Cameroon Task Force
Sewing 2012 Part 2 of 2
French is the primary language in Kribi and I don’t know any French. So, it’s very convenient that Butterick, and Simplicity patterns are printed English and French. I cut out the French instructions and pasted them over the English ones. Nancy Clifton (Team Cameroon, 2010), a retired French teacher, translated my instructions for putting zippers into bags. Taking supplies for the school and medical supplies were our highest priority, so I took the originals of each to Africa and made the day of a local business when I had 20 photo copies of each set of instructions printed.
A Lesson About the Sewing Machines
Electricity and sewing machines was quite a lesson for me on this trip. On Tuesday we tried to hook up the first machine, but there was no electricity. It seems that power consumption is managed with rolling blackouts. Somehow a treadle sewing machine arrived in a taxi. It was quickly set up and with foot power it performed just fine and worked all day long. But the ladies wanted the electric machines that could sew faster and do a variety of stitches. Dresses with fancy stitching bring in more money. They needed no marketing lessons for this concept.
The next day we had power, but there was only one room with an outlet and it was being used to assemble PETs (http://petinternational.org/ ). So we had an elaborate system: the sewing machine cord was attached to an extension cord, which was hooked to a current converter box that was plugged into the wall. We cheered when the machine light came on but it took most of the day to get the tension adjusted so the stitches looked right. I tried not to interfere with the ladies who already knew how to make the electric machines work in their little corner of Africa. They had to make the system work long after I left and they did.
A Backup Plan
The second machine was in a suitcase that took a while to find and it showed up at the Wellness Center on Thursday. Somewhere along the way, airport security had checked it out. The evidence was a very poorly wound bobbin with thread that followed no organized path. When we hooked it up, it did not work at all. How disappointing on many fronts. But the good news was that the motor could be repaired in a local shop (in a different part of the market). It is would be working within a week or two.
A Stictch of Happiness
I came to make bags, so we tackled these next. Square corners and straight edges are necessary elements in bags so I helped cut these out and passed along instructions through Olive and Edith for the rest.
By this time I had developed linguistic shortcuts to make up for my French deficits. One sound accompanied my pretend-scissors (my fingers). Another was the sound to accompany my pretend needle sewing the fabric, which indicated sewing on a machine.
Sew Much Laughters
We laughed together quite easily and really enjoyed each other’s company. Olive would use her favorite English words, ok, ok, ok (meaning she understood) and it’s fine (used to indicate very good work). Sometimes the two were used together to indicate she understood a new sewing technique that was a really good method. Occasionally she’d gather the ladies and get into the weeds of sewing techniques and they’d all listen and learn. I would take that time to find a wet cloth to wipe the sweat from my face and cool down. It is not easy teaching with sweat dripping off the end of your nose.
The most skill is required to put in a zipper. They are formally known as something very complicated in French, but we quickly shortened it to zip-zip with appropriate hand motions moving an imaginary zipper open and closed. They loved the special method I taught to install it so the so there were no raw edges showing. We used this technique in the big bags and small shoulder bags.
Every day I told them the American workers at the Center would like to buy the things they made and we would hold a market to do this on the last day. The seamstresses didn’t believe me. But I kept repeating it until they did. Even though they all dreamed of making sales and how they’d spend money, the market was a mixed blessing. The ladies loved what they’d made and wanted to keep them all, but they really wanted the income, too. So I wasn’t sure which side of the argument would win out, or just how many things they’d bring for the sale.
Learning to Bargain
We had and quick and hilarious meeting to figure out pricing for the items. While each seamstress was a skilled bargainer in the market, they were hopeless when selling their own goods. We agreed on a good selling point for each item, but they were going to have to stand their ground. So we did role playing, which went something like this (imagine the use of interpreters in the conversation):
Barb: OK, now, we are in the marketplace and I come to your booth and say I want to buy this. I am really cheap and I offer you 1,000 CFA (about $1.25 American). What do you say?
Barb: No, no, no. you have to say, oh, no. that is not enough, you must pay $2,500 CFA. OK?
Barb: Let’s try it again. I will give you 1,000 CFA and you say?
Everyone: We are all laughing now because the seamstresses were simply not used to standing up for their sewing skills.
Smiles and Memories
So, for this market, we agreed to fair market prices and every seamstress sold similar items for the same price. Then each made a tag with the price and pinned it to the item. Whew!
It did not take long for each one to add up the potential income they might see that morning. Soon smiles filled the room. I asked Edith what she might do with that much money and she spoke without hesitation, I’d sent a third of the money to my mama because she gave birth to me, then I’d buy some things for my daughter who is one year old.
Saying Our Goodbyes
By the end of the morning all the good Americans bought most of the items for the sale by the 15 seamstresses. And of course, I bought the rest. As the market concluded I moved into good-bye mode.
Madame Olive will continue sewing with the ladies long after I left, so I gave all remaining sewing materials to her. I brought patterns for several other items that should sell well, purses, clothes for little girls, and more bags. And, I gave each seamstress two more gifts, which turned out to be sewing aids they’d never seen before: a needle threader and a seam ripper. I can’t imagine sewing without seam ripper.
One of the last things I saw was the seamstresses making a list of their cell phone numbers. Strangers when we started they were leaving as friends who were making plans to work together, support each other and continue to build on the skills they’d learned to support their families.