Adventure, part 2: Out of Gas

Adventure, part 2,  Out of Gas I like to stay in Lilongwe when I am in Malawi.  It’s a bigger town and there are more restaurants and travelers to talk to.  There is a place called the Kiboko Town Hotel which has a nice cafe and a great restaurant next door, Don Brioni’s Bistro.  If I could, I would stay at the Kiboko Hotel all the time, but it is expensive and I do have a friend who has a nice house in Lilongwe where I can stay when I am in town.  I use the Kiboko Cafe as my “office” and spend a lot of time there during the day.  The cafe closes at 5 pm and every once in awhile I eat at Don Brioni’s and then take a taxi back to my friend’s house.  I never walk alone after dark anywhere in Malawi and even though my friend’s house is only a mile away, this was no exception.

After dinner at Don Brioni’s I asked the guard at the Kiboko Hotel if he could find me a taxi.  He called his friend who quickly arrived and was very friendly and happy to give me a ride.  About 3/4 of the way to my friend’s house (which was 3/4 of a mile) his taxi ran out of gas.  We were right in front of a CCPC church with a big stone wall around it and a gate.  The taxi driver started rattling the bars of the gate and two men came out of the dark, unchained the gate and we pushed the taxi into the church courtyard.  There was a lot of talk in Chichewa and then the taxi driver asked me if I could pay my fare now so that he could go get gas.  He told me I would be safe, to lock myself in his taxi, he gave me his empty wallet (as collateral, I guess) and then headed off on foot to find a gas station.  45 minutes later I was still locked in the taxi and the driver wasn’t back.  I decided I better do something and got out of the taxi to find the two men who had let us into the church courtyard.  It was very dark and I used my cell phone flashlight so I could see where I was going.  I found the two men behind a small guard post and asked if one of them could walk me the rest of the way to my friend’s house.  I didn’t know if they understood me, but then one said “money”.  I offered K1000  ($2.50) and they consulted with each other and said “No, K1500” to take me to my friend’s.  I agreed and actually would of paid whatever they asked to get out of that church courtyard and safely to my friend’s house.  One of the men walked me to the gate of the house and waited until I was inside.  I never did see the taxi driver again but the next morning when I went past the church his car was gone so I guess he finally did get the gas.

The next day I told some of my Malawian friends this story and they laughed.  I thought they were laughing about my predicament but they were laughing because I paid so much money for a quarter of a mile walk when it would have been perfectly safe for me to walk alone. Malawi is the 6th poorest country in Africa, 80% of the population lives below the poverty line.  It is also one of the safest countries in Africa. There is no internal conflict or unrest and the people are very friendly.  They like people like me because they know I am there to help.  The older women especially, they take my hand and give me the “thumbs up sign” and try to thank me in Chichewa.  I don’t understand what she is saying but I know what she means.  I was frightened in the church courtyard, it was very dark and I was alone.  What I took away from this experience, once again, was the kindness and honesty of the Malawian people.  If I ever end up in a situation like this again in Malawi, I would still be frightened, but maybe not as much.

Kiboko Hotel
Kiboko Hotel
Kiboko Cafe
Kiboko Cafe

Adventure, part 1: Getting to Mangochi

I will be in Malawi from mid-February until the end of March.  I am very excited to see the Khama Sewing School women and their supervisors, Amos and Charity.  I live in Pittsburgh and right now it is snowing and the temperature is 20 degrees and on its way down to 1 degree.  Electricity or no electricity the warm sunny weather sounds wonderful.  THREEafrica had such a successful 2013 fall season that we are doubling our order. When I came back to the US in August I was so busy being a vendor that I didn’t have time to tell you about my trip.  During the 6 weeks I was in Malawi this summer I had a few “adventures” that I learned a lot from.  The first was when I took the bus from Lilongwe to Mangochi, a four hour trip that ended up taking 7 hours (there is this thing called Malawi time...).  I got off the bus in Mangochi around dusk with my suitcase and a large heavy duffle bag of chitenji, the local fabric, that I was taking to the sewing school.  A man grabbed my suitcase and started jumping up and down and shouting “give me money, give me money.”  In a panic, I asked the man who had been sitting next to me on the bus to help me get my suitcase back.  I had listen to him passionately tell me about Malawian politics for about 3 hours, so I felt we were kind of friends.  My friend approached the man and grabbed the suitcase back.  The man started trying to punch my friend who then took off his suit coat, handed it to me and started to fight back.  Fortunately some other men who were hanging around the bus stop grabbed the suitcase grabber and stopped what could have been a fight.  First time two men have ever fought over me (ok, my suitcase) it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, believe me.

By now it was dark and one of my cardinal rules in Malawi is to never be out on the street alone when it gets dark.  There were no taxis, mini busses or mantolas (open backed trucks that you can hop on and get a ride) in sight.  I couldn’t move because the suitcase and duffle bag were too heavy.  I didn’t have any choice so I again asked my friend to help me get to the lodge where I was staying.  He happily agreed and asked me to wait at the bus station and he would be right back.  There were other men who had watched the fight and so at least knew who I was so I felt kind of safe.  My friend quickly returned with 2 bicycle taxis, I got on one with my suitcase and he the other with my big duffle bag.  By now it is very dark and we are riding down these narrow, twisting alley ways and I have no idea where I am going.  I also have no idea how the bicycle taxi drivers can see where they are going.  I turn to my friend, who is on the bike behind me, and say “I’m trusting you” he answered back “don’t worry Madam.”  We arrived at the mini bus station and my friend negotiated a fair price with one of the driver’s to take me to the front door of the lodge where I was staying.  I gave my friend some kwatcha (Malawian currency) and thanked him again and again for being my friend and helping me get to the lodge safely.  He left with money in his pocket and a big smile and I headed straight to the bar for a glass of wine.  I left Lilongwe at 8 am and arrived at the Palm Beach (yes, that is the name of the lodge) at 7 pm.  By car the trip would of taken 4 hours, but not on Malawi time.  I learned four important things about traveling in Malawi from this “adventure.”  When traveling never bring more than you can carry.  Always make sure that you call the place you are staying and arrange to have them meet you at the bus station.  Malawian time can drive you crazy and finally, Malawians are the nicest, kindest people you would ever want to meet and I thank my friend, once again, for helping me.

The New Year

As the new year begins I am making plans to return to Malawi during the last two weeks of February and all of March.  I will soon be paying the second semester tuition for 2 daughters of the women in the Khama Sewing Center in Kasungu.  Khama came into existence a couple of months ago thanks to a small group in the UK who stepped up to help out.  The 9 women had been sewing for another large fair trade company for 7 years.  The owner moved her operation up to a town 2 hours away and hired a whole other group of women.  The women of Kasungu were left with only small orders and prospects did not look very good. A woman from the UK, who currently employs the women to sew hand bags for her shop, found a way to support the women while they transitioned.  The women are now in a much nicer location and I have committed myself to provide sustainable jobs for them.  The woman from the UK is working with them to set up a business model and find more work.  These women are excellent seamstresses and trying hard to make a better life for themselves and their children.  When I was in Kasungu in the summer, despite the situation they were in, the women still laughed and kidded one another along with Amos, their supervisor.  I had no idea what they were saying because they were all speaking in Chichewa, Malawi’s native language, but I found myself laughing right along with them.  This is what motivates me to make THREEafrica a successful business. [gallery ids="212,211,207"]

Rivers of Steel

As the holiday season for THREEafrica comes to a close I would like to tell you about a venue that I was fortunate to be a part of twice this holiday season. THREEafrica’s last holiday fair this past weekend was at the Pump House No.1 in Homestead, PA.  The Pump House is a restored building preserved by Steel Industry Heritage Corporation for the purpose of educating people about the significance of the dramatic labor conflict in the Battle of Homestead in 1892 (www.battleofhomesteadfoundation.org/battle.php). Rivers of Steel

The Pump House (www.battleofhomesteadfoundation.org/pumphouse) is the long building on the left and is a monument to the steel workers in Pittsburgh and the working class everywhere. Unfortunately the weather that weekend was awful, rain and sleet on Saturday, sleet and rain on Sunday.  Very few people ventured out to the Pump House or anywhere else.  The few that did show up were interested in learning about THREEafrica and our mission to provide jobs and educational opportunities for women and girls in Malawi.  It was very compelling to have the chance to tell people about THREE’s mission in a place where steeler workers had fought for fair labor. I may not have sold very much that day, but the Pump House became a very powerful, moving place and experience for me.

A few weeks before the Pump House I participated in another venue operated by Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, Carrie Furnaces 6 and 7. Since the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s these are the only non-operative blast furnaces in the region that are still standing.  I was able to take a tour that day of the furnaces and again was overwhelmed by the history and feeling that the furnaces may not be operating anymore but they are still very much alive.Rivers of Steel 2

http://www.riversofsteel.com/preservation/heritage-sites/carrie-furnaces/

I will now admit that I was not looking forward to setting up a table at all these holiday fairs and peddling my wares. I am by nature not much of a talker about myself.  However, these fairs turned out to be a really great experience.  More people than I thought knew something about the lives of women in a country like Malawi and wanted to know more and how they could help.  Everyone was very supportive and encouraging and thanked me for what we do.  I also had the opportunity to learn about places like Rivers of Steel (www.riversofsteel.com), the Carrie Furnaces and the Pump House, something I would of never sought out on my own.

When I returned from Malawi in August I did not know what to expect. I had over 200 items including little girls’ dresses, women’s skirts, iPad and laptop sleeves and other various handicrafts to sell so that THREEafrica could provide sustainable jobs and for women and education past 8th grade for girls.  The success of THREE is a bit overwhelming for me.  I believe educating girls is a social investment and a way out of poverty for everyone in developing countries. I encourage you to see the film, Girl Rising (www.girlrising.com) and the documentary Half the Sky (www.pbs.org/independentlens/half-the-sky) and learn how you can help make a difference in these girl’s lives.

Finally, I have a request for all of you. I am so pleased to report that all of the items from THREEafrica sold very well and the only items left are posted on (www.etsy.com/shop/THREEafrica).  Please take a look and pass the word out to all your friends to also take a look for last minute holiday gifts.

I will be returning to Malawi soon and will bring back more dresses and other items that you can purchase to help the women and girls in Malawi.  I also have a l lot of stories from my summer trip that I now will have the time to tell you about.  Check back soon, keep your eye on etsy and all of us at THREEafrica wish you a happy holiday season!

Rusty Scissors and No Iron

Everyone knows that when attempting any sort of project, it's important to have the right tools on hand.  One of the big challenges in working with the women at the Khama Sewing Center in Kasungu is the lack of proper, working sewing tools.  I work with the women while they sew and one of the things that I do is pin the pattern templates on the chitenji (fabric) and cut them out. Image

I mainly work on smaller pieces like the credit card cases or coin purses.  When I was at the sewing center in August I had trouble cutting the chitenji because the scissors I was using were so dull.  Unless I found the exact place on the scissor’s blades that was still sharp enough to cut, the chitenji would simply bend when I tried to cut it.  It was very frustrating to say the least.  I decided to buy a couple of pairs of decent scissors for the group.  I asked Amos, the supervisor to take me to the best place in Kasungu to buy scissors and I told him that money was not an object.  Amos was excited, the women were excited and off we went.

Image

When we got to the shop, photo above, Amos asks, in chichewa, for the women's finest scissors.  She shows us three boxes of scissors that all look the same: rusty and dull.  Our task was to pick out the pair with the least amount of rust on them in hopes that they'd be a little better than the scissors we had previously been using.  Once back at the sewing center the new scissors did cut somewhat better than the old ones...after we wiped the rust off of them.

No iron…

Anyone who does any sewing knows that an iron is crucial.  You use an iron to flatten the seams once you have sewn them, to take the wrinkles out of a piece of fabric before you begin cutting it, to fold hems before you sew them and, once the piece is finished, to iron it so it looks neat and professional.  The women did have an ironing area set up with a decent iron.  The problem was that during the week and a half I was at the sewing center there was sporadic electricity availability with outages lasting for days at a time.  Amos did take some materials to his home (where there was electricity and a functioning iron) and did some ironing at night, but still a lot of the products lacked adequate, flat seams.  The inner seams in the iPad cases also needed to be trimmed which was an issue because of the scissor situation.  When I got back to the US I had to dust my iron off (I hardly ever us it, the dryer works fine for me) and iron everything.  It was a chore but it did give me the chance to see all the beautiful patterns in the chitenji again and admire the work the women had done.  As a side bonus, I got to catch up on the television I missed while I was gone and didn't feel guilty about it!

The Debut of THREEafrica

Two weekends ago THREEafrica made its debut at the Delmont Apple Festival in Delmont, PA.  THREE was one of 155 booths at the festival selling a wide range of handmade crafts, delicacies, and trinkets.  I learned about crafts that I never knew existed: for example did you know you could buy a cheese tray made out of an empty Absolut Vodka bottle?  Anyway, it was a very entertaining and productive weekend and we ended up selling over $500 worth of THREEafrica products!  We also had a lot of opportunities to talk about the mission and goals of THREEafrica to patrons of the festival, hopefully spreading our message. KSOpR9MIZ5fl-tEkVC2ZeNFG2tgRWnWENl9-eHxxiQA

Our booth was located right across the field from the entertainment stage and so we were able to witness everything that took place there including the eerily entertaining Baby Apple Dumpling contest, which is exactly what you're probably thinking it is.  A panel of “experts” were tasked with selecting the cutest individual out of age groups ranging from one to six years old.  Fortunately, not very many children got roped into participating and I was happy to see some boys win.  The Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonators didn’t seem to have much of an effect on THREE’s sales, however there was an enthusiastic preacher who may have.  She explained her work with the homeless and elaborated on how she believed that people who have been fortunate enough to receive help in their lives should pass the good deeds on to those who have wound up in tight circumstances - a theme which is very much in concert with our philosophies here at THREE.

The weather report for the weekend called for clear skies and sunshine on Saturday and rain for the majority of Sunday.  In typical fashion this was actually the opposite of what ended up occurring in reality.  Saturday saw at least three heavy bursts of rain and Sunday was absolutely gorgeous.  Fortunately, I had acquired a portable canopy which proved very effective at shielding both us and our products from the rain!

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I mentioned before that an important part of the festival is not only the ability to directly sell our items, but the opportunity for us to talk to people about the goals and motivation behind THREEafrica.  Interest seemed to vary.  At this particular festival I had trouble telling whether or not the people I talked to effectively understood everything THREE is trying to do.  However, everyone seemed to really enjoy the items we had and we were able to sell several of them based just on their style, colors. and appearance.  This was actually really encouraging because it indicates that the items we sell have an objective, inherent level of quality to them.  It is not my goal to use pity and sympathy as a means to sell cheap, sub-par items.  We want people to buy our items because they're interesting, quality products.  We don't want people to buy items that they otherwise wouldn't, simply because they benefit a good cause.  A sale is a sale, but I think it really speaks to the level of talent, skill, and commitment of the Malawian women who are making these items when people genuinely think that the items we sell are of high quality.

So I'd definitely categorize the weekend as a success!  Despite the fact that it rained (never good for business in an outdoor market) and the fact that it was our very first market we were able to sell a decent amount of dresses and accessories.  Thanks for reading and we'll hopefully see you soon!