[From our Executive Director Rebecca Snavely’s visit this year to Congo.]
I returned to Congo for my second trip in five years this past February, and Amani once again took me to see Ernata, whom I’d first met in 2012, a sewing student in a small, crowded workshop. Today, you’ll most likely find her at her sewing workshop, a small wood-beam-walled room draped in bright African wax fabrics, cluttered with sewing machines and the tools of the trade, scissors, measuring tape. This is where she works, mentoring young seamstresses who sew alongside her. Here Ernata takes measurements from clients, creates garments, manages her time and finances in a happy, busy balance with caring for her nine children and husband.
Since graduating the Sewing Workshop with our sewing kit: a Singer sewing machine, an iron, fabric, and all the tools needed to start her business, Ernata launched her new life. “I have seen and heard many things and many people in my life but only two of these have made me feel the pride of being a human being,” Ernata says. “These two things are finally being a mother after I had waited so long, and also being a seamstress. I am the mother of three kids in addition to the seven children my husband got from his first wife who passed away.” Though her first-born died when he was just a toddler, she counts him amongst her 10 children. And shortly after losing him, Ernata became pregnant and gave birth to a second baby boy, who is now one year and seven months old. And soon after, she gave birth to another baby, named Ampire, which means ‘God has gifted me.’” Ernata was able to pay for her own cesarean sections and maternity fees for both new babies because of her work as a seamstress.
(On average, when not recovering from surgery and caring for a newborn, Ernata has been able to earn between $100 and $120 per month, whereas many unskilled women work for 1 dollar a day on other’s farms.)
“The one year training I went through is rewarding, and means I can pay food for my family, not only clothes for my children but also to repair their clothes whenever needed, it makes me able to pay the maternity costs unlike many other women who give birth and can’t go back home with their babies until someone pays for them. I also pay school fees for my husband’s children.”
So much had changed in five years, I said. Ernata nods. “I’ve been feeling that I am a strong woman, which I didn’t know before.”
We first met Ernata in early 2012. “Pretend that we’re not here,” we asked the women of the Mumosho Sewing Workshop as they huddled around the two sewing instructors and my Action Kivu co-founder Cate Haight and I hovered over them with camera hovered over them with cameras, trying to find the right light in the small, dark room, lit only by two windows. The workshop was at capacity with peddle-powered Singer sewing machines, tables for ironing with a heavy iron filled with hot coals, and over 25 women, a couple who carry quiet, wide-eyed babies.
We noticed that one woman, Ernata, had a hard time looking away from the camera, her smile wide and friendly and frequent. A bright red-orange scarf added color to her simple white tee-shirt, and like every other woman in the workshop, a measuring tape hung from her neck. Amani Matabaro, who started this sewing program in his home village of Mumosho in 2009 with his wife as a way to give job-training skills to women who had survived unspeakable violence in the war, explained to the women the impact of them sharing their stories with us. We would not ask them to relive or retell their trauma, but wanted to know more about their lives, hopes, and needs, so that people in the U.S. and around the world could connect to them, individually, and feel a sense of sharing life and building this community through their support of the sewing workshop.
Born into a society where women have very little rights or value and can be divorced without recourse for not bearing a male heir, Ernata’s own story was filled with pain.
It was Action Kivu’s first trip to Congo, in January 2012, and the people of Congo had just held a presidential election that many observers contested as fraudulent, after decades of fighting and two consecutive wars had decimated the country. By this time the estimates are that over 6 million Congolese have lost their lives due to the ongoing violence.
Traveling to a region highlighted in the news for violence, my Action Kivu co-founder Cate and I trusted our partner Amani Matabaro implicitly, both with the funds we were sending from Action Kivu donors as well as with our safety as we traveled to his home village of Mumosho, to see those funds being translated into job-training courses and literacy classes that were changing the lives of the women and girls in eastern Congo, offering hope and the first glimpses of a different future.
Ernata volunteered to be the first to talk with us, meeting us behind the building where Amani’s non-profit rents the room for the center. Sitting on a simple wooden stool, ignoring the crows of a rooster and the questioning looks and giggles of a few neighborhood kids, she eyed the camera with confidence, and looked directly at us as she answered the questions Amani translated for her.
“My first marriage, I spent two years in my household,” she told us. “I didn’t have any children, and I suffered a lot from my husband. He kicked me out because I didn’t have any children. After being kicked out by my first husband, I returned home, and spent six months at home. Another man married me. After about 6 to 7 months with my second husband, I could not conceive. He also kicked me out, divorced me.”
Then came another man, from a different village, whose wife had died and left him with seven kids. Ernata married for the third time, and after only three months, she conceived. “I was blessed to have one child, a boy, but it was after surgery (a cesarean delivery). After two years and three months, my only child died. I was there, living with my husband, but I was afraid, six months had passed after my child died, and I hadn’t conceived again. I was afraid, and things had changed again, become negative, with my husband.”
Though he already had seven children, he wanted another from Ernata. “And me, too,” she said. “Because if I have a child, I’m stable there.”
“I have a big wound inside my heart,” Ernata told us. “If I don’t have children with my husband, he will kick my out. I’m noticing some changes, bad behavior, from his family members, who might urge him to chase me (from the home).”
When asked what the village needs, to grow as a community, to provide better for its people, Ernata responded, “I don’t want to sound selfish, but I’m going to talk about the needs of women in this community. The women need to learn more professional skills, to make sure they can take care of themselves.”
Five years later, thanks in part to Action Kivu’s investment in her training and the community, Ernata is a vital part of her answer to that question, as she mentors others and steps into the unknown, taking risks, living out loud, and paving the way for equality.
To partner with this life-transforming work, please donate today! And when you make it monthly, it allows us plan ahead, creating sustainability in our programs as we work with alumni like Ernata to become the teachers and leaders in their community.