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!
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.”