Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sam's sewing machine idea

Hi all -

Daddy, you were 100% correct. Thank you for bringing this up repeatedly, so that the idea was imbedded in my brain when I finally grasped its importance. I'm sorry it took me so long to get it.

So here's the story. For over a year my father has been expressing concern at one aspect of the Millennium Villages model. He has repeatedly said, "These people need sewing machines." My answer was that the academics running the program are brilliant and they know what they're doing. Look how successful they've been at improving the lives of over half a million people, providing clean drinking water, school feeding programs, protection from malaria, improved crops and on and on.

There is, however, one aspect of the program that John and I have been frustrated by. We wish there was more of an emphasis and more funding supporting business development. It is our own particular area of expertise, and we see a myriad of opportunities which are not being pursued. We wish the project could move faster to help people connect to income-generating possibilities besides farming. It would be one thing if each farm had drip irrigation. Then the women would be freed to use their energy and drive (and believe me, they have it) to pursue other sources of income. But it makes it that much harder when she has to spend much of her day watering her field, often with a baby strapped to her back as she is bending over her plants.

I probably shouldn't be so critical, but we wish this could happen much faster. Have you read Jeff Sachs' The End of Poverty yet? When women have a source of income they stop having so many babies. It is the answer to so many of the world's most pressing problems. And it is a way to transform each woman's life and the lives of the people who depend on her.

Often on this trip I've observed how beautifully the women dress (you know me and cloth). In the cities some women wear western clothes, children and men much more often than women. But the majority of urban West African women, and all the rural women, wear traditional outfits.

These costumes are gorgeous and, except for some of the urban poor, always perfectly maintained. There are various traditional styles. John is taking fantastic photos and will upload them when we return. Many women wear a wrapped cotton skirt with a matching sash, blouse and headdress. The skirt comes to mid- or lower calf, and the blouse may have short or long sleeves.

I have seen handweaving here, but only for decorative cloth. All the clothing I have seen uses machine made cloth., sometimes jacquard-woven (ie, damask), often with appliqued trimming Often there is a shawl of a different fabric. (Imagine - all this fabric and the temperature is in the 90's. At least here women's faces are not covered.) If she has a young baby, she carries it tied behind at her waist with a wide sash.

Women wear these outfits to do everything - water their crops, nurse a baby, carry goods to market on their heads - I even saw a woman in Niamey driving a motorbike dressed this way.

Can you visualize this? Women here care a lot about their clothing. As I grasped this, I finally connected the dots to Daddy's insistence that people should have sewing machines. Somebody must be making all these beautiful clothes - but we have seen no one working at a sewing machine. Contrast this with rural China where just inside so many doorways, women sit at foot treadle sewing machines I wondered how village women felt about machine sewing. Was it something the knew how to do, something they liked doing? Could it represent a good business opportunity? Were there sewing machines rugged enough to withstand the very dusty conditions? Are there opportunities for formal or non-formal training?

For the last several days, I've been interviewing village women about this, and the answer to all of the above is a resounding "YES!". So Sabrina (another member of our tour) and I are going to put a plan together to support these women and give them access to sewing machines.

I'll write later with some ideas about what you can do to help, and this project will definitely be on the list.

The moral of the story: always listen to your parents!

This would be a good time to tell you about our traveling companions.

Besides the two professional staff members from Millennium Promise, Rustom (head of economic development) and Lauren (head of major gifts), our group includes Sabrina, from London,

and Wendy, from Rotterdam. Sabrina and Wendy are donors to Millennium Promise, and
each heads up the fundraising effort in her respective country. They are both amazing, intelligent, funny, interesting women. John and I are enjoying traveling with them and feel we have made two new friends.

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