Just pretend that we’re not here, said the two American Muzungus (white people). As the women of the Mumosho Sewing Workshop huddled around the two instructors, we 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.
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, who started this sewing program in his home village of Mumosho in 2009, explained the importance of the women sharing their stories with us, 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.
Ernata volunteered to be the first to talk with us, meeting us behind the building where ABFEK 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.
Ernata was her Christian name, she told us, but her grandfather also named her Barhadosa. “Simply because my mother was suffering a lot,” she explained. “She was facing domestic violence, and when she gave birth to me, my grandfather said my name would be Barhadosa. My mom didn’t ask (permission) if she could marry my dad, into that family.” Barhadosa means “they never ask,” Amani said.
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 has not turned out well.
“My first marriage, I spent two years in my household. 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 has seven children, he wants 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.”
The sewing workshop is well-known and respected in Mumosho, especially after its first graduation last September. Due to support from quilters and seamstresses who donated through a fundraiser on Handmade by Alissa, Action Kivu / ABFEK was able to purchase sewing kits for the graduates, providing each women with her own sewing machine to start her business.
“Tell those women we love them, we are thankful for them,” Ernata said with a smile. “They helped the first program graduate. I am in this program, and my hope is that I also get my own sewing machine, to make sure I can start my own business. You understand, my life is very difficult. I’m not sure I’m going to stay with my husband. But if I’m not with him, I’ll have my sewing machine, I’ll go back to my parents, and I’ll be working for myself.”
Ernata, who left school after the 5th grade and had never sewn before, is proud to be part of the sewing workshop. “I heard about the sewing workshop from one of the trainers, who knows my story, who knows how I’ve been suffering, how men have been treating me. I decided to come here, because I’m not sure if I’m going to stay there, in that household. I want to learn professional skills to make sure I can take care of myself, that I can do something, become helpful to myself.”