Another successful day at the Mabinti Centre in dar es Salaam. This is the start of my second and last week working with the women there and this week’s group were just as enthusiastic and engaged with the creative work as were the first group. Colour theory was new and fascinating to them and the colour wheel, a magic thing! The womens’ sense of design seems innate and they were making beautiful and complex patterns on a basic framework consisting of six lines and 5 circles. We went on to talk about hot (johto) colours and cold (baridi) colours. Swahili and English got all mixed up with laughter and a truly healthy competitive spirit when we started to play a ‘colour game’ with a whole assortment of tiny textile paint bottles!
After a hearty lunch of rice and beans and Tanzanian spinach I continued to sketch and take photographs of the site and of the people working there. As I sat in the cool shade of the banda, quietly sketching the women as they went about washing up the plastic boxes they ate their food from, and cutting cloth in the outside work space, I felt I was in a place where things – lives – change.
A trip to the supermarket in the early evening was an equally moving experience. I walked with new found and very wonderful friends, who hail from Denmark, and they led me through the ‘local neighborhood’ here in Mikocheni. My artist self was intoxicated by the richness and the authenticity of everything that was around me – the people, the smells, the colours, the smiles, the narrowness of the dirt streets (that I have to admit did encroach on my closely guarded sense of claustrophobia!) and the incredibly stark juxtaposition of the barefoot scraps of humanity who were playing, as children will, in the heat and the dust, and their impeccably clad elder siblings coming home from school in distinctive and immaculate uniforms. Chickens run to and fro in the neighbourhood, many, many people sit, chat to friends, or simply watch the world go by outside small, dark houses or bars. They work on cars, motorbikes, bajaji, they sell their fruit, vegetables, clothes or jewellery, they just, simply ..live their lives. We heard “Hallo! How are you?” at every turn. The children repeat it endlessly until we respond and then reply back to us with enormous smiles. “Welcome!” (Karibu) rings in your ears always here in Dar and we heard it no less infrequently here n the nieghbourhood. This was an experience burnt into my memory…. my thanks to Eva and Claus.
Now home and working in the studio on large-scale drawings that will be exhibited in May 2015 at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in London. In August we have another show – this time of smaller works including drypoint prints at a venue in Cardiff. The power of the experiences I had in Tanzania has made itself very obvious while I have been working in the studio… my emotional need to bring the images out of my head and my heart and onto the paper has rarely been so strong. I will write more on this later but here I want to put up a small selection of images that were not created by me, but by the women themselves at CCBRT. As I mentioned in a previous post about the drawing class we put on I was moved and impressed by the creativity and imagination clearly demonstrated in the women’s drawings. The works speak volumes about what they know and, in some cases, what they desire. Once again the communicative authority of visual language is foregrounded, even beyond the clear need for some of the women to use the written word.
She looks tiny. Very young
as she lay covered in the rough cotton sheet
one thin arm visible
the sole of a foot
under the window
through which the soft, warm breeze is blowing.
A woman comes
brings her food and wakes her.
She is tiny. But not young.
Drenched in urine
the pale blue gown is soaked through.
The woman who has come helps her up
and she follows
out of the ward.
As she passes she glances at me
an old face, careworn
full of emotional pain
all defiance gone
all defences down.
She glances at me but only for a second
before she lowers her eyes.
Urine runs down her legs.
She looks tiny.
Wednesday December 12th
Mabinti in Swahili means ‘girls’. It is a fitting name for a place that gives girls and women who have lived through the trauma of having a fistula a chance of a new life. Mabinti is a centre where each year ten girls recovering from fistula surgery at CCBRT (Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania) are given the opportunity to study sewing, beading, crochet, screen-printing and, very importantly, business skills. The course lasts for twelve months and the aim is that the skills learned will equip the women to start up their own small businesses making and selling quality textiles to tourists. The success rate is high, indeed, since Mabinti opened in 2007, many graduates have built thriving small businesses and after, for some, many years of misery and shame, now live happily and independently .
As Katia, the founder and director of the centre, gives Alison and I a guided tour I warm to the place immediately. The facilities are basic but well designed and laid out. There is no hostel here, the women are found accommodation in local family homes around the centre and have to attend regularly each day, and on time. This may seem a reasonable expectation but as Katia tells us often the women come from a way of life in the villages where there is no real concept of keeping to a schedule and the discipline of doing so is something they have to learn.
This from the Mabinti brochure:
The Mabinti women are from very poor families and have rarely had access to education. At Mabinti they learn a range of important skills such as entrepreneurship and English as well as life skills including: decision making, communication, family planning and HIV?AIDS prevention.
At Mabinti the women are taught how to dye the cloth and screen print their own original designs to create textiles that they then use to sew into bags, make-up cases, pencil cases, cushion covers, table runners and various other things that have become very popular with tourists over the years. Katia, a former primary school teacher, is clearly a very astute business woman and has researched the market intensively. She also has high expectations of the quality of the goods that bear the Mabinti logo and is fastidious in ensuring that everything from the least expensive key fob to the most expensive bag comes up to the required standard. This being said Katia also comes across as one of the most enthusiastic people I have met for a long time. Her obvious passion for what she does and her complete satisfaction in her job shines through her easy smile and friendly engaging manner. She makes us feel very welcome and is obviously, and quite rightly, proud of her centre.
In the classroom students sit at sewing machines, however the lesson is not sewing this morning, it is business skills. The teacher expounds in Swahili and the women seem attentive and happy. It is great to see these women looking so healthy and cheerful. They demonstrate their individuality in the vibrantly colourful kangas they are wearing, a far cry from the blue hospital gowns they must have worn, as all the patients do, on the fistula ward. Further on through the low building other students are making cushion covers. Katia inspects the quality of the sewing as she passes, smiling and with a few words of encouragement for the women. Outside two students are working with a teacher learning how to screen print onto square cloth which most likely will later be sewn into more cushion covers. One student is more experienced that the other and waits patiently for her turn to pull the white ink through the screen with the rubber squeegee. I recognise her as the woman who came to CCBRT to teach the patients crochet and Katia told us that she is in fact a graduate of the program who has stayed on to now work at Mabinta helping others. The design is a simple flower petal in white on a silver grey background and the delight on the first woman’s face when she sees the result on her labour is a joy to see.
Mabinti seems to be a great set up and offers a fantastic opportunity for a small number of women, some of whom may have nowhere to go and once they have been treated for their fistula. Often families and husbands have abandoned their women because of the condition and, as outcasts from society, they have no home or way of life to return to after their time at CCBRT. After graduating from the program each woman is given a start-up kit which includes a sewing machine, scissors a supply of material and a calculator. All the graduates maintain links with the centre visiting once a month for a coaching session and home visits are organised to gather information about how their business is progressing.
Of course not all of the women can benefit from the opportunity that Mabinti offers, but it has been proven without doubt that for many of those who do gain a place on the program the rewards are great.