Meet Elizabeth Chikoya. After seven years working in Malawi, Elizabeth still remains one of the most amazing and inspirational Malawian women I know. I met Elizabeth through a mutual artist friend who knew I was looking for creative people that also wanted to help empower women in the country. Elizabeth is a woman in her early fifties, her children are grown with families of their own and her husband is a health worker. She lives in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital city, in an outlying neighborhood "village" accessible by narrow, twisting dirt roads. Her and her husband are fortunate: he has a good job, they are both educated, they have even travelled abroad. Elizabeth is also very fortunate because her husband supports her 100%. So, when Elizabeth approached him several years ago and said, "honey, I want to help women in our community that have less." He responded with encouragement and even gave her part of their land to dedicate to her activities.
Elizabeth started the Women's Training Empowerment Center where she has been training the poorest of the poor in her community in skills like tailoring, mushroom farming, piggery and other entrepreneurial endeavors. In early 2011 a group of women in a neighboring village caught wind of what was going on at Elizabeth's house. They were a group of HIV-positive women, part of a support group formed by the local medical clinic for women living with the disease. You see, these women (34 of them in all) have taken a bold step in coming out and living publicly as HIV+. Like most in their community, making ends meet and finding a source of income is challenging. When you couple that with social stigma, low education, little to no marketable skills, frequent visits to the hospital for medicines, lower energy levels, etc...it's even harder. So, they came to Elizabeth begging her for help to teach them skills, how to start businesses and ultimately how to generate an income to support their families.
I am so glad Tigwerani Manja found Elizabeth because Dsenyo gets to work with them too! This spring during my March trip to Malawi, I spent time with 14 of the ladies who are completing a sewing certificate program. We developed some new designs that they are now making for Dsenyo. One of these is our fun wrap skirt. It's knee length and fits sizes 0 - 10. The ribbon is nice and long so you can tie it in a big bow or wrap it around twice and knot it like a sash. They are 100% cotton and washer/dryer friendly!
I'm happy to say that this group is now busy with work from Dsenyo and continuing their training program. They also happen to be the absolute most joyous group that Dsenyo works with. When training and working on orders they often (as in every 20 min or so) break into song and dance. Here's a little video for you to get a taste of what it's like to be in their midst. When I asked why they were singing and dancing they said, "We are happy that you are here, but even when you aren't, we are still always singing and dancing. We don't want to think about our problems. We want to be happy."