- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - The delicate Nativity scene made from banana leaves folded origami style, the sparkling jewelry, clothes and art in Chattanooga’s Amani ya Juu store are created by women in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

And, while some Americans complain about the hassle of getting to their jobs in the morning or the dreariness of the job itself, these African women literally risk their lives for their work.

In Kenya’s congested capitol Nairobi, they buy a 10-cent ride on a matatu - vans painted neon lime, lemon, raspberry or copper and embellished with pop icons Bob Marley, rapper Rakim, “Empire” TV star Taraji Henson and James Bond embodied by Daniel Craig. Drivers routinely break all known traffic laws to get through crammed, chaotic streets. But the scariest obstacles are car bombs that terrorists often plant along their routes.

“Our greatest concerns are security and terrorism. Gone are the days when you were only worried about robbers or pickpockets,” says Gladys, a Nairobi Amani manager. “There are places we considered to be so safe - churches and schools. This has changed.”

The women interviewed for this story asked that their last names not be used because Christian nonprofits with U.S. connections can be targets in Africa.

But they say the dangerous commute is worth the risk because their jobs provide more than independent income. They describe themselves as family as well as co-workers.

Paper-bead jewelry maker Rahab was only 9 and living with her sister in a rural village when her father died. His uncles chased her and her kid sister away from the village because they were willing to support sons of their dead brother but not female children. Rahab and her sister landed in Nairobi’s Marigoini slum.

Working at Amani has given her security, a sense of belonging and chance to develop her self-respect.

“Amani has made me grow in many areas. My confidence has grown as a result of serving in Amani’s café and being a shop assistant,” Rahab says. “My leadership skills have continued to improve I worked somewhere before and Amani is different. There is a caring and peaceful environment as everyone is concerned about your welfare. Unlike my previous work where there was so much verbal abuse.”

Amani ya Juu (Swahili for “peace from above”) was founded in 1999 by Chattanooga native Becky Chinchen, then a missionary in Liberia and Kenya. The nonprofit provides African women a chance to earn an income from goods they make or by working as Amani clerks or managers.

Chinchen moved the U.S. distribution center from Washington, D.C. to Chattanooga in 2012. The big warehouse has a tiny staff who sort, price and ship thousands of items. For instance, they cleverly use shoe bags to categorize the hundreds of different earrings to be either displayed or shipped to customers; each unique pair of earrings slipped into a different pocket of the bag.

“Amani Chattanooga stocks goods made by women in our Kenya and Uganda centers,” says local Marketing Director Emily Kirwan. “We have a center in Liberia, but it paused operation last year until the Ebola crisis could be resolved. We are expanding in Chattanooga. In 2016, we’ll have a nice retail space in front of the store.”

Amani craftswomen and artists sell their goods in kiosks, stores and malls scattered across Nairobi as well as online and in the Chattanooga outpost. In Nairobi, tourists are good customers. The 2013 terrorist attack on Nairobi’s posh Westgate Mall, which left 67 people dead, caused a drop in tourists visiting the city, Kirwan says. But Gladys still negotiates with male vendors and merchants to get good prices and display for Amani wares. Gladys’ parents died when she was a teenager and other relatives did not want to raise her in their rural hometown, so she went to Nairobi to earn a living.

“When I joined Amani nine years ago, I was a young lady who still had a lot of pain because of my relatives’ unfulfilled promises to me,” Gladys says. “Both my physical and emotional life were just in a mess. Amani has walked with me all these years. When a woman has a well-paying job, not only does she earn respect in the office or in the family, but also back in the village.”

Kirwan says prices for Amani goods range from a $10 coin purse to the $300 Unity Quilt, a vibrantly colorful creation that depicts the forgiveness ceremonies in nine different African nations including Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide left an estimated 1 million civilians murdered.

The majority Hutu tribe, urged on by the government and its military, used machetes to kill men, women, children and babies from the Tutsi tribe. United Nations observers report that Hutus who had lived peaceably beside Tutsis suddenly formed mobs and hacked Tutsis in city streets, their homes, offices and even inside churches and elementary schools where the Tutsis desperately sought refuge.

The quilt square illustrating the forgiveness foot-washing ritual for the Congo, where a vicious war using child soldiers rages on, has pale blue ribbons fluttering from a fabric jug to represent water. The Rwandan forgiveness ceremony is depicted with an enormous bronze and green cloth pitcher surrounded by small figures illustrating a ritual in which enemies drink water from the same jug.

The uplifting rituals seem like hopelessly prosaic gestures that could never heal the scars inflicted on those nations.

“Maybe when forgiveness isn’t always possible, a person can still learn to let go of hate so it doesn’t poison life,” Kirwan muses. “Since quilts are a team effort, it’s very likely this was sewn by women from warring tribes or regions. When I visited the Nairobi center, I saw Tutsi and Hutu women working together.”

Teresia Newton checks inventory on her computer in Chattanooga with a playpen nearby where her toddler, Olivia, quietly cuddles a stuffed toy. On the other side of the globe, Eugene, a Rwandan refugee working at Amani, is allowed to bring her baby to work. She considers that a big perk that her old housekeeping job never had. And Amani taught her a skill, sewing.

“Amani is family. Some days are hard when there are no work orders. But there is hope,” Eugene says.


Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com

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