The first time I witnessed a batik wax stamp process in Kenya in 2010, it catapulted me back in time and across the world: away from the warmth of equatorial sun into a university printmaking studio artificially warmed against winter cold; far from the fragrance of lush green growing landscape into the heady odor of oil printing inks trapped in four walls; my hands smudged with black greasy stains instead of vibrant dyes. But immediately I sensed the overlap in technique: the basic idea of marks carved into wood and reproduced. And I wanted to be part of it.
At the time, collaborating with Kenyan artists faintly beat as only a longing in my heart.
What I did know all too well by that time was the shock of Kenyan slums: where rusty corrugated metal shacks line narrow, muddy walkways of open sewage; where children play barefoot in trash-clogged rivers where dead pigs float; where the putrid stench of burning trash and diesel fumes permeate acres of land devoid of anything green.
The places where approximately 2.5 million people call home in Nairobi, where 60% of the capitol’s population occupies 6% of the land. (http://www.kibera.org.uk/facts-info/)
But beneath the sensory assault of the slums lie invisible, even more sinister symptoms of people subsisting in constant deprivation.
My friend Joyce knows all too well the agony of slum life. She understands hunger, abuse, and abandonment. She knows the heartache of a broken marriage and the desperation of trying to raise children on her own against impossible odds.
She also recognizes the sliver of hope and dignity that break through like insistent dawn when someone teaches a woman skills and empowers her to earn a living.
At one of her lowest points, after moving to a Nairobi slum from her home area and soon after her marriage dissolved, Joyce met my dear friend, Pastor Karau. He invited her to church, and she joined a women’s support group called “Taraja,” founded and lead by another dear friend of mine, his wife, Edith Karau. In addition to emotional support, Edith provides opportunities for the women to learn crafting and sewing techniques.
During a long sojourn in Kenya while adopting my daughter in 2005, a friend took me to visit an economic development project for refugees and impoverished Kenyan women. I immediately recognized an opportunity for Mama Karau’s women’s group. One day, Mama and Joyce joined me at the project; we introduced Joyce to the hiring manager, and she was granted an interview and an internship. Eventually the project hired Joyce full time and she cross-trained in all aspects of creating products, including the batik process, and running a business.
Joyce never forgot the hardships she endured. Even as she accumulated artistic and business skills and opportunity, she linked arms with four other women currently living in the slums through an artisan group she founded, Tuungane Pamoja (“let us join together”). Between them, the women parent twelve children.
Like my friend Joyce, I love to create beautiful things; but I can never forget the ugly suffering I’ve witnessed.
This past July, my Pamba Toto co-founder and dear friend, Debbie Lee, and I met with Joyce to purchase products made by Tuungane Pamoja. I had to step away for a minute, overwhelmed with awe.
You see, my 7.5 month sojourn while adopting my daughter in 2005 was unexpected, and at the time, felt like a terrible price to pay, much more than my soul could spend. So many times in life we go through hard times and we never know why. But, for whatever reason, God continues to open wide the window of eternity on that particular experience. He reveals to me myriad ways that the price was nothing compared to the fabric He was weaving into place. I saw a shimmering thread that day a few months ago, watching Joyce and Debbie discussing beautiful bags Joyce learned how to make through her internship and employment at the economic development project – bags we now sell to raise money for Sanctuary of Hope, which was also born through the labor pangs of that long sojourn.
On another day, we followed Joyce through a slum labyrinth, winding between corrugated metal walls and laundry flapping in the wind. We ducked through a narrow doorway into a small, dimly-lit room. There, in the Tuungane Pamoja workshop, we encountered more radiance than the equatorial sun outside. Sandra, one of the artisans, greeted us with a brilliant smile, emanating from somewhere deep within.
Joyce met Sandra soon after Sandra’s husband left her. Joyce passed by Sandra’s house on her way home from work and often stopped by to pray. Eventually, gaining insight into the family’s plight, Joyce asked her church for assistance so the children could attend school. Then Joyce took another step. She created a job for Sandra, training her and employing her with Tuungane Pamoja.
Our visit was relatively brief; and, yet, just sitting there and soaking in the vitality of Sandra’s spirit buried deep in a place of despair, in the compassion of Joyce’s heart reaching out to rescue others from where she once suffered, we left changed. Debbie and I certainly believed in Pamba Toto before that day, but we wound our way back out of that slum awash with new urgency and new passion. Without a doubt, we are in this together with Joyce and Sandra.
And then recently, Debbie and Joyce asked me to create a batik stamp design. Various passions colluded into one glorious day of imagination, frisket/resist, and paint. Joyce will take my ideas, work with a Kenyan artist to carve the stamp, and then she and her artisan group will create fabrics to sew into bags, table settings, and other textiles.
I’m just in awe that I get to do this. Only God could weave together a story like this.