“[My mother] had handed down respect for the possibilities—and the will to grasp them.” – Alice Walker
This Mother’s Day, we’d like to take you to a corner of Congo, to meet Mama Ernata. You’ll find her at her home sewing workshop, a small wood-beam-walled room that revolves around her Singer sewing machine. This is where she works, mentoring young seamstresses who sew alongside her, taking measurements from clients, sewing garments, managing time and finances in a happy, busy balance with caring for her nine children and husband.
We first introduced you to Ernata in 2012, when Cate and Rebecca (co-founders of Action Kivu, the American arm of Amani Matabaro’s local Congolese organization ABFEC) visited the Sewing Workshop in Mumosho in 2012. Since graduating the Sewing Workshop with our sewing kit, the Singer sewing machine, an iron, fabric, and all the tools needed to start her business, Ernata launched her new life. Amani and Horthense, our Program Director in Congo, caught up with Ernata last week to send us an update on her inspiring journey.
“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.”
Ernata had shared her difficult story with us when we first met her, a story that echoes that of a society where women have very little rights or value, and can be divorced without recourse for not bearing a male heir. “My first marriage, I spent two years in my household,” Ernata 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 has seven children, he wanted another from Ernata. “And me, too,” she said. “Because if I have a child, I’m stable there.”
Though her first-born died, she counts him amongst her 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, the little two-month old girl pictured here. “Her name is 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.
“The second thing which makes me a proud person of myself is simply to be a seamstress and able to take care of myself, my own children and my husband’s. Without my sewing business, I had no idea how I could be able to pay for the maternity fees. I was able to pay 60 dollars because my third pregnancy was a cesarean delivery like the first and the second ones. My husband has no job and all the income I make from my sewing activity has to be used wisely for our basic needs in the family. The month of April I was able to make only 50 dollars because of the new baby and needed to recover from surgery which is coming along quite well and I am hoping for the best!” Ernata says. (On average, when not recovering from surgery and caring for a newborn, Ernata has been able to earn $120 / month, whereas many unskilled women work for 1 dollar a day on other’s farms.)
When asked what the phrase “to mother” means for her, Ernata pauses to reflect on the concept that has become so very real for her in the past four years. “It means happiness, value and respect inside myself, in front of my husband and community. I hope my daughter Ampire will become a professional seamstress.”
“I am praying for my sewing business to grow and ensure I continue mentoring others, and that means become able to get a few more sewing machines, that’s the only way I feel I can give back what I have received from ABFEC / Action Kivu. The one year training I went through at ABFEC 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.
“The biggest challenge is that we have such a large family that depends on what I earn. Without the sewing training I went through at ABFEK, I wouldn’t have become the person I am today. Many of my sewing training classmates are far away and not living in Mumosho, but look, I was able to work, make money, save some and buy a cell phone and I am happy to be in touch with them and they are also happy!”
“I have no reason to not be happy and proud,” says Ernata. “I am blessed to have become a mother and a seamstress. May God bless ABFEC / Action Kivu and everyone who contributes in a way or another to transform people’s lives. Mine has been transformed. And if you were me, wouldn’t you be happy?”
We add our gratitude to Ernata’s for all our partners in this work. Your generous donations are truly changing Congo and the world, one mama, baby, and family at a time. Learn more about our work here!