hospital.

SHONA loaned Mapendo the money to get out of the hospital. SO now she is home. And she desperately wants to get back to sewing. It is the only way she can keep food on the table. And still her son needs the hernia operation, and her newborn is only a few weeks old. And she is still healing from a 2nd c-section. And her metal leg brace has broken so she can no longer stand. 

The challenges of poverty, of disability, and of war, are huge. In the midst of all this, it can seem impossible to change the tide. Indeed, what human hands can change the tide? But sometimes all any of us needs is that first unexpected reprieve. One time where we eye the coming wave, and hold our breathe, only to find that it didn't touch us. One wave falling short, reminds us that the tide can change. It does change.

So that's why I want to give Mapendo an unexpected gift.  A piece of grace. And the hope that the tide will change. 

SHOP in the next 24 hours and you will be supporting SHONA and 

putting an extra $10 directly in Mapendo's hands.  

Let's change the tide.