Action Kivu’s Executive Director Rebecca Snavely recently returned from visiting Congo and all the programs our partners support. She writes here about the joy of finding shared understanding despite language barriers.)
I’d spent a half hour repeating the few words I knew in Swahili and Mashi, the local dialect: “Jambo!” to greet the girls and women in Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop, and “Coco!” to thank them for allowing me to wander around their space, my face half hidden behind a camera, leaning in to take their photos.
They started to tease me, repeating Jambo! Coco! and laughing. I made a mental note to learn a few phrases in Swahili before my next trip to Congo. Koubde, a slight, older man who teaches embroidery and also repairs the pedal-powered sewing machines tinkered with one machine, tried to explain in French what he was doing. The words mechanic and machinist sound almost the same in English and French, and both our eyes lit up at finally understanding each other. The whole room broke out in joyful laughter.
“Now you’re speaking my language” generally refers to being on the same page, having similar tastes in politics or movies. It reflects back on how it feels to understand someone, and more so, to be understood.
Interviewing the girls in Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop, many of them had felt illiterate on their first day. They didn’t know anyone, and they didn’t speak the language of sewing – they didn’t know how to operate the pedal to make the machine run, or how to thread the needle, and they were afraid they would not be able to learn. Many of them had no classroom experience with a teacher: denied an education because of their gender and poverty, they were unaccustomed to the sewing trainer’s commanding tone.
Weeks passed, and the girls were all speaking the same language. It sounded like scissors slicing through fabric, needles piercing their path through the brightly colored cloth, laughter at stories shared over the rhythmic sound of their feet pressing the pedals. Stories that gave each girl the glimpse that they were not alone. Each story was unique, based on the life of each girl or woman, but the same themes ran through all. Denied an education because of extreme poverty. Raped and impregnated. Abandoned with a baby. Unsure how to obtain the good life – that of being able to feed oneself and your child, and send them to school to stop this cycle. Speaking the same language, they were understood, and realized they were not alone.
Make a dress for me, Iragi asked her sister, Francine, who had just graduated from Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop and set up her new Singer sewing machine in a room in their home.
Francine didn’t have time, so Iragi decided to join the Class of 2017, and make her own dresses. The first day she arrived at the Mumosho Community Center, she saw so many choices of skills to learn, she wasn’t sure what to choose.
“I started with basket making, but after mastering that in three months, I decided to challenge Francine. I wanted to become a better seamstress than my sister.”
Before starting the classes, Iragi explained, she knew some of the girls, but they had nothing in common, nothing to talk about. But now, we are more than family. We lean on each other.
Iragi didn’t hesitate to answer when asked what is unique about the Mumosho Community Center: We don’t have to pay! We learn for free. And then, at the end, you give us a kit to start our lives.
With so many people living in extreme poverty, the chance at a free education and vocational training is critical. “The trainings are becoming a source of hope here,” Iragi says. “I will professionalize what I learned. I plan to graduate, and move somewhere else to start a business where there are more people working. But I will be smart about it, save money to buy equipment, to start a co-op.”
Iragi lights up when asked about her goals. Now 20, she wants to finish school: impregnated in her fourth year of secondary school, she had to quit. Her baby is 11 months old, and is looked after by other women at the Center while Iragi is in class. “I need to go back to school,” she says. Then there would be no limit to what she could do: “Imagine having a secondary diploma, a sewing co-op, and making baskets? I could be a teacher!”
“If girls and women are given the chance, given an education, we can change the future of Congo,” Iragi says. “We have to start within ourselves. If there is no love in ourselves and our families, the government, the leaders, will not love, as they are just people, raised up in our homes, our families.”
Every year the team behind International Women’s Day gives us a theme to celebrate and explore. For 2017, it is “Be bold for change.” The women and girls of Action Kivu are on it. They’ve been exploring this theme since the day they walked in the gate to the Mumosho Community Center, emboldened by the words of welcome: that they are inherently worthy of love and respect, they are equal to men, and they are powerful agents of change.
Translation: Together for 50/50 parity by 2030: investing in decent work and full employment for women in a climate of peace and equity!
Cito sits on the edge of the couch, balancing her baby girl on her lap, taking a break from her day at the Sewing Workshop upstairs. The sound of feet operating the pedal-powered machines hums from above.
“I didn’t know anyone my first day here,” says Cito. “I came with my baby, who was six months old. It wasn’t easy, but I remember meeting a woman named Francine. I had to learn how to pedal the machine, to practice sewing on paper. My life was very bad.” She waves one hand before her, her wrist twisting her palm up and down in the mas-o-menos gesture of Spanish speakers, which in Congo means “very bad.”
One arm wrapped around her daughter Iragi, Cito explains that before she got pregnant and had to quit secondary school, she had plans to become a nurse. She never talks to her baby’s father, who fled when he learned she was pregnant, leaving her to find ways to feed herself and her newborn.
“I was a different person before I came here, I was vulnerable. If I ever get married – I have no way to describe the power I feel now. If I get married, the man I marry will respect me. I will not jeopardize my life by making a bad choice.
Iragi is almost two years old now, and oddly serene for a toddler. Cito bounces her on one knee. “Iragi means ‘luck,’ she explains, “and I am praying for my daughter to have good luck. The sewing program has changed my life. I’m already earning money, bringing work from my village to class to work on it here. I am so proud, I can already pay for medicine when my daughter is sick. I plan to graduate, and with the sewing kit and machine, start my own co-op, and teach others how to sew. I plan to pay for Iragi to get an education, so she can get a good job, and have a good life.”
Meet Beatrice Ntankwinja – mother of five, grandmother of one, proud farmer feeding her family. Beatrice is one of the 83 women who now farm their own plot of land at the Action Kivu shared farm, learning sustainable, organic farming from our agronomist, Mukengere. Each woman tends her own organic compost for fertilizer, and is learning how to use a mix of grasses to combat pests and insects.
Thank you to our partners whose generosity is making a lasting impact in Congo! To invest in the future of food security and combat severe malnutrition in this corner of Congo, partner with Action Kivu today.