Cameroon Task Force

Sewing 2015: Part 1 of 3

Based on our belief that women can use beautiful African fabrics to sew items that can be sold in local markets, the Kribi Sewing Project was established in 2012. Selling items at a fair local price, the money earned would be welcome income in this country with many needs and few resources.

Packing For The Trip

(Sewing 2015)

A Lesson About the Sewing Machines

In 2012 we had the use of one treadle (foot powered) sewing machine and one very old electric powered machine that I brought in my luggage. Actually, I brought two machines but one was “done-in” during airport security inspection. Had I known it was going to give up so soon I could have used the 25 pounds of baggage space for any number of things we left behind. But, using the power converter box we brought, the ladies did wonders with sporadic electric power and the treadle machine worked long into the evenings.

After the 2012 experience I decided not to take any more sewing machines with us. We took the 30 year-old ones because they are simple, practical machines – not the electronic models sold here these days. It is pretty much impossible to find an electronic repair person for a sewing machine in Cameroon. But, the oldies are heavy and each requires a power converter box. (Converter plugs only work on small things like a hair dryer. Larger items with an engine, variable speed, or automatic on/off capacity need a power converter box that gets really hot when it is used and may still shorten the life span of the machine.) And I learned the hard way they won’t let me carry sewing machines on board airplanes. Treadle machines weigh even more than the oldies and are cheaper to buy in Africa. So, we decided to support the local economy and buy machines the ladies already know how to use in a place where parts and labor to fix them would be readily available.

Singer Treadle Machines

We arranged to purchase two brand new treadle machines from a merchant in Douala (the largest city in Cameroon). They were piled high on top of the bus with all of our luggage as we drove to Kribi. The bad news was that they only worked one day. It was a miracle that the workhorse machine I carried over in 2012 was still working just fine, cranking out stitches whenever the electric power was working and it carried us through the entire workshop.

Replicas of Singer Machines

(As we prepared to return to the USA, the new-but-not-working treadle machines were boxed up, loaded on the bus, transported back to Douala and exchanged for working models. From what I understand, the original treadle models in Africa were Singer brands. They discontinued making them for a number of years. Eventually Singer authorized replica treadle machines. The models the ladies bought were unauthorized “knock-offs” of the replicas, made who-knows-where and not-very-well. I can only imagine the angry words that merchant heard. The new machines seem to work just fine.)

Not packing sewing machines meant we had more room for sewing supplies and I knew exactly what would excite the ladies: Bling! We brought buttons, seam rippers, big magnetic snaps, sharp scissors, sharp pins with big heads, sewing awls, bias tape makers in various sizes, needles, ribbons, trims, hardware and other things I was not sure we would find in the local markets. Since making bags was going to be a focus of this year’s training I brought along “The Bag Making Bible” by Lisa Lam, a bunch of patterns, and the bag patterns I developed just for this group of sewers.


(Sewing 2015)

Weight Restriction

Our luggage also contained special gifts for friends, parts of two PETS that we would assemble in Kribi, and the mandatory gear carried by every team member: a bottle of decoupage glue, a solid blue soccer ball, donated medical supplies, and a refurbished laptop computer. As they say around here: We were loaded for bear. Every bag was within a few ounces of maximum baggage allowances (including carry-on bags) and every traveler carried a copy of the Air France baggage guidelines just in case we had problems.

Every trip one of us gets caught exceeding the weight allowances. Some think saying “medical mission” a few times will work with the baggage agent, but it doesn’t. Usually trouble catches up with us on the Paris to Cameroon flight. I remember all too well sorting out my daughter Laura’s personal items in the Paris airport after the agent determined her carryon bag – that fit in their airplanes from Anchorage to Paris – no longer met bag limits and would cost $200 as excess baggage in the hold. We emptied it into other checked bags and left the backpack behind. Another of our team left behind her own clothes rather than gifts she brought for family. Once I talked a Paris ticket agent into checking a sewing machine – but these days I just weigh everything carefully first. It is very stressful until we all accounted for on board the 7-hour flight to Douala.

This time Laura and I left Anchorage a couple of days early to adjust to the time zones in Paris. Then I flew on to Douala with Jay and Isaac to do some shopping. Laura stayed in Paris to meet the rest of the team as they came in – helping with airport, hotel and luggage logistics. Eventually, we all met up at our favorite hotel in Douala.

Fabric Shopping

(Sewing 2015)

The Kribi Market

In the meantime, I got to go shopping at the biggest market in Cameroon. This market was as big as any major shopping center, but was all on one level, outdoors with no roof, and surrounded by men with motorcycle taxis (not recommended). It covered several city blocks and has probably been active for a thousand years. From home furniture to Sunday hats, shoes, car parts, hammers and nails – it was all there if you knew where to find it.

I was the only white skinned person I saw in the market, but I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. No earrings or jewelry. Just a t-shirt, pants and good walking shoes. I split money up between the people who would do the bargaining, held a small purse with shoulder strap in the center of my arm pit, under my shirt and tried not to say anything that would identify me as an American. And because people are very wary about having their photos taken, it meant I took no unauthorized photos.

My Shopping Partners

My shopping partners were two master seamstresses I would be working with: Madames Laurence and Josyan, who live in Cameroon, and Madame Evina, now an American citizen – all (except me) were bilingual French and English speakers.

Our goal was to find local sources of supplies needed to make all the projects I brought along. There is no way we could bring sufficient supplies to last until our next trip, and if they could not find the raw materials the projects would not really be viable. Package shipment is not reliable (read that – don’t always arrive or get delivered safely). Air freight is incredibly expensive. So we had to find local sources. Josyan and Laurence knew where to go, bargained extremely well, and we found everything except a substitute for decoupage glue. I was happy.

Getting Our Supplies

(Sewing 2015)

Getting What We Need

We stopped at a converted freight container for brass rings and polypropylene straps for the shopping bags. Red dirt pathways wide enough for maybe four people wound around taking us ever deep into the market. I was really glad there had not been any rain because nothing really gets out those red mud stains. And I was equally happy to have the company of friends otherwise I would still be looking for a way out.

We got thread and zippers at a booth that sold little more than those items. It was across the path from ladies selling Sunday morning church hats. They pulled me away from more than one fabric seller only because I had been promised a stop at the “Made in Cameroun” store. This was a real store with windows and a locking front door.

Fabric Talk

Cotton has always been grown in Cameroon and cotton fabric was pretty much all that was sold in this store. I would not swear this fabric was printed in Cameroon, as most fabric sold in the market was of similar quality (and sold for a much lower price). It was pretty exciting to see so much fabric in one place. All fabric is usually sold in 6 yard pieces – buy it all or buy none. On this shopping trip I bought — but we visited again on our way home. Believe me, I got as much as I could carry.

Seamstress Josyan –  As we ran errands in Douala we happened to park in front of a small shop that, upon closer look, sold hand sewn items. This is exactly what we are trying to establish in Kribi and all four of us got excited. The owners did not want us to take photos of their shop but our visual memories are vivid images of what we saw. The ladies all used on-site treadle sewing machines and chose lovely African fabrics. Items for sale were all practical things that were sewn very well: Sharp corners, straight seams, and no dangling threads. Their display was excellent – a wide variety of things for sale in a great variety of fabrics. It was truly inspiring. I did not understand what an impact it made until after we got home.

Read part 2

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