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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Meeting of the minds

Several weeks ago, we were faced with one of those realizations that is at once daunting and yet necessary to address.

When this program first started to come together, we envisioned weekly sessions with the women where we would teach a new jewelry or craft technique while giving the women an opportunity to spend time together doing something they enjoyed. The reality, though, showed us that the women have such diverse family situations that getting the group together was no small feat of logisitics. Transportation, childcare, Saturday errands...It put a big challenge before us.

The women have been working at home, honing skills and technique, but not engaging in the collaboration we had originally envisioned. To further complicate things, we caught wind of a brewing schism within the Somali Bantu community, and we felt that it was time to articulate once again what this project was intended to do. We also thought it would be a good idea to have all of the Bantu women together in one room so they could compare their creations and help each other with techniques that were giving them trouble.

Now that A Little Something is seemed that the time had come to reiterate the explanation of what we were doing and try to work through any conflicts that might affect the success of the project or the women's willingness to be a part of it. It is the Somali Bantu way to talk, to discuss, to build consensus. Simmering resentments are not something we want to leave unacknowledged within the community of Beadwomen. So the meeting was convened.

Between us, we were able to pick up all those who didn't have a ride to the meeting location. Once we were together in the room, each woman spread out her finished work, and resumed work on creations in progress. There was a lot of discussion about the jewelry, and a bit of chaos as we handed out bead boxes to the newest members, replenished supplies for the others, demonstrated and gave refresher lessons on crimping, attaching clasps, opening and closing ear wires, and showed how to adjust wire length on bracelets and necklaces. We always speak as we teach, whether our words are understood or not. So far, it seems to be working.

As the women became absorbed in the morning's activities, the atmosphere became more relaxed. The noise level rose noticeably, and we teachers were kept busy in the happy chaos.

Eventually, the time was right to bring up the business of the day. We had a 15-year-old translator who tried her best, but we had two languages represented, which meant Hajia had to translate English to Kizigua, and then Mama Moumina translated Kizigua to May May. We're pretty sure things got lost in the translation.

Jaime, Susan, Anna, and I each took our turn explainaing what we wanted for the women in this program. We emphasized that it's not our program--it's theirs. We asked the women what they wanted. We explained that although we are managing things at this time, the ultimate goal is for the women themselves to acquire the skills and knowledge to do this themselves. We told them that we will always want to hear what they have to say, for better or for worse. We humbly explained that we might make mistakes since we are learning, too. We expressed with true sincerity that we could always be trusted to work in the best interests of these women, we would not take advantage of them, and we would not exploit them as others may have done.

The Bantu have long been marginalized, and within their own culture, women have had a particularly hard time of it. We told the women that we have been diligent about educating people about the Bantu people, their culture, and their plight. This news was very well received and the women expressed gratitude that we wanted to advocate for them. I also told them that if we could look past culture and race, in the end, we are all women, and as such, we share common concerns and goals. Women should help women. Nods all around.

Toward the end of our discussion, Mama stood up and addressed us directly. She assured us that no one in the Bantu community believes we would ever do anything harmful or dishonest. We have the trust and respect of the community. At this point, Mama M spoke to us passionately and at length. I was pretty sure we weren't being admonished, but whatever she was saying was snapping like a spark in her eyes.

Other than telling some of the women it was disrespectful to speak when we were speaking (...because we were putting in all of this time and effort on their behalf, they should show some courtesy and listen--just like a Mama), MM had a special message for us. The short version is this: The women are content with the current program setup. They are eager to learn more, including how to knit hats and scarves like those that Htee makes. The women are grateful that we are helping them to make money for themselves and doing so in a way they find enjoyable. They thanked us for telling people about the Bantu. And there was one more thing...

They wanted to thank you for taking an interest in them and for sharing your beads with us.

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