I am not one of those people who felt a call to serve in Africa from childhood. In fact, one summer when I was about 8, I thought "God, thank you that I was born here and not in Africa” as I gazed out of the second story window at our beautiful, green, maple-lined street. I pitied the “poor” people living in Africa I had seen on TV; the impoverished, starving, war-ravaged and disease-ridden. This was all I knew about Africa.
Africa is far more than what TV in the 1970’s taught me. Yes, there is immense suffering and hardship that is impossible for my American mind to fathom. There is beauty in the midst of the poverty. The picture above is a stunning urban sunset in Uganda... yet the stream flows with sewage and waste as it runs through a slum adjacent to a slaughterhouse; the stench is like nothing I have ever experienced.
Beauty can be found everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. As I’ve explored Central Africa and developed loving relationships with Africans, I've been challenged and inspired by the hardship and the beauty. Africans are incredibly resilient, hard-working, courageous, loving and have unwavering faith in the face of the challenges.
When the opportunity arose for me to join a vision trip with my church in 2008 to Rwanda and Burundi in Central Africa, I couldn’t pass it up. When else would I have the opportunity to go to Africa? I was sure it would be a once in a lifetime experience.
To say that first trip was life-changing is a major understatement. The trip exposed me to the ravages of war and extreme poverty, but also to hope and beauty in the midst of immense darkness and reconciliation in situations that my mind considered hopeless. I met men and women who had forgiven and reconciled with people who had slaughtered their own family members. I was challenged to the core of my being as I pondered what it really meant to “forgive as I’ve been forgiven”. I learned that Africans are passionate about education – I think every African I know would get their Ph.D. if just given the opportunity! I was inspired by their faith in God, their hope for the future and the joy they find in simple pleasures, like a good meal or a new friend. I fell in love with the beauty of the land and the people and I was hooked.
On my first several trips to Africa, I served with Fashion & Compassion’s key partner in Africa, African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM). I led trips to ALARM’s Institute for Women’s Excellence in Rwanda and co-led several conferences for couples and women in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo (DRC) and South Sudan with indigenous ALARM staff. These trips exposed me to the great need and desire Africans have for education and empowerment and led to the beginning of Fashion & Compassion.
Through every project and partner, Fashion & Compassion works with indigenous leaders and organizations. We want to empower our local leaders and partners to bring transformation and a path toward self-sustainability to women (and a few men) through the opportunities we provide. Unfortunately, the impact of colonialism persists. Africans have a history of being told what to do (often by white westerners) and in many cases, their education system has not taught them to be problem-solvers. So, they often look to us, the West, to solve their problems through charity and subordination.
At Fashion & Compassion, we strive to challenge the status quo. We want our local staff to take responsibility for the challenges in their community and develop effective solutions that work in the context utilizing investment and empowerment rather than charity and entitlement. It has been a slow and arduous journey but the Lord encourages us as we see His hand at work. Here are a few highlights of hope from our most recent visit:
- On my very first trip to Rwanda, I met a traumatized young genocide survivor named Yvonne. Yvonne rarely smiled. Each year when I would visit she would be in bed sick or crying and her friends and I would lay hands on her to pray for healing. This year nothing could wipe the smile off Yvonne’s face! After years of struggle, she passed the national exam thanks to the support of friends and our partner, ALARM, and she now has a job cleaning apartments near Kigali’s new Convention Center. She is PROUD of her work and her ability to provide for herself. Yvonne’s journey took 9 LONG years and there were times when I lost hope that Yvonne could overcome her trauma, but Yvonne never did and God proved Himself faithful. The hope, beauty and dignity of Yvonne’s smile made the 9-year wait well worth it!
- Lucy is one of our Artisan leaders in our Dignity Collection project in Kampala, Uganda. Since we began working in Acholi Quarters in 2013, she has been one of the most dedicated and hard-working women we have served. Through the micro-business training and employment that Fashion & Compassion has provided, Lucy has purchased a grinding machine for her own business and her daughter is about to graduate from a local university! Additionally, because her faith in God has grown, she has taught her children about God and the power of prayer.
- Haron lives in one of the two homes (they are actually apartments) for orphans that Fashion & Compassion sponsors in Ethiopia through the sales of our Restore Collection. Haron was severely burned when his Dad set fire to their village home, knowing that Haron was inside. Haron is an inspiration and leader to the five other teen boys in the apartment family, including his younger brother, Emmanuel, who recently moved in. Haron welcomes me every year with a huge hug and even though our visit is short, it is one of the highlights of my trip each year.
Yes, I fell in love with Africa from my first step off the plane and its beauty and hardships continue to draw me back. This was my 10th trip to Africa since 2008. Each and every year God teaches me something new and I return inspired by friends like Yvonne, Lucy, and Haron to press on with the ministry of Fashion & Compassion despite the challenges. We strive to improve our impact by helping our artisans build sustainable futures, reliant on God and the gifts, skills and opportunities He has given them rather than on Fashion & Compassion. As we expand our services, the sales of our products are no longer enough to cover the cost of our programs. Please continue shopping with us but also, prayerfully consider making a donation to support our work finding beauty & dignity in the midst of poverty.
Thank you for your prayers and continued support.