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.”