My Visit to Ngombe 2
By Karen Loke—Lancaster, Pennsylvania
I was fortunate to be the lucky winner of the trip to Zambia in 2015. I made several purses and sent them in, not even concerned with winning the trip—after all, how likely would that be?
Much to my surprise and delight, I received an email from Jason Miles asking me if I was “ready for Africa.” I was stunned, delighted, excited, and nervous all at the same time. Wow! Imagine that, making a few little purses got me a ticket to Africa!
I started sewing over 50 years ago as a child. I continued to sew throughout my life until my children were in junior high school when homemade clothing was no longer “cool.”
After a long break, I was introduced to 18” size dolls by my daughter’s flower girls at her wedding. I decided to make matching dresses for their dolls and discovered Liberty Jane doll patterns. It reignited my passion for sewing and led me to Jason and Cinnamon Miles’ charity, Sew Powerful.
I connected immediately with the project, the cause, the contest; everything about it just felt right to me. I have two daughters, I work at a school, and I love to sew. It all came together.
The trip to Africa was a leap of faith on my part—traveling to a foreign country with a group of strangers—and on the part of Sew Powerful as well; they didn’t know much about me, either. There was a lot of trust happening! I never doubted the people or the plan. The online presence of Liberty Jane and Sew Powerful helped me to feel that I knew Jason and Cinnamon (or at least would recognize them!).
After a very long night (eight hours sleeping on a chair at the NY airport), I finally met the group, and we were embarking on our journey to deliver the purses. What a fabulous group: Jason and Cinnamon, Barbara and Jerry, and my roommate Melinda. We trouped along through two more airports, and 15 hours later landed in Lusaka.
We were met by Esther, the most amazing woman I have ever met. You’ve seen her picture and read her email updates. She can move mountains! She started the Needs Care school, established a clinic, started the sewing cooperative, and is full of life and love. I truly believe there is nothing she cannot do or compel others to do. She greeted us with open arms and a big welcoming smile.
We worked very hard on that trip, and I learned a lot about myself and the ladies we met. The first obstacle was convincing them to sew the items that would become the MHM contents of the purses. It was a tall task because they had to learn how to cut, assemble and sew something they’d never seen before. After showing them the purses and explaining their part, they were given the opportunity to opt out and not participate, or jump in and make the commitment. I thought for sure there would be disagreement and discord. Esther spoke to them in their native tongue, so I’m not quite sure what she said; but the fierce look of determination on their faces was clear: they were not about to walk out and they would work as hard and fast as they could to meet the quota by the deadline. They clearly saw the value of what we were doing.
Then the project began in full swing—yards of fabric, Cinnamon at the machine demonstrating, Jason working his marketing and strategy magic, Melinda working the treadle machine.
Christopher (the only male in the program) was the official fabric cutter and machine repairman; program staff members Ruthie and Lentia supervising; Jerry, Barbara and I counting and assembling—it was coming together nicely. We were making progress, but there was a lot more to do.
We learned that soap was in short supply, and so was a change of undergarments for the girls. So, with Esther’s help and local contacts, we purchased those items and they became part of the purse package. The brilliant design of the purse made it a nice presentation piece.
We also discovered that the purse would be in such demand that the girls’ caretakers and extended family would each want one. So we designed a clutch style purse to contain the same items that could be given to the adult females in the household. The best part was that the sewing cooperative already had a bolt of fabric in their storage closet that was very suitable, so it could be made at no additional cost. They could sell these purses to support the project and continue to offer the donated purses for free to school girls. It was another example of rewarding collaboration.
Jason presented the ladies with the plan for gifting the girls with a purse in conjunction with their health lesson at school. He also asked them to come up with a pricing plan for selling the African-made purses; they were asked to consider the fair market value, the price point, how to market, etc. I really thought he’d lost his mind! How would these ladies know about such things? Much to my amazement, they launched into a discussion and clearly understood every bit of what Jason presented. They came up with a workable plan and were now officially businesswomen!
I learned about purposeful giving versus random donations. My instinct was to run to the closest store and buy up what they needed in sewing supplies, notions, fabric, etc., thinking they could sew faster and better with these tools. Not so. What would happen when they ran out or were broken? They could not replace them and that would leave them frustrated and back to square one.
It would be better to work with them and teach them the best way to work with what they have and can easily acquire. They didn’t need random “stuff.”
It became clear that the charity model for Sew Powerful is different than the usual sew-and-sell model used in many impoverished countries. These ladies are not making things to export, relying on US sales. They are making and selling something in their own community that will improve their lives and better the community. How cool is that?
When it came time to distribute the purses to the girls, it was very exciting. We presented to the class and demonstrated how the MHM products worked. We could all relate to their stories of embarrassment when they started their period in school and had no adequate protection. Especially “when you sit next to a boy and it happens,” said one student. Oh, how I remember that!
When we showed them the protective layer and how the products prevented leaks, they were thrilled! They also confirmed the need for something to share with the other females in the household. Esther asked them how many pairs of underpants they each owned, and the majority of them raised their hands indicating only one or two. Can you imagine? So they were equally thrilled to be getting a few more. The purses were the icing on the cake.
The girls politely accepted their purses and thanked us. They were containing their excitement and were still on their best school behavior. But when class dismissed—chaos! They were laughing, dancing, swapping purses, and having a great time. They were typical teenagers and it was delightful to watch. We participated in a dancing party in the courtyard of the school. (I’m sure they were laughing at us most of the time.)
One young lady asked if I could find her a purse with an outer pocket, since hers did not have one. I knew we had some more assembled in the workroom, so I asked what her favorite color was. She replied by asking me what my favorite color was. When I said blue or green, she said, “Orange, right?” So off I went to find my new favorite color, orange! In truth, I hate orange. Absolutely abhor it! Well, for the duration of that trip, orange was indeed my favorite color (and I made a mental note to make more orange purses when I got home).
The young man who drove one of the vehicles that transported us, Calvin, shared some of his story with us. He talked about walking several hours to school each day, attending class, then walking several hours home—every single day—for years! He was shocked to learn about the students at my school who complained because they didn’t get the best parking spot, didn’t pay attention to the teacher, or skipped class and ditched school. He simply couldn’t imagine wasting the precious gift of an education. And I thought of the girls at the Needs Care school who could now go to school and not miss out on that opportunity just because they were females and it was “that time of the month.”
Soon enough our African adventure came to an end. It was time to say a tearful goodbye to our host, the sewing ladies and Lusaka. They sent us off with a very moving gratitude ceremony. They thanked us for just knowing that they exist, giving something purposeful to them and their community and a chance to better their lives. We thanked them for being so inspiring and showing us what the meaning of a strong work ethic is. We prayed with them, laughed with them, and hugged them tight.
After spending time with Jason and Cinnamon, it became clear that they were very dedicated and committed to the project. They are lifelong charitable givers, mission workers, and life changers. They have made Sew Powerful a high priority in their lives and their business. It is what drives them. They are also inspiring individually and as a couple. They talk the talk and walk the walk. I trust them implicitly to do good works with the purse project and the new 3 Esthers Farm.
As a side benefit, I found out what a true support system I have in my own life: family, friends, co-workers, my employer—they all rallied around me to ensure that I could take this trip. They were all equally on board and inspired. I found out I was braver than I thought.
I traveled halfway around the world with people I never met, ate some traditional African food, slept in an airport, held a child with HIV in an impoverished slum area—things I never thought I would or could do.
My take-away from the project and the trip was this: my small gift of time (sewing some purses) gave a huge gift of time to several girls—time for an education they are so hungry for and time for a better and brighter future. Along with that, we are giving them the gift of knowing that they matter to the rest of the world.
Most importantly, the ladies of the sewing cooperative and the children and staff at the Needs Care School were the gift given to me.