Mother Africa: Weaving a Hopeful Future

When I think of weavers, what comes to my mind are the ladies in the back of the knitting store in my Southern California hometown, the ones who hang out on weekend afternoons with their handlooms – weaving cloth shawls, blankets, or the occasional modern tapestry.

Here, weaving is, by and large, a pastime. Some would call it an art form. The ladies in the back of the knitting shop are craft weavers. We might consider them “artisans” and laud them for mastering the truly ancient craft.

In the West, machines do most of the commercial weaving, not people. In Ethiopia, and elsewhere in the developing world, handloom weaving is most often an occupation for men and one that isn’t usually heralded for its artistry. Weaving isn’t a prestigious job and, by and large, those who weave are the working poor.

Traditionally, men are the weavers. I’ve heard what felt like an odd gender role (from my American perspective) explained as merely a function of physiology. Handloom weaving requires the strength – and therefore the physical mass – to batten, which is the term used to describe moving the beater (a long metal or wooden bar that is used to keep the weft thread or yarn in place).

Women spin the wool or cotton into thread that’s loaded onto spools and then strung onto the loom’s warp (lengthwise thread) and weft (the thread that weaves in and out of the warp thread.)

The sound of handloom weaving is unmistakable. The shush of the Flying Shuttle – a small missile-shaped object, often fashioned from dogwood, that holds the weft thread – as it’s thrown through the shed, or warp threads. The slam of the beater. The click of the heddles.

In Addis Ababa last month, I could hear the weavers at fashionABLE, a faith-based non-profit that has partnered with a local organization that helps women exploited by the sex industry to change their lives.

(Learn more about fashionABLE’s story in video form HERE.)

Founded by American Barrett Ward, who spent a year in Ethiopia after launching in 2005 his Mocha Club – a cadre of activists who pledged to give up the cost of two mocha drinks (or about $7 a month) to fund relief and development projects in Africa.

While living in Addis, Ward, who now lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters adopted from Ethiopia, encountered the Women at Risk organization and saw how effectively it worked to restore dignity and health (mental, physical, spiritual) to women trapped in prostitution. An estimated 150,000 women work as prostitutes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol, alone – and about 75 percent of those women are HIV-positive.

When Ward learned that one of the mightiest challenges to keeping women off the streets and out of the clutches of the sex industry was work that paid a living wage, the idea for fashionABLE was born.

Working hand-in-hand with Women at Risk, which boasts a 90 percent success rate (i.e. non-recidivism) among the more than 350 women who have passed through its 12-month rehabilitation program since 1996, fashionABLE teaches former sex workers how to spin, dye, and weave cotton into truly beautiful scarves (I’m wearing one as I write this) that are sold in the U.S. at high-end retailers such as Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif.

FashionABLE exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which permits the export of certain African goods to the States, duty-free and quota-free. (Under AGOA, Ethiopia has exported $13.8 million worth of goods to the U.S in 2011 – primarily textiles, apparel, and agricultural products such as coffee and khat.)

Each scarf created at fashionABLE bears the name of the woman who made it. It’s a small but radical act, a thread in a new garment the women are trying on for size, a future with ample hope and grace.

Today I am wearing a white scarf with various stripes and textures woven near the tassels at the bottom. The woman who made it is Bezuayhu. She’s 19.

“My parents had passed away and I used to live with my aunts and grandparents,” Bezuayhu says on the organization’s website. “They always wanted me to work and not to go to school. So, I came to the city, and there I came to this life of prostitution.Now, it feels so good to get up in the morning and say I am going to work. It feels so good to have a scarf named after me. I’m so proud to be called a scarf maker.”

Her tag reads: Because of you, I am ABLE to look forward to my future. Thank you.

I had the pleasure of meeting Saba, a beautiful young woman with a warm smile who made the purple scarf I gave my son’s godmother as a gift upon my return to California, at the modest fashionABLE compound in an industrial area of Addis.

With Women at Risk’s founder Serawit “Cherry” Teketel serving as translator, Saba spoke (in her native Amharic) about her life before and since arriving at fashionABLE. Listen to Saba tell her story below:

The message on Saba’s tags?

Because of you, I am ABLE to feel pride in my work. Thank you, Saba

At Muya Abyssinian Crafts, a fair-trade company in Addis that employs about 150 weavers — both men and women — who make high-end textiles for European and American designers, including Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede’s Lemlem line at J.Crew, I learned something fascinating.

Muya, which means “talent” in Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also employs potters who make various earthenware vessels, such as coffee pots and intricately hand painted guinea fowl figurines.

Jacques Dubois, a native of France who has lived in Ethiopia for more than 40 years and is co-owner of Muya, told us that when the company first approached the potters about making exportable goods, they balked at the idea. They saw no artistry in that work, Dubois explained, and could not believe that anyone outside of Ethiopia would want to buy them.

The coffee pots and urns were simply utilitarian and those who made them — the potters — at the low end of the pecking order in Ethiopian society, Dubois said.

Why? Because they work with fire and fire is, according to tradition, he said, associated with the devil. Ergo, potters are practically outcasts.

On the wall of the room where several women crouched at their work stations, painstakingly painting white dots on large black guinea fowl figurines, polishing dappled vases, or weaving long grass through the edges of a decorative plate the color of polished onyx, were posters and framed renderings of Christian icons, including the Virgin Mary, who seemingly bestowed their blessngs on the artisans as they worked.

Muya is the first Ethiopian company to obtain membership in the World Fair Trade Organization and is deeply committed to social responsibility, Dubois explained. The weavers and other craftspeople employed by Muya make substantially more than their counterparts elsewhere, and the company helps enroll workers’ children in better schools. The company subsidizes its employees meals so that they can save their money and spend it to feed their families, and also runs a training program for female prison inmates, teaching them spinning, weaving, and other marketable skills so that when they’re released, they can better support themselves.

Dubois proudly introduced me to one of Muya’s “master weavers,” 24-year-old Solomon, who has worked at Muya for more than six years. The middle child of seven, Solomon told me about what weaving at the fair-trade company has meant to him — and his family.

“I am the spinal cord of my family,” Solomon, who grew up and still lives about 1 km from the Muya factory. “It’s not just me,” he said, explaining that the work allows him to support his parents as well as his siblings, three of whom are enrolled in university. His younger brother earned a degree in engineering and is now a teacher.

An obviously bright young man who is tremendously proud and grateful for the work he does at Muya, Solomon is also aware of the tangible effects of the global marketplace and efforts to level the playing field, such as AGOA, have on his life.

“I am grateful to the Europe and North America because now there is a market,” he told me. “I need to work, but I need a market, too.”

Listen to more of my conversation with Solomon below.

Muya’s products are not yet available for purchase online, but you can browse its collection HERE or at J.Crew.

FashionABLE’s scarves are available for order online HERE.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Last month, Cathleen traveled to Ethiopia as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Photo credit: All photos, video and audio by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

About Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author of the critically acclaimed The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, BELIEBER: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber, and the newly released Disquiet Time: A Devotional for Ordinary Skeptics (edited with co-author Jennifer Grant and published by Jericho Books, Oct. 2014.)


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