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.”
“Unfortunately, says Francine, many men in this country look at women as inferior human beings. For this to change in Congo, the authorities and leaders need to set the example, so that others will follow.
“Here it is the total opposite. At Action Kivu we have equality. Here we are on the front line, we are on top. “
Francine is following in her father’s footsteps, and pushing herself to travel even further than he did. He sewed garments to earn enough income to send her to school, but she was forced to drop out before she could graduate secondary school. She joined the Sewing Workshop late, starting weeks behind the other students in her class, but she was determined, and ended up graduating at the top of her class in 2016. She wants to learn as many skills as she can, from hairdressing to basket weaving to driving cars (why is that a man’s job? she asks) to have the means to support herself and her family.
The sewing machine Francine received when she graduated has given her a new life. She set up shop in a room at her family’s house, the pedal-powered machine stationed by the door, where the sun provides the light for her work during the day. “I sew my own clothes, I sew for customers and earn the money to help pay school fees for my nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters.”
Francine laughs easily and often, her wide smile breaking out just before offering truth and insight in her strong opinions. She comes to the Mumosho Community Center often, currently learning basket weaving to add to her skill set. “Before, it was the man who gives you anything you need. Now, I can provide for myself. Now, when I get married, my husband will respect me,” Francine explains. “After many years, a husband might leave you,” she says. “But even if a man leaves me, I will continue my life. My children will feel that they still have a father, as I will act as a mother and a father, providing for them.”
“At the Mumosho Community Center, I feel secure and safe. I’m focused. When I work at home, there are distractions, people stop by to talk, my family is there. I like to come to work here. Here, girls and women learn about their strength, about their equality, how to provide for themselves.”
Sharing her past, talking about the eleven children in her family and the deaths of several of her siblings, how she had to leave school because of lack of funds, Francine pauses. “I don’t know how to explain what it’s like to be sitting here, telling my story. Before I came here, I didn’t believe in myself. I used to neglect myself. Now I feel strong.”
Four years ago, Aimericiane was unsure how to feed her six kids, let alone find the funds for their education. When she heard about Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop, she enrolled as quickly as possible to learn the skills and business training that would help her create a new life for her family.
During her eight months of sewing training, Aimerciane continued to help her husband cultivate their field, the only source of income and food for their family. Daily survival was difficult, and farm labor typically yields around $1 per day of work. They could not afford the six to ten dollars per month, per child, to send to their six children to school.
Aimerciane graduated the Sewing Workshop in 2012, and is proud to report that with the sewing machine she received at graduation, she started her own business. Four years later, with weddings, special events, and regular customers, she averages earning $60 USD a week.
“I am so proud of myself, and proud of my business because it has helped me to solve so many problems in my family: now I am able to pay for school, food, clothes, and the hospital for all my children,” Aimerciane tells us. “With my sewing machine I earned money to buy a $40 table where I can put my machine. Before children start school, I sew uniforms, and earn around $150.
“My vision is to work hard, to become a great seamstress and also to buy a plot of land where I’ll build my cutting and sewing workshop, a place that will allow me to train others, people who are in need. I say thank you so much to ABFEC (Action Kivu’s Congolese partner) because they gave me knowledge and they changed my life. I pray for them to prosper and expand in the whole word. God bless them.”
Read more about how investing in the women and children of Congo through Action Kivu transforms lives!
“There is peace here. Hear our voices, oh you, the world!”
Celebrate with the girls and women of Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop Class of 2016! Thanks to donors like you, the sewing community who donates via Alissa Haight Carlton’s fundraiser, and our partners Stand With Congo and Pour Les Femmes, 63 women and girls graduated this year with the skills and sewing machines to start their own businesses.
Check out a sneak peek of the video from the graduation celebration, and stay tuned for more stories from the women!
Behind us the Mumosho Sewing Workshop hummed with activity, voices muffled, feet shuffling. Inside, sandal-clad feet rhythmically pressed pedals to power the Singer sewing machines, scissors snipped threads, irons heated with burning coals pressed out the creases in brightly patterned fabric. Outside, Bienvenie sat with perfect posture on the low stool, her gaze direct and unflinching as she told us about her life, describing how her mother did not have enough, enough food, enough money, to support her children after Bienvenie’s father died in a mining accident when she was only two. She shared her story, surrounded by the wide green leaves of banana trees, the red earth of Congo’s valley, a family’s chicken wandering by a thatched home.
It was 2012, and Bienvenie was one of the students at the Mumosho Sewing Workshop, where she was in training to make her hopes a reality. Growing up with a love of fashion and fabrics, Bienvenie always dreamed of learning to sew. Her dream appeared impossible, as she watched her mother struggle to make ends meet and feed the family from her harvest of long hours on the farm. Paying for a traditional education or sewing training was unimaginable. “But the people who started this program, I don’t know what I could give them. People who are supporting this program, I don’t know what to tell them, because for me, it has been a dream to have a place where I can learn sewing, and here I am. I am very happy.”
Fast-forward four years, and Bienvenie’s dream came true. Because of the people in the U.S. and around the world who support Action Kivu’s work with ABFEC in Mumosho, Bienvenie graduated with a sewing machine in the summer of 2012 and started working, making garments for clients in her community, and sewing alongside other graduates to make the school uniforms for the children Action Kivu sends to school with education assistance.
An entrepreneur, Bienvenie now operates her own business, and mentors another young seamstress. “Now people in the community bring me fabrics with value and they are confident, they trust me as now I know my job of seamstress well,” she tells Amani, our founder who started the Sewing Workshop.
“Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: … it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark and around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.” ~Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
Your partnership is making these ideas — dreams of equality, visions of women stitching together a better future for Congo — a reality. Consider partnering with the women and communities of Congo today! Learn more here.