Though crippled by the roaring poverty levels,
But seeing uncountable rays of light after learning,
The African woman has been empowered
And cannot let this chance go unnoticed,
Sewing Hope is sowing a ray of Light”
From a poem by Sewing Hope translator
This summer twenty-one volunteers from across the U.S. journeyed to Uganda to reach out to women who have been abandoned, most as a result of the AIDS pandemic or polygamy, which is endemic in this poverty stricken nation. The non-profit, Fount of Mercy, organized the trip and sponsors the Sewing Hope initiative. Among this band were four Local 764 seamstresses and drapers who worked with old treadle machines, being nursed along – there was no power in their ersatz classrooms, set in the back room of a humble clothing shop owned by a local tailor or in the occasional village hut.
The agency grew out of Michelle Averna’s 2006 Master’s in Intercultural Studies. Her thesis presented a paradigm proffering assistance to indigenous organizations instituting vocational education over a six-year period. The goal would be autonomy and sustainability. As Michelle says, “we can’t leave here without empowering them to realize their vast potential.”
There are 2 million orphans in Uganda alone – abandoned by their fathers, their mothers all too often victims of undiagnosed AIDS or other illnesses. With an average lifespan of only forty years, fragility is fatal. These innocents are foisted upon the extended families already stretched to the limit. The orphans, all too often, are the last in line for nurturing and simple sustenance. In this poverty stricken nation, the physically infirm are often cast off; they are viewed as too great a burden with little or no “chance for a return” on an investment of caring; it’s not cold, it is necessity.
Ms Averna’s paradigm offers an opportunity for professionals, from bakers and jewelry makers to health care workers and, in the case of Sewing Hope, seamstresses and drapers to provide fundamental skills to local women so they can bring professional quality products to area markets for sale or barter. The result will be sustainability as well as autonomy for many of the women of this beleaguered nation – no longer will they be victims.
In 2007, Tara Hawks joined the team when, as her intro says, she realized that it wasn’t just doctors and engineers that could make a difference, teaching someone a basic skill like sewing, which she mastered along side her mother, could be life changing. One trip to Jinja, Uganda’s second largest city, and its’ outlying villages sold her. She is now Vocational Development Director and Sewing Hope is her brainchild. Twice a year she travels to the country with groups of volunteers numbering, so far, from two to five. Her goal, as well as Michelle’s, is to be able to spend still more time in Africa. While there is one paid staff person residing in Africa, Michelle and Tara are volunteers. The in-country staff member coordinates the programs among the local groups and villages.
Markets are the “malls” of Uganda. Teaching these women to create garments from the vibrantly colored fabric available puts food on the table and pride in their hearts. This year, Sewing Hope’s third, the emphasis was on training the women to teach others, the first step on the road to turning the classes over to an autonomous, woman conducted program within the six year goal.
The women who embarked on this challenging journey all had their own reasons. Obviously, they are imbued with the spirit of adventurers, and a drive to be of service. They range from their mid-twenties to, well, “old enough to know better, and young enough to do it anyway,” as one teacher described herself. Amazingly, they all paid their own way. Some had fund raising drives among family, friends and colleagues, while some depleted their savings.
Polly Fossey, 26, a Draper and Local 764 member, made the trip with her boyfriend, Jamie Northrup. He was there to teach technology skills. She was there for five weeks, the longest of all the volunteers, except Tara. Polly estimates her costs at around $4,000.00, half of that being airfare. She has a degree in Eastern Asian Studies from Boston University and loves travel. Yeah, I know, East Asian Studies to Broadway Draping, a natural flow, but she, “loves sewing and sharing with others.”
While Polly was skeptical going in, she walked away feeling she had made a difference. She noted that the language classes, conducted three times a week by the local translators were a high point for her and the fact that she, “was training teachers that would continue providing skills to the women long after I was gone,” to be a special reward.
Some of the classes, especially for the more talented students, were grueling for both instructor and pupil. While only two weeks in duration they were eight hours a day and had ten students per class, that’s a lot of monitoring through an inexperienced translator to totally uneducated women, not to mention those treadle machines.
Tara tells the story of the day they brought pads and pencils to a class to allow the women to explore design. The catch was, these adult women, most with children, had never so much as held a pencil before. After patiently showing them how to properly hold the instrument in there hands – weathered beyond their years – the women were laughing and creating drawings she described as, “awesome, like kids’ drawings.” Tara says that within three weeks the women’s sketchpads were filled. Again and again the returning Sewing Hope teachers spoke of the joyous spirit and deep desire to learn in these women, which fueled their spirits.
Indeed, their spirits needed lifting occasionally. Bobbi Morse, another 764 member, describes the food as, “awful, just starchy and bland.” The local taxi’s are called “bodas” and are no more than mopeds or small motorcycles whose passengers ride on the back over the rutted dirt roads. Bobbi writes that Ugandans have dubbed the Bodas “The African Massage”. Women traditionally ride sidesaddle – Ahh, the glamour of service. Tara admits to an ungraceful dumping on a boda when the driver over-swerved to avoid oncoming traffic. Thankfully, her dignity was the accident’s only serious victim.
One woman particularly inspired and touched Bobbi. Her name is Miriam, in her late twenties, she was one of her students. Miriam has lived with legs atrophied since childhood. She moves about swaddled in an off white tarp stained red from the dirt of the roads,”picture 13 gallon kitchen garbage bags tied around her waist and under her butt and down under her legs, or an old “burlap potato sack,” says Bobbi. She describes Miriam’s entrance to class as her, “skutching backward lifting herself with her hands through the room. Miriam brought her daughter to class every day” She would hoist herself onto her stool and operate her machine with her strong hands and arms. She managed to get there and to learn with a smile because she knew this was a path to feed that baby of hers while being dependant on only herself. It makes one think that if you wished to visit a monument to the courage of the human spirit, Bobbi, saw it everyday at that machine.
Tara is home now, working and preparing to take the next crew in January. With every trip dreams are realized and extended,both for those who sit at those machines, perplexed at their complexity on that first day and their teachers whose lives are changed. Imagine the wonder of bestowing the gift of being able to use a pencil, something we take for granted, and knowing that person’s life will be changed.
“They don’t think of themselves, just the community,” Tara says, “ask them to make a choice and it is foreign to them.” Ask our colleagues who will be boarding that plane in January and their response will be similar, not that choice is foreign to these volunteers, merely that the choice is clear.
Cheryl & Tommy (with Roger Kimpton) Photos courtesy of Jamie Northrup