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Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

For many people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evokes images of poverty, suffering, and violence. And indeed, for the last two decades, the country has been plagued by conflict and bloody civil wars. It is currently among the poorest in the world, with 80% of its population living in poverty.

Is your mobile phone, computer, iPod, and gaming system fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

Are these minerals in our mobile phones, computers, iPods, and gaming systems fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

But the country is also incredibly rich in resources, especially in the eastern region. Home to some of the world’s rarest minerals including gold, coltan, carbonite, tin, and tungsten, the DRC supplies many of the key elements that are essential to our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. One would think that a country so rich in valuable resources would not be mired in violence and the resultant poverty, but in fact, it is these very minerals that are fueling this conflict and financing African militias, who are then selling them to middlemen who supply these key ingredients to companies world-wide.

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

How do these militias secure control of these mines and trading routes? By looting villages for resources, displacing communities, killing the men who were the providers of the families, and using rape as a war tactic to control and suppress the women.

Described as ‘the rape capital of the world‘ by the United Nations, more than half a million women and girls have been raped in the last ten years alone.

So, what can be done?

Here’s the problem. It is very difficult for consumers to gauge whether their purchases are funding armed groups that are committing such atrocities, given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain (Sound familiar? Fashion isn’t the only industry that suffers from ‘transparency problems’). This is why activists like Amani Matabaro and John Prendergast from the Enough Project have made it their focus to educate citizens about the conflict, and have recently released a company ranking system as a way of empowering consumers to make more responsible purchasing decisions regarding conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

And what about the people, mostly women, who have survived the horrors of war, who are displaced and lacking the community that previously existed in their villages? This is where non-profit organizations like Mamafrica, are making a difference.

The women of Mamafrica!

The women of Mamafrica!

Mamafrica is a woman’s sewing cooperative based in Bukavu, a city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda that has become a refuge for “internally displaced persons.” When Ashley Nemiro, an aspiring Ph.D in counseling and psychology, started her work at the Panzi hospital in May of 2012 to conduct research on the efficacy of group therapy treatment for women who had been victims of gender-based violence, she was distressed not just by the trauma these women had gone through, but by the limited opportunities there were for them to support themselves and their families. It was then that she was fortunate enough to meet Congolese activist Amani Matabaro, who founded a program (AFBEK) supported by the community development organization Action Kivu, which funds sewing cooperatives and micro-finance loans for women as a means by which they can support their small businesses and take care of their families. Through her conversations with Amani the idea for a holistic organization that would empower women by providing education, a healing arts programs, and economic opportunity, began to develop. Amani in turn introduced Ashley to Aline Malekera, a Congolese woman with a B.A. in English and a powerful voice in the community, who became a partner and was instrumental as a translator and Finance Administrator. The two formed the cooperative from three sewing collectives: Centre Ushini, AFBEK, and Action Kivu. Mamafrica now serves over ninety women in Bukavu, most of whom have fled from the violence of rural eastern Congo.

I was able to interview Ashley Nemiro in person and Aline Malekera via email about their work in the organization, and how they hope it will improve women’s lives in Bukavu:

Nadia: So Aline, could you give us more background about the conflict in the Congo and how it has affected women there?

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

Aline: Before the war started in 1996 everyone had farms and fields to cultivate, animals to raise, and parents were able to feed and pay school fees for their children. But when the war started, most of people’s means were stolen, their houses were burned, their husbands killed, and their villages and communities destroyed. Many of these women are rejected by their husbands, family, and community if they are raped. And even though they have no support, they have to be strong, be everything, for their children.

Nadia: Why did you want to get involved with Mamafrica?

Aline: I have lived through many years of war, and I wanted to empower these women who have been displaced and rejected by their husbands and families. I feel determined to help these women understand that they can do something in their society, that their lives can change, if they are determined.

Nadia: Ashley, can you describe a little more in depth what you mean by a ‘holistic’ program?

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley: Basically, Mamafrica is a three-phase program. When the women enter the program, they attend a six month healing-arts intensive course, which incorporates group trauma healing, meditation, counseling, yoga, and song and dance. They then complete a series of life sustainability education classes, where we teach nutrition, cooking, maternal child health, birth control, literacy, and financial responsibility. Then, we teach the women how to sew, tailor and embroider so that they can be employed by Mamafrica, where they make beautiful dresses, table cloths, and even yoga bags! And I should note that we allow the women to be independent and encourage them to be self-sufficient, so it is up to them how much time they want to invest in these programs.

Nadia: You mention self-sufficiency often. Do the women really have no other means of employment?

Good intentions gone wrong. Thrift stores like Goodwill are pumping clothing into Africa, making it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Good intentions with unintended consequences. Thrift stores like Goodwill make it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Ashley: You know what’s interesting? You know how a lot of the women make money here? By selling the overstocked items that are donated by Goodwill in the West to churches in the DRC. A lot of these items are soiled clothing or just junk, stuff that the women can’t even use. And so the women take these items and sell them in the streets, and while it’s true that they can make money that way, it is also difficult for people in the DRC to manufacture their own clothes and export their products when you have that kind of flooding of [free] products from the West into the country. And 99% of the fabric is imported from China, which is why it is important for Mamafrica to use fabric manufactured in Africa, that is from Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. We purchase this fabric in bulk from a fabric vendor in downtown Bukavu.

Nadia: So when we talk about ‘sustainable fashion,’ how are you trying to make Mamafrica sustainable?

Teaching the women how to sew!

Teaching the women how to sew!

Ashley: We are really trying to create a new generation of leaders. In our new healing arts program we talk so much about being a leader, and what it means to be a leader. Because in my mind, when people ask how to change the Congo, it’s not up to the US or USAID, it’s changing the leadership inside the country. It’s about Congolese people changing the system. And that isn’t going to happen if the women don’t have any means of empowerment and can’t support their children. In Bukavu it cost $10 per child a month to attend school and this creates a challenge since many women have more than 7 children and the average wage is .20 cents a day. With the wages that the women make at Mamafrica, they are able to afford to send their children to school, pay rent for their homes, and feed their families. Aline travels to each school and pays the school fees each month to ensure that all our Mamafrica children are attending school. Our hope is that by changing these women’s lives, that positive change will trickle down to the children and change a community.

Nadia: Do the women just make clothes for women in the West?

The women also make dresses for the community's children!

The women also make dresses for the community’s children!

Ashley: No, they make them for women in the DRC as well. We have a shop where many women in the community come to have clothing specially sewn for them including: school uniforms, wedding dresses, and children’s clothing. So many of these women love bright prints, perhaps because wearing these colors brings happiness to their lives. And since we have to tone down the colors a bit when we market to the West, it seems that these women really enjoy making brighter clothes for each other.

Nadia: Aline, do the women enjoy the sewing work?

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Aline: Sewing is a craft that a lot of these women connect to, so it’s wonderful that they can make clothes as a way to be independent, earn money and buy food for their children. In addition they are getting training that helps them to be independent, and their children who were unable to go to school are now attending school. They are getting food for their children and families after being paid each month. Also they are making friends and connecting with other women by working in groups.

Nadia: Could you share a success story?

"I was forced to flee my village three years ago and resettled in Buakvu. I was never given the chance to attend school or learn any vocational skills. I am a single mother with five children and thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

“Thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

Aline: Yes! Cibalonza is a woman with 5 children, and her life was honestly horrible before joining the center. Her husband abandoned her when he took another wife and left her to raise her 5 children alone. She was homeless and often times went days without feeding her children and herself. Since attending Mamafrica, Chibolonza has been able to earn money for her family, send her children to school and has made friends at Mamafrica that help her to care for her younger children when she is working. She rents a home for $10 a month and is able for the first time to provide for her childern. In October we referred Chibolonza to a partner organization where she started to receive microfinance loans and has been selling charcoal, avocados, and onions in the market and earning a living that is more than she could ever have imagined in the past. I visited her children just two months later and was shocked by how much weight they have gained. To my mind, this is a true success story.

Nadia: Any last words ladies? Anything in particular you would like readers to be aware of?

Ashley: When people buy these products, I want it to be not just because of the cause behind it, but because they really love our product. We all want good quality products that will last, and that are made with love. These women have come so far, and our products truly reflect that.

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting 'Fair Trade Tuesday' (my hat is not fair trade, but I'm a work in progress girlfriends!)

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting ‘Fair Trade Tuesday’ (my hat is not fair trade, but I’m a work in progress GFs!)

Since starting Mamafrica and traveling to the DRC I have become overly conscious about every purchase I make while in the DRC and back in the United States, which is why we decided to describe Mamafrica on our website as ‘consciously connecting.’ I think it is important, especially during the holiday season, to think about the people that are suffering when we unconsciously consume clothing or the latest technology. We need to raise awareness about companies that directly help the lives of others, and to make a concerted effort to support them. At Mamafrica we want everyone to know that when they buy our products, some woman’s life has been changed. If you check out our site which details how we invest the money we receive, you will see that your purchase helps send a child to school, and helps put food on the table.

That’s a powerful and ethical way to consume. When we talk about ‘ethical consumerism,’ it is ultimately about being conscious of what you are purchasing. It goes so much more beyond the fabric that is laying on your body.

Aline: I want people to know that I am determined to help women in the Congo, but I also need other people to understand why there are so many problems here, and why we need support.

I really wish the West knew why the people in the DRC experience war everyday and how severely affected we are by this. Even if we are not directly in a war zone, we are suffering from the effects of a country that has been in civil war since the 90’s. I have lived in Bukavu my whole life and I have seen things that you could never imagine.

Women in Bukavu do not have the education or the vocational skills to allow them to earn an income. These women have suffered greatly and they really need to make their lives better. This can come from support from the West by purchasing our products! When we receive support, we can continue to teach women new vocational skills, purchase sewing machines for them, and allow them to work independently and once again gain confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their children and give them a different life. I truly believe that if these ‘mamas’ are successful, that their children will have a better chance and the cycle of violence will be broken.

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

Mamafrica is currently looking to expand to a bigger building, which will allow for free drinking and bathing water, and more programs! Want to help? You can shop the boutique, make a donation, and contact the team for more information on how to get involved.

Would you like to learn more about the mamas behind the products? Click here to read about their amazing stories!

Looking for other ways to connect with Mamafrica? Check them out on Facebook!

Want to learn more about how the Congo’s conflict minerals make their way from the mines in eastern Congo to the cell phone in your pocket? Watch this informative video below that outlines how consumers can help end this violence:

Additional Resources:

  • Looking for an overview of the Conflict Minerals Crisis? Check out RAISE Hope for Congo’s page here.
  • Watch this inspiring TEDx talk by Congolese activist Bandi Mbubi, on the importance of pressuring companies for conflict-free phones.
  • Want to take action? Click here and here for the different ways YOU can help, including how to make your town and campus conflict-free!
  • Learn how the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires electronic companies who purchase minerals from the Congo to declare it clearly on their audits.
  • Check out the film Stealing Africa, a 55 minute documentary that details how multinationals like Glencore are ‘sucking the continent dry.’
  • Want to learn how the IMF and World Bank were involved in the sale of the mines that led to this conflict? You can read more here (‘Impoverishing a Continent’) and here (‘Why is the IMF Controversial?’)

My Related Posts:

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The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

Just a few months ago, the new iPhone 5 was officially released. Featuring all of the coolest new gadgets and the ‘thinnest, lightest design,’ it sold out in stores in an impressive three days. The commercial for the new phone is so cool, it practically renders all iPhone 4 users as irrelevant in one 30-second swoop. But as I wrote in a recent post on the textile fire in Pakistan that killed 300 people the same week that models were walking down the runway in beautiful designs for New York Fashion Week, sometimes the most glamorous things are a facade for tragedy.

As this brilliant article revealed, the iPhone 5 has been made in China by exploited workers in FoxConn sweatshops. Many of these “underpaid, underaged, and overworked staff” have gone on strike, only for their complaints to be denied and downplayed by Foxconn. As the author notes, our constant complaints and expectations for more ‘perfect’ technology is what drives this labor machine to move faster, to demand more from their workers than is humanely possible. Saturday Night Live recently aired a clever skit that contrasted the ‘first world’ complaints of American tech experts (the phone is too light, I can barely feel it!) with the retorts of the Chinese sweatshop workers. My favorite line? “Oh, twitter’s too slow, you can’t read about Kardashian’s handbag? My brother has a handbag too. He has hand. Keeps in bag. Until he can afford to re-attach!”

While the article continues to lend fresh insight into the labor advocacy that is surrounding this issue, I want to focus here on a simple question: what drives us to buy, and why we are never satisfied with what we have? Is there a certain satisfaction that people in the West gain by being able to whine about trivial things, knowing that the people who are making these technologies are unable to complain half as much over issues that are far more important?

Left: the first person in line to buy an iPhone 5 in England preens with his loot. Right: the family of a young laborer who killed himself at Foxconn (photo courtesy of “Is it Immoral to Own an iPhone 5?”)

Technology has always connoted progress and development in the West. Because technology isn’t available to everybody, those who do not have access to it are often viewed as ‘backwards,’ as ‘behind,’ as ‘less-developed,’ as ‘Third-World.’ For many, technology is a word that refers to the inaccessible, the things they would like to have but cannot afford. It allows those in the West to establish meanings of progress for the world, and to view poorer countries as less capable.

That is not to say that technology does not have cultural and social benefits. It obviously does. The technologies we use can facilitate social movements, create a greater amount of information, help us realize our goals as a ‘global village,’ and forge a “two-way” connection between disparate groups of people. Who can dismiss the important (though arguably overblown) role of new media networks like Facebook in the Arab revolutions last spring? Or how in Afghanistan, entrepreneurs like Roya Mahboob are using software companies to empower women?

Technology can have real positive social and economic effects, but it seems that in the West, it is more often being reduced to its ‘thing-ness,’ to the idea that this conspicuous consumption of more things that may have no tangible impact on one’s life is a symbol of our wealth and privilege. We spend big money on a cool color, on a slightly lighter phone, on marginally faster internet connection. We are obsessed with this notion of newness, with this idea that buying an iPad Mini will make us seem ahead of the curve in some way, when, let’s face it, it is really a slighter bigger iPhone.

And then of course, there is the technological waste that is left behind by our unconscious consumption. Three million tons a year, to be exact. The technology that is dumped in the backyards of people’s homes in China, India, and Africa, ruining both the environment and their lives. How better to reiterate this notion that those in the ‘Third World’ are behind when for many, their primary means of access to technology is the waste tossed out by those in the West?

Electronic Waste dumped in parts of Africa (photo courtesy of DanWatch and Consumers International)

Is that how we are measuring progress now? Not just by what we have, but by how much we can throw away?

We often think of poorer countries as constantly needing to ‘catch up’ with our modes of consumption for the sake of development. I believe however, that the people in these countries who use technology as a means of transforming communities and even resisting oppressive regimes, are actually more progressive than those in the West who have reduced technological innovations to just ‘stuff.’ Take, as another example, the four African girls who created a urine-powered generator that produces six hours of electricity using a single liter of urine as fuel. Unveiled at the Maker Faire in Nigeria, the girls and their ‘pee-generator’ created buzz at an event that was instituted to highlight innovations that actually solve “immediate challenges and problems in society,” rather than, as Next Web put it, “a bunch of rich people talking about how their apps are going to change the world.”

Three of the four inventors of the urine-powered generator (photo courtesy ofEric Hersman)

This holiday season, perhaps we should look to, and start adopting, the slower and more sustainable modes of consumption of so-called developing countries. Why not give a hand-made gift, or practice more conscious consumption if we do not want to abstain completely from purchasing presents for ourselves and our family. What does it mean to be a conscious consumer? Well, perhaps these two examples of different iPhone buyers will help clarify the difference:

Consumer 1: “So I’m going to buy the iPhone 5 today. It just seemed…cool. I mean there’s nothing wrong with my iPhone 4, but my bromance bro got the new one, and it’s so light I just thought it would be dope to see which one we could toss higher. I’ll just trade it in at Apple for a 10% discount. Whatever. When’s the iPhone 6 coming out?”

Consumer 2: I’ve been holding out buying the iPhone, because I don’t really need it. But then my iPod broke, and my cell phone is several years old, so I wanted to get the new iPhone. I heard about all the strikes in China though, so I didn’t want to get the iPhone 5. I’d feel too guilty. So I traded the iPhone 4 for a ton of my DVDs I don’t watch any more. And then I sold my old iPod and cell phone to a green company called YouRenew, which recycles your old technologies without filling up landfills! I love my new iPhone and I plan on keeping it for a loooong time.

I think we all can guess which one is the conscious consumer, peeps.

I know that being socially responsible about our purchases takes a little more time, a little more thought. But if the holiday season is when we give thanks by spending time with our loved ones and sharing gifts, perhaps we should also take the extra time to consider the people behind these gifts, whether it is the workers who make them, or those in the  ‘Third World’ who have to live with them as unrecognizable litter in their backyards.

Want to learn more about the global trade of electronic waste? Check out this amazing twenty minute documentary that won an Emmy for its investigative reporting:

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground:

Louis CK on why we’re never satisfied with what we have:

Further Reading:

This is the first article of a series that focuses on issues of sustainability and conscious consumerism – stay tuned for more on the subject, including an upcoming interview with eco-fashion founder Marci Zaroff!

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