It's worth noting that after a two-week extended stay in Robertsport, during which the Women's Sewing Cooperative met regularly under the giant cotton tree and checked in with me almost daily, showing me their progress, assuring me that they were measuring the straps and sides appropriately, and just saying hello, I haven't had a meeting with them in about two weeks. That means for Coop members used to making $20 a week sewing bags (beautiful ones, which you can buy here), there has been a sudden but temporary lull in their new income.
Before the Women's Sewing Cooperative gave them scissors, sewing needles, and new skills, most of them were what the World Bank calls "underemployed," meaning they might earn small sums for trading or selling fish, but that their income potential was being underutilized -- in simple English, they could be earning more. It's not as if African women are actually underemployed -- sourcing and preparing food, organizing water supplies and child care, cleaning, washing and all the other constant tasks of managing a family can hardly be called "underemployment." It's just that they weren't seeing any cash or formal compensation for their labors. Until now.
Putting the Women's Sewing Cooperative on a fortnight of temporary hold wasn't my intention when Nate and I took our Monrovia stay-cation, but it is benefiting Coop management. Before our break, we had one leader on suspension for accusatory outbursts and unnecessary drama during meetings. The younger members complained that the older women were hoarding fabric and not giving them the supplies to make more than a small number of bags per week. Meetings were filled with interruptions and although we'd agree on one thing, once the women were left on their own, they often decided not to follow instructions and sewed renegade, misshapen bags. Project management demanded patience.
Yesterday, my phone rang with an unknown number. Nate answered, spoke to a man for a moment and passed the phone to me. It was Bendu, our project leader, telling me she missed me and wondering if we're coming up to Robertsport this weekend. We are. I spoke to her for a moment, chatted about work and things, and then she passed the phone to Miriama, another Coop member, who said that she missed me and demanded my return to Robertsport this weekend. Then Miriama passed the phone to Matilda, who also missed me and was looking forward out our Saturday meeting. Then Jebbeh, then Botoe, and then the rest of them, only by then everyone was giggling at their repetitions and I was too, laughing at the idea of a bunch of Coop women organized and clustered around a pay phone kiosk, greeting me one by one and telling me to get back to them so they could keep making money. It was wonderful. I can't wait for Saturday.
Something I've been thinking about: three of the Coop women were training with me in the kitchen at Nana's a few weeks back. Although it's none of my business, I asked, and they weren't getting paid any extra for being there all day. Towards the end of our 10 days of cooking lessons, Botoe pointed out that the three of them wouldn't have any bags for me that week -- they'd been working all day in the kitchen. I realized what a sacrifice it had been for them -- well, sacrifice or strategic investment in the future, which is often the same thing -- to be there, learning from me and consciously taking a cut in their income to do so. I'm impressed with them. And I like it when they call.