Voices of Congo: MamAfrica and Products With a Purpose
“In 5 years, I want to be living so well that my husband [who rejected me] begs me to take him back. I want the opportunity to tell him no, and to tell him that I am better off making a life for myself and my family.” MamAfrica artisan Asifiwe, vibrant and full of life, is one of the youngest student seamstresses working at MamAfrica’s Ushindi center in Bukavu, DR Congo, the provincial capital of South Kivu. Each day, the women of MamAfrica arrive promptly at 8am (some of them traveling up to two hours on foot) and begin crafting MamAfrica’s handmade clothing and accessories from local kitenge fabric. The women learn to sow and earn a monthly income through their labor. In a town with nearly 80% unemployment for women, MamAfrica’s income-generating production should not go unnoticed. But the center is more than a source of training or livelihood for these women and their children. Within the walls of the Ushindi Center, Bukavu’s Mamas have created for themselves a community of beauty, strength, and resilience.
“I once lived in an area where I faced discrimination because of my illness,” artisan Nabintu Charlotte says. “But when I joined MamAfrica’s sowing program, I began to realize that I truly was a person of value. I can overcome hardship now because I accept myself.”
MamAfrica offers monthly literacy programs, trauma counseling, healing arts, and educational programs for the families of each artisan. Incoming members are screened according to set criteria. Most of the women currently employed at MamAfrica are survivors of sexual violence and have been displaced from various villages in South Kivu province due to conflict and instability. Forced to flee their homes and fields to ensure their personal safety and that of their children, these women face an unfriendly job market after arriving in Bukavu. Additionally, cultural norms perpetuate the rejection of sexual violence survivors. It is not uncommon for a survivor to find herself abandoned not only by her husband but by her entire extended family, left to feed and care for her children alone.
Nabintu Charlotte’s reflections on self-worth are at the core of MamAfrica’s philosophy. By providing the conditions for its members to thrive socially, psychologically, and economically, MamAfrica empowers its artisans to experience the sort of self-fullfillment that only comes through independence. “I am proud of the intelligence that enables me to work. I am proud of my sowing ability, because through sowing I can provide for myself and my family,” MamAfrica artisan and assitant sowing instructor Nabintu Battindwa explains.
The majority of MamAfrica’s artisans are not new to skilled labor. Many hail from rural villages throughout South Kivu province and began cultivating bananas, cassava, and maize from a young age. Nearly two-thirds of Congolese citizens earn their livelihoods through agricultural production. Forced to leave behind fields, homes, and families, many of our artisans learned to survive throughselling fruits or clothing in Bukavu’s many bustling markets or baking mandazi (Congolese donuts) for family celebrations. In the face of minimal social support and economic hardship, however, MamAfrica’s model provides a sustainable, comprehensive alternative for the womena and their families. The center offers sowing students a way forward into recovery and prosperity. Some artisans dream of perfecting their sowing skills: “I want to master the art of sowing so that I can become a sowing teacher, and one day purchase my own sowing machine,” the young Anastasia says.
Many artisans dream of expanding their knowledge in other areas. Yvonne wishes to learn computer skills, while Mapenzi hopes to one day earn her driver’s liscence. Whatever her aspirations, the MamAfrica Ushindi Center offers a platform for the personal growth and healing of each Mama. More than a building, the center offers a second chance at peace, security, and family for each of its employees.
In a web of complex global supply chains, few consumers can say that they share personal relationships with the artisans who craft their clothing and accessories. Thanks to my summer in Bukavu, South Kivu, DR Congo, I am richer for the relationships I know have with the producers of my clothes. I have laughed with the jovial Asifiwe, watched Rachel cook fufu and meat for the Mamas and their children, and translated the refrain from the popular Beatle’s number “All You Need is Love” into Kiswahili (Unahitaji Upendo Tu) so that we could all sing along during work hours. MamAfrica Designs is fair trade at its finest. When you purchase from MamAfrica, you are investing not only in your wardrobe (see below for a few highlights from our summer line, on display at the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival hosted by Yole!Africa in Goma) but in the transformation of women, families, and communities.
Sauti ya Congo (Voices of Congo) Mamafrica Summer 2014 Blog Series-Written by Danielle Allyn
Here at MamAfrica, we take care to produce products that showcase the vibrancy, strength, and resilience of one of Congo’s greatest natural resources: its women. Some of our Mamas have over five children while some have none. Some are not yet twenty while others are older than 40. Some are still completing secondary school, while others earn extra income from selling fruit or clothing in local marketplaces on the weekends. The legacy of instability from Africa’s two “World Wars” touches the women daily. Most are no strangers to violence, loss, dislocation, and trauma. But the beauty of our Mamas here is that confronted with an unstable peace and the stigma attached to sexual violence survival; these women refuse to cede control of their lives. They each have dreams for themselves, for their children, and for their country. They believe in hard work, independence, and continuous learning. Over the next few weeks, we will introduce you to a few of our irreplaceable Mamas here in Bukavu, DRC. We hope that you will take the time to get to know the hardworking women behind your skirt, dress, or yoga bag!
“I would advise women who are struggling to confide in other women, because there are many who share the same challenges.” (Phillipo)
Family is a core value for Phillipo. Each night she makes sure to sing a spiritual song with each of her children before they fall asleep. She beams when showing photographs of her sons and daughters eating breakfast, preparing for school, and picking cassava leaves. Her dream for her children is that one day they may each find happiness in their own families, grounded in loving and stable marriages. In some ways, relocation has irrevocably impacted Phillipo’s life. Growing up in a village in South Kivu, Phillipo remembers fondly the communal nature of village life, in which each villager’s needs could be met through the cultivation of shared fields. Such uninvited transitions, however, have failed to destabilize Phillipo, who says, “I simply wish to do what God wills for my future.” One day, Phillipo hopes to learn how to bake, and cherishes the thought of selling cakes and breads at her own bakery. Her dream is that Congo will again experience the peace it once knew, with Congolese citizens free to move between cities and villages without dreading the imposition of rebel fighters.
Sylvine, likewise a Bukavu Mama, cherishes her children in a manner similar to Phillipo. “My favorite thing to do is to spend time with my children,” she says. “When they are healthy and happy, I am happy.” A proud mother, Sylvine also takes pride in her work as a seamstress at MamAfrica. “I want customers to know that I enjoy my job at MamAfrica. I would like others to know that when they buy MamAfrica products, they are sown by the Mamas here in Bukavu.” Sylvine also advocates adamantly for peace in Congo: “We do not need any more war.” As a mother, Sylvine also sees the potential in Congo’s youth and its future. She describes Congo’s wealth in gold and minerals, and hopes that one day this wealth may benefit the Congolese people. “That is another area in which we are rich,” she says, “We Congolese are rich in our people.
Photo credit: Sylvine
As we enter into spring the rain comes with less frequently in eastern DRC and the dry season follows. With the dry season comes more accessibility to road access and gives the Mamas a shorter commute. In Bukavu (where the Mamafrica center is located) roads are not paved and in the wet season months mud inhibits women from coming to work. Needless to say, we celebrate the spring season each year! Spring has also brought the opening of our new nursery center!
Located at the Mamafrica center, our nursery allows women to bring their young children to work with them each day. We currently have nineteen children that attend daily and in addition we have hired one of the Mamas Denise Kajamwe to run the program. The nursery program allows the women to bring their young children to work who are still breastfeeding and ensure that they are safe throughout the day. In addition, we provide the children with a structured schedule throughout the day and they are able to engage in many learning and development activities.
8.00 : Arrival
8.30 : Greetings
8.35-10.30: Story time/Reading
10.30-12: Singing and Games
12-1 : Lunch
2-3: Arts and Crafts
3-4: Free Time and Preparing to Return Home
"Nampenda nafasi yangu mpya katika Mamafrica na kujisikia wenye heri kwa sababu Mamfrica alinipa nafasi ya kutunza watoto marafiki zangu katika siku. Kuwa na kitalu ni muhimu sana kwetu kwa sababu sasa tunaweza kuhakikisha kwamba watoto wetu yetu salama na kuchukuliwa huduma ya siku nzima. Pia Mamafrica hutoa yao na chakula na maji safi ya kunywa, ambayo ni kitu ambacho wao si mara zote kupata nyumbani wakati sisi ni gone kazini. Mengi ya sisi mama zetu moja na kwa hiyo hawana wengine kutusaidia huduma kwa watoto wetu. Nimebarikiwa na furaha kuwa sehemu ya jumuia ambayo anayejali sana kuhusu elimu na kurutubisha maisha ya vijana ya Kongo"
"I love my new position at Mamafrica and feel blessed that Mamfrica gave me the opportunity to take care of my friends children throughout the day. Having a nursery is very important to us because now we can make sure that our children our safe and taken care of throughout the day. Also Mamafrica provides them with food and clean drinking water, which is something that they are not always getting at home when we are gone at work. A lot of us our single mothers and therefore do not have others to help us to care for our children when we attend work. I am blessed and happy to be part of a community that cares so much about educating and enriching the lives of the youth of Congo".
Beyond our new nursery program at Mamafrica we are employing women in a region where 85% of women are formally unemployed and 65% of families eat one meal a day. We build community, provide education and literacy courses, and focus on generational change.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~ African proverb
Interview with Aswifewe who has been working at Mamafrica since September 2012.
When asked how Mamafrica has changed her life Aswifewe who is19 years old said (translated from Swahili to English), “Mamafrica is helping me so much by paying school fees for my children. Before Mamafrica I did not have any hope because I knew that I was a street child. Also I am happy because after being able to sew and I get paid and I can feed my children before and after they come home from school. I had many bad thoughts in my mind but before I started coming to Mamafrica but now I have a family and a support system to help me when times are tough”.
Aswifewe continued to talk about how she is now going to school after a generous donor paid for her to continue her education. In Democratic Republic of Congo, there are few continuing education schools were one can receive their high school diploma.
“The first time you asked me to go to school I did not know if I could succeed but you encouraged me to go to school and now I am ranked fifth in my class. I praise god and want to say thank you for sending me to school. I was 13 years old when I stopped going to school and never thought I would be given the opportunity to finish”.
Awifwewe met her husband when she was 13 years old. He first came to her house and said he would give her money to start a small business selling avocados on the street. After some time had passed he came back to her home and asked for the money back. She said that she did not have it and he forced her to have sex with him to pay back the money. She explains that she didn’t have another choice. This is a tactic called bride raping.
She becoming pregnant with her first child at age 15 and was forced to marry this man and leave her home to live with him. Her husband beat her after her first child was born and she returned home to live with her mother. After some time her husband returned to ask for her forgiveness and she went back to live with him, even though the beating continued.
She now has three children and hasn’t seen her husband in one year because he left her when she started going to school because he could see that she was gaining confidence and independence. Aswifewe pays $25 a month for rent for a small shack in Buakvu. She hopes to better her life by returning to school and continuing to work with Mamafrica.
Interviewer: Ashley Nemiro
Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.
If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating or by subscribing to this project's RSS feed.