Friday, August 31, 2018

A Tale from the Sewing Room

When I heard of the need for sewing notions to be taken to Africa, I started talking to my sewing friends, and gathering buttons, zippers and elastic. I also began to get excited about potentially using my basic sewing skills at the orphanage to aid with sewing or mending for the students and staff.  If you ever want to hear about my love/hate relationship with sewing, I would be happy to share the story of a 12 year old girl (me) that wanted a dirt bike for her birthday, but got a sewing machine instead! 

A few of my friends and family who have no idea about sewing, but caught my enthusiasm, gave me money since they had no supplies to donate, and I was able to order additional supplies on line before I left!  To each of you that donated elastic, buttons and zippers,  here was the "stash".  I packed over 3,000 buttons, of all shapes and sizes along with rolls of elastic in varying widths, and 300 zippers in all lengths and colors in my check bag!  

I apologize as this is not the best photo, but I think you get the idea!  The ladies in the sewing room were so happy with our donations, and frankly in my opinion, no one can have too many buttons!!  As a side note, the next day when I returned to the sewing room to work,  I found it empty. What I did notice was small stacks of buttons sitting around. They clearly had enjoyed sorted through them matching them up.  It made me smile as I remember fondly doing that with my grandmothers buttons, and my girls doing the same thing with my button stash!  Really there is just something so awesome about a huge stash of colorful shaped buttons! 

As part of our planned trip expenses/donations, we had agreed to purchase new school uniforms for the school age students.  This consisted of fabric for shorts and skirts (which would be sewn at Fiwagoh), new sweaters (purchased in town) and if there were funds remaining,  a new pair of socks for  each them so they could start off September in style when they returned to the classrooms! The government dictates what colors the students must wear at each particular school throughout Africa, so we purchased light blue fabric for the bottoms, skirts or shorts for the littles, and gray for the the trousers and skirts for the older students.  In addition we were also able to purchase fabric for play shorts and skirts! To round out the supplies, we brought girls and boys, men and women's underwear with us from the states, as it seems they are of better quality than what they can purchase there. 

The photo above is a section of all the children wearing their new school sweaters!  We were also able to purchase their socks!  What is the cost to outfit 265 kids for back to school with the basic clothing needs?  Underwear times one pair, one sweater, one pair of socks, and a bottom (skirt or pants) ? $3,912.82 or  $14.77 a child!!   Amazing!  

Again a huge thanks to each of you that had any part of donating towards this endeavor! The children were very proud and so very grateful for their new things!  We got many thank you notes in response to your generosity.  While this post in particular is about clothing their physical bodies, because of such an extensive amount of financial donors prior to our departure we were able to leave a huge footprint, providing for their other needs, through our small but mighty team! 

Now on the to cutting and the sewing.  The sewing room was a large open space that had sewing machines along the outside walls under the windows for maximum lighting. All the machines were in working order, while I felt like a couple of them were very outdated, they clearly did the job at hand and had been for many years!  

Once the fabric had arrived, the ladies got busy laying it out on the tile floor and measuring it to make sure they maximum their number of cuts and the "waste" was minimal.  As I mentioned in one of my first posts, nothing here goes to waste.  We had a paper pattern (pink and yellow in the photos) that we would lay down, pin and then cut,  repeating the entire length of the fabric or until the required number of pieces were cut.  This fabric was for boy new play shorts. 


Additionally we had the privilege to watch Eunice "whip" up a pair of play shorts (start to finish) including our elastic donations for the waistband, in under 20 minutes,  and Gladys made light work of the surging the seams of all the fabric pieces for all the shorts to prevent fraying and increase the wear time of the shorts. 

It was during one of these cutting times on our last day, that Ernie (our team leader) came into the sewing room to check out what we were doing.  He was dumbfounded as to why we were all crawling around on the floor cutting the fabric.  To him it seemed that it would hurt your knees and back and was not the most effective way to do the task at hand.  I agreed with him, but reminded him that when you go another place to serve, typically you just join them, doing the task at hand as they teach you the ways they have always done it.  

We had some conversation, with the ladies who added their occasional cautious thoughts, about other options beside cutting on the floor. One consideration was the mattresses in the rear of two of the photos.  We considered if stacking them would be a good option so the fabric was off the floor.  Upon further consideration we realized the scissors would sink/cut into the foam, it would not be a firm enough foundation to cut the patterns on. Additionally, how many mattresses would we have to stack to get to the height where the ladies could stand to work vs kneeling and crawling if the end goal was to make this "easier" for them.  Next we considered if we could locate any plywood "lying around" that was not being used.  Again if you live in a culture where you waste nothing, you guessed it, there was nothing to be found.  It was concluded the that tile was their best option currently (which they they already knew) hence why they showed us how to do the laying out and cutting of the fabric on the floor. 

It was a few minutes later that we (the team) headed to lunch.  During lunch Ernie began to sketch a work table for the ladies in the cutting room.  Initially, if memory serves me correctly, we were thinking that perhaps if we left the funds and the "sketch" or directions, the senior boys who were inclined and skilled in the area of woodworking could make the table in the coming weeks for the ladies in the sewing room.  In conversation, of course Eunice and Gladys had agreed with Ernie's assessment of what the the best option would be; approximately a waist high, long cutting table!  It was 1:30 PM on our last day at Fiwagoh, when Ernie and Pastor Benson left for the lumber yard to gather supplies for this project.  

Now let me just say this... I love a challenge!  And I love building stuff.  Last year in Peru I got to work the chop saw for an entire day and was in my glory!! I believe that it is safe to say that Ernie does as well!  He knew going into this last minute project, of which we determined he should just go purchase the supplies for,  was not going to be an hour long round trip, like here in the states when you run to Home Depot or the Lowes!  They returned to the orphanage at 6:30PM almost 5 hours after their departure.  While they had a list of supplies, and knew exactly the dimension of the wood needed, they had to wait for the wood to be milled and it was not one stop shopping!  Of course there is this thing called "Africa time"  which stands still for all reasons or none, and you are at the mercy of the shop owners and their sense of urgency. 

I can't recall at what point in this hunting, gathering and delivering of the supplies that we as an individual or a group determined that we were going to just go ahead and build this table with the help of any of the older boys that were willing. However, it became clear rather quickly upon Ernie and Pastor Bensons return that we had one more project to do!  

With only a few hours of our trip left, none of our packing for departure done, and hearts that desired more than reason, to leave one more mark behind, spent the last of our allotted project funds and time, and set out to get this project done!!  We grabbed a quick dinner, and off to the shops we headed.  

Now by this time the sewing ladies were home, unaware of what was happening in their sewing shop!  Which is probably a good thing, as we attempted to cram into this space, more people than we should have, more tools and supplies, and more chaos than they would have preferred I am sure! 

We called all the senior boys that wanted to assist with the project to come help.  But we also had promised all the seniors we would hang out and play some games with them, as it was our last night at the orphanage.  They had as a great a desire to hang out with us,  as we had to build this table for the sewing room.

As with all things in Africa, nothing seems to work just like you plan.  Ernie found that the wood shop equipment was not in the best working order and after some modifications, and a bit of frustration, we finally got everything and everyone situated in the sewing room.  Chairs were brought in for the games we would play with the kids not building. Over the noise and distraction of directions being given and power tools being run, we made the most of our last night at Fiwagoh! 

In the midst of teaching 30+ kids to play UNO, two rolling black outs, an abundance of laughter as they switched to their favorite game of signs, a sad awareness of our departure looming, pounding, leveling and a shortage of nails, we manage before 10:30 PM on our last night at Fiwagoh to finish our master piece!! 

* Ernie, if I have any of the facts above wrong, feel free to make corrects by sending me a message, I am happy to make edits to complete the story from all perspectives!


We quickly wiped off the saw dust, cleaned up the floor and our remaining supplies.  We carried bolts of fabric and stacked them on the shelves under the table.  We wrapped up by leaving a heart felt note on the table for the ladies the next day on the back of the only sheet of paper we had, the original sketch for the table, in anticipation that we would not see them prior to our departure the next morning.    

Then, in the typical African style our departure time was pushed back, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and found smiles all around when Gladys and Eunice walked in to the sewing shop to start working to find a new work table in the center of their sewing room just for them!  

Of course as we hugged and chatted, we could not miss the opportunity to take a "selfie" to commemorate and celebrate the moment!  Some things in Africa are just the same as in the states!!  

These ladies and this project for them, is top of my highlight reel from this trip! Something not planned, but obviously meant to be! I enjoyed the fellowship with the young men that worked diligently beside Ernie and the men of the house, Pastor Benson and Nelson and Duncan. Sharing laughs as we leveled and nailed and held the table together.  Sharing in the joy of the finished project is a feeling that I just can't put in words.  Seeing the joy on the ladies faces when they walked into the room and were surprised by the table was priceless! 

In all this, it is my hope that the table will allow them relief on their backs, knees legs and shoulders, as they can now stand to cut uniforms. Also, they now have a great work space for other projects that need done, or for just organizing their supplies.  Additionally, it is my desire for them to know that the table was constructed out of our love for them, and our knowledge of how things could be a slight bit easier for them in the midst of the task of sewing for 265+ children.  

Never was it our intention to build the table, and leave them to think that we were snotty Americans that forced them to do something our way.  I recognize that even as excited as they were about the table, that making the switch to using it, after years of using the floor as the table, as silly as it may seem to our minds, will take some adjustments on their part. Overall, it is my prayer is that our "American" vision for improving their workplace actually was the blessing it was intended it to be, and that we were able to play a role in providing a hand up and an viable and workable option to help them work with more ease.  

It is worth mentioning that these ladies and their students, never once gave us any indications that the way their shop was set up was a hardship for them, or that they were dissatisfied in some way about how things were being done.  On the contrary they were generous, gracious teachers, allowing us to come along side them and "help".  Our returned trips to the sewing room showed them our intentions were to really work side by side with them and learn a bit about each of them and their life and ministry at Fiwagoh. 

The lessons that I learned from them were more too numerous to count.  I was reminded each time I went to the sewing room of many things, and here are just a few:   
  • With planning and effort, there is no waste (or very little).  Even the smallest scraps, what I would consider waste, were repurposed into handkerchiefs, and the small children found the actual waste, to be a treasure trove for their imaginative play. 
  • The children were encouraged and invited into the sewing room play at the feet of those working.  What a great way for them to learn by observation! 
  • It seemed daunting to me that the equipment that they had was going to get the job done, but to them it was perfect, and in the imperfections, they had learned along the way to manage, manipulate and coax the machines into exactly what their man created tasks were. 
  • Patience is tied closely with joy.  When you are patient in your planning and execution of the job at hand, you exude peace even when the snafus happen.  
  • No matter what you are faced with, just make do, and get the job done.  Do not expect others to do it for you or even with you.  Do not feel like you are entitled to more that what you have, as it is exactly what you need to do the task at hand. Less is more. 
Again, I am rejoicing that I did not have to make any of this adventure up! I lived it and loved it! I hope that you are encouraged through the recounting of the blessings of my time spent in the sewing room!  

"Really I don't dislike to cook, but what you cook is eaten so quickly.  When you sew, you have something that will last to show for your efforts! " Elizabeth Trans Johnson 

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