A young man in Congo approached our cooperative for help this week. He had never attended school. He had no home, no food, and no money. Mama Aroyo told me when he knocked on the door of our shop it was as if Christ himself came begging. She and the other women of our cooperative welcomed him in and offered to teach him some basic sewing skills. He is now a part of our community. Everyday, he has a group of joyful young ladies who talk with him, teach him, laugh with him, and care for him. And I think to myself: Who am I that God has put these women in my life? See how easy they love and serve others when they themselves live in poverty. My heart is full.
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"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Africa is as unpredictable as ever. It's my 5th time to the continent (4th to DRC) and being surrounded by such extreme poverty, I feel defeated. Our cooperative is wonderful in many ways though still there is room to grow as far as bookkeeping and inventory tracking are concerned, but when I look around it's all so gloom...malaria, illness, death, starvation, roadside killings, and hardly any employment opportunities. Several times a day, individuals, who know about our cooperative, and want me to help them find a good job or tell them how to create a social enterprise, approach me. It's inspiring but at the same time I feel so overwhelmed.
My trip this summer challenged me greatly. Everyday in Congo I encountered young men and women from our village asking for assistance. They want to start a business or improve their current trade by taking our business training. Yet they also need computers to open Internet cafes, generators to increase production at the local bakery, and science books for medical students. The list is endless, and I've often found myself in the position of being the only one they can ask.
Among many questions, I continue to ask myself how do we fit into all this? Where do we begin? And, will it ever be enough? When we start to see ourselves as the answer to the sufferings of others, we lose sight of authentic, human development. Development is not exclusive to improving the economic plight of the poor, though it is certainly one aspect, but rather we are called to something greater.
We are called to purposeful and fruitful relationships. I have learned one of the best ways we can do this is to simply begin with what we know - our talents. We acknowledge and embrace them not for our own benefit but for the good of others. When we do this, our capacity to impact those we love grows and we are inspired to give with joy. Our gifts will be constantly manifested and emboldened through our relationships, and so long as we have one another, there will always be hope.
Dieu Beni was a curious young twelve-year-old when we first met. She was sent to live within our volunteer compound, which was near her school. Dieu Beni's father is an English teacher. She picked up the language at home and with a little encouragement would often practice with me during the day.
Dieu Beni watched volunteers come and go from our projects in the village. She peered in through our windows while we prepared evening meals and we would often find her eavesdropping on our daily conversations. She was also very helpful, especially with new volunteers who didn't know how to burn trash, cut firewood, or prepare chicken.
In February, Dieu Beni came up to me and said that one day she was going to become a cooperative member of Totonga Bomoi. I smiled and told her that she had to study hard in school and complete her sewing studies, but inside I was completely filled with joy that this young girl, whom we often referred to as notre petit espion (our little spy), would one day become such an intelligent and determined young woman.
Dieu Beni is like so many others in the village who, after years of walking miles to school and studying by candlelight, are left to a life of inescapable poverty. Malnourishment and disease take so many lives that our families in Congo live with constant fear of loss and unpredictability.
By creating opportunities for our artisans to increase their monthly income and build community, we can strengthen families and communities across Congo.
Last week, I received several photos from an Italian volunteer who spent time in Aru, Congo. He stopped by our local office and workshop, where he met the young women of Totonga Bomoi.
Their talents and outlook on life impressed him. He recounted the joy he saw in their eyes, and the pride they took in their work as they sewed dozens of beautiful handbags for him to share with family and friends in Italy!
Just think: Six months ago, these women were working alone, struggling to make ends meet. Today, our artisan cooperative provides them a safe and clean place to work as well as a community of trust so that they can continue to share ideas and learn from one another.
Microfinance has become widely regarded as an important tool for empowering women and addressing gender inequality in an economy. As the Events and Social Media Intern, I serve Totonga Bomoi with a social enterprise study mission to learn how very poor women are improving the lives of their families.
In the village of Aru, Congo where our social enterprise was initiated, the local economy is very simple. Those who are active in the local labor market are employed or self-employed as farmers and day laborers who do not have regular work. There are of course a few with some basic skills in sewing and machinery, etc. However, due to lack of government policies, cooperation becomes the key element for people to improve their social and economic development status.
Totonga Bomoi gathered with 10 local women to create the first artisan cooperative in 2014 and recently partnered with Yobel International to provide accounting, marketing, and leadership education for these women to create and manage business of their own. We believe that education will be a benefit to the empowerment of women as gender equality is realized and will serve these women to stand against injustice and violence.
Last weekend, Katie, Founder of Totonga Bomoi, showed me a report of these women’s salary increase, from 25 dollars a month to almost 150 dollars a month. One of our artisans, Julienne Buve said, “With my earnings, I purchased a sewing machine which I have transferred to our cooperative office that opened in March 2015!” Another artisan, Bernadette Enaru, said, “I was able to use money that I earned through our cooperative to buy the building materials. Our cooperative has also allowed me to support my siblings with their education. Receiving one’s secondary diploma is very important to the future of my country.”
These women are looking forward to creating many more products! It has always been the social enterprise and NGOs to fill the gap between the government, who provides public services; and the private sector that usually only engages in for-profit business agendas.