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.
In Swahili, Mwamini means trusted, believing. “I live my name,” Mwamini says. “Without believing, it would have been impossible to graduate from the Sewing Workshop.”
Mwamini was forced to quit elementary school in the 4th grade, her family unable to afford school fees for their 6 children. “Sewing is a passion for me, I wanted to do it for a long time,” she says. “I feel proud and unique when I make fashion.”
Her father built the small structure for shade where Mwamini, Claudine, and Noella run their sewing co-op along the main road, running their business with the pedal-powered Singer machines they received when they graduated.
“I work in a co-op to promote unity and sisterhood. Together we feel stronger.”
Be the change that you wish to see in the world. (Gandhi)
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!
International Women’s Day is a special day for me because it is a moment for me to remember, to be aware that I have rights as a woman and my rights must be respected. I am aware I can stand up and speak in front of others, men included. This year we are standing up to tell the world we are equal and we should be looked at equally. Young girls must be given the chance to go to school, my parents never gave me the chance to get an education but the programs here at Action Kivu opened my eyes. We are fighting to have equal access to job opportunities. We are working to change our society.
Being at Action Kivu makes me aware that what men do, women can also do. Gender equity must be respected in job opportunities and we must reach the goal to help fight extreme poverty in the country. Why are so many of the children who do not have the chance to get an education girls? It has to end. My life has changed since I joined the programs at Action Kivu. I am now working to feed my child and myself. Being part of Action Kivu helped me change how I look at my daughter, I understand she is equal to boys and I will work hard to send her to school. I am able to pay for medical care for my daughter since I do not know her father. These programs made me feel proud of myself, I am looked at differently. I feel strong and thank everyone for supporting Action Kivu.