Empowering Women through Sewing - Zambia Project Report

Thanks to each and everyone one of you!  Thank you so much to those who donated to our Zambia project, without you we couldn’t have done this work!  I also want to thank those of you who have supported us every day by believing in us, by being sources of inspiration in the work that you do and the stand that you take in your own lives, and by just being awesome human beings.

I’m super excited to tell you all that our project in Zambia has been a huge success.  As you know, this summer we were invited by the Simwatachela Sustainable Agricultural and Arts Program (SSAAP) in Zambia to teach skill building sewing workshops to groups of women in the village.

We arrived in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, in mid June where we spent two days gathering both fabric and thread, and all the food we would need, not only for us to eat while living in the village for 10 days, but also enough to provide lunch to the women during our day long workshops.

The trick was, we didn’t really know how many women would show up, and we had to buy and haul a lot of food. From there, Heather Cumming, executive director of SSAAP, and her six year old daughter, Radiance, and I hitchhiked to a town half way between there and the village where we spent the night. From there we got a ride to the village which was only 80km away, but due to the quality of the roads, it was a five hour trip.

After being dropped on the side of the road in the middle of seemingly nowhere, we grabbed our things and hiked two kilometers into the wilderness where we finally arrived in the village, Heather and Radi’s home, by nightfall.

My first impression of their village is forever stamped into my visual memory bank. The sun had set and it was dark as we approached being led only by the light of their family’s fire. The two of them excitedly walked up to greet them and as they did I saw all the children run and swarm Radiance with a big ecstatic group hug, while Heather was greeted happily by her African mother and sisters.

We settled into Heather's house in the village and spent the next couple days catching up from jet lag, making delicious food, and getting acclimated to village life.  

Time was spent tracing patterns for the reusable panty liner sewing workshops and doing lots of laundry, including all the fabrics we bought to provide for the women to use.

(Note: The house photographed above is their home, where I lived with them while in the village)

Heather and SSAAP spent time hand writing notes to all the women's groups throughout the village inviting them to attend the workshops.  She appropriately stored them in empty panty liner packaging...

Word spread and the workshops were scheduled.  We hiked 2km to the community school where the workshops were held in a one room school house.

Heather and I spent several late nights talking about the dynamics within the relationships amongst women, in general, where she lives.  It's quite heart breaking to hear how much work the women are responsible for in their lives... child rearing, house keeping, cooking (for large families), and farming, all of it unpaid labor.  When they reap the benefits from their crops, the men mostly do the business interactions.  On top of this, the women struggle to be close to one another for three main reasons.
1)  Extreme poverty  
2)  Polygamy (competition)
3)  Lack of education
We planned to do part of our workshops on women's empowerment, and in turn, it ended up being an incredible lesson for me on race and culture.  I am so grateful for that experience.  When one needs to worry about their basic needs (food, clothing, clean water, shelter) on a daily basis, there is barely enough room for thinking about or considering much of anything else.  So instead, we just got to work. 

Once we introduced that we were going to be making reusable panty liners, the shocked looks on their faces made me smile after they realized how useful they saw the project.  The women quickly giggled and found it to be a fun project that many of them excelled at.  Reusable panty liners are great for many reasons.  They help save money and can be made from old fabrics and rags.  It is something that can be made for themselves, their daughters, and their granddaughters.  Creating something by hand with the intent of nurturing our female nature, we can feel empowered by honoring our bodies and the environment.  

My Aunt Jane recently shared a moment from her childhood with me.  She recalled when she was little and watching her mother sew herself a house dress, a modest midwestern house dress I'm sure.  My grandmother was sewing a beautiful lace on the inside of the dress and my aunt asked her why she was doing that if nobody was going to see it.  She replied, "Because it makes me feel pretty."

That right there is part of the essence of this project.  When we make something that is just for us and nobody else, it helps us feel good about ourselves, our bodies, and can even help us feel good about getting dressed in the morning.  

We of course used african chitenges (fabric) to make the base of the panty liner.  Then we encouraged them to use any old t-shirt, rag, or blanket that can be cut up and folded into the removable & changeable part for absorption.

As soon as they understood how the pattern was to be laid out on the fabric and how all the steps made sense, they took off.  The women were serious about the project and worked diligently to finish by the end of the day.  

Those who completed were exited to have a photograph taken of them showing off their finished product.  

Over the course of time I was in the village we held several workshops.  The attendance had to be capped due to space limitations.  There was another community located about 30km away who so wanted me to come and deliver the workshop to the women there.  Unfortunately due to time constraints and resources I was unable to accommodate them.  Thankfully though we had a solution.  I showed Heather how to lead the workshop and on August 17 she taught 120+ more women how to make reusable menstrual pads.  They loved it, and wanted more.   

We created this project from nothing, where anything is possible.  I knew there were going to be ripple effects and just let the universe be in charge of how those ripples would move.  Now, the project already has its own two feet.  Heather runs SSAAP from the village in Zambia and also from Sierra Leone where her and Radiance are currently traveling to and where they will live for the next year.  She is taking the sewing workshops with her to teach to the women in Sierra Leone and will continue the work in Zambia when she returns next summer.  The project is already moving from South Central Africa to West Africa and we are excited to hear how it evolves and what more can be created inside of it. 

From my vantage point, very few people have the drive, knowhow, and tireless compassion that Heather Cumming embodies. She is a patient and persistent team leader who sets an example for the people not only who work directly with her but to those around the globe who gain inspiration from her humble yet powerful work.  We are so very grateful to have had the experience of this project and to witness first hand via SSAAP the trials and tribulations of what it takes to do true grassroots activism.   

There are many projects sponsored under the umbrella of SSAAP:
1)  Digging wells to bring access to fresh clean water to the people of the village.  This is the biggest and #1 project, in partnership with Engineers Without Borders and Dr. Dennis Traux, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Mississippi State University.
2)  Educational workshops on ending female genital mutilation.  This is more prevalent in Sierra Leone and is a big project with the work being held there.
3)  Sponsoring vulnerable and orphaned children to attend school and receive education.
4)  Taking donated prescription eye glasses from the USA and handing them to the people in the villages who have never in their life been able to see without trouble.  This has truly changed lives.. giving the gift of sight. 
5)  Taking donated soccer balls from the USA and providing them to communities to use.  I personally got to see the effects of how just one soccer ball transformed an entire community. 
6)  (Now) Leading sewing workshops to women in the villages and teaching them how to make reusable menstrual pads.    

This, is sustainable design.  We here at Fabric Horse are proud, honored, and grateful to be part of this important work.  

Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

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