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Learning to sew at the Amani center

'Higher peace' dividends

Kenya | Counseling center helps African women overcome the effects of poverty, war, and disease-and produce beautiful holiday products

Issue: "Our pork," Dec. 8, 2007

"True peace and true healing comes from Christ." That statement by Rachel Kistner of Amani Ya Juu-"higher peace"-in Nairobi, Kenya, may sound like a holiday truism, but for 11 years Amani has been providing counseling, community, and work for refugee women.

It's currently serving 70 women from 11 different countries (including Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Somalia) and 18 different ethnic groups ravished by war and famine. About a third of the women are Kenyans who suffer the effects of poverty, corruption, war, and disease. Many are also the sole support of their children. They are, as one Kenyan woman said, like "refugees in their own country."

Amani counselors help women at the main center and two sister centers (one in Rwanda and one in Burundi that serve 20 additional women) put their lives together. They also learn to sew and make beautiful patchwork totes, toys, housewares, and fashions. At first women do their sewing and batiking at the center. More experienced women train newcomers, learning leadership skills in the process. Eventually many women are able to buy machines and work at home, which allows them to be with their children and save money on transportation.

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As they work, the women also become part of the Amani community, meeting with counselors, working alongside other women, taking part in prayer, Bible study, and devotions, and sharing their stories. Kistner says this kind of sharing is part of an African approach to counseling, where "multiple women in community feel safe sharing their stories."

The stories they share are hard ones that often involve abuse and brutality. Women come from diverse countries split by civil war and conflict with neighboring people. The women they're working next to and learning from may be from the same group as their abuser or the one who killed their parents or drove them from their land. Their wounds are deep, and reconciliation is crucial.

Amani women make about three times the average wage, which is enough to allow them to buy good food, pay school fees, and get adequate housing and medical care. The Nairobi center also runs a store, and women learn the skills-accounting, marketing, design, quality control-needed to manage a business and café. Their products use local textiles, in designs created to appeal to Westerners looking to buy a unique present and at the same time support a Christian ministry. (See amaniafrica.org; orders placed by Dec. 12 bring delivery by Christmas.)

Part of Amani's community-building emphasis involves home visits, where women go to each other's homes and see how they live. In a city the size of Nairobi, this assures that each woman is part of a network, and if she has a need, a group of Amani women will know where she lives in order to help. Once a year the women have a retreat.

In late October, Amani held its first fashion show in Nairobi. The event was called Sankofa, an Akan word meaning, "We must go back and accept our past so we can move forward. We do this so we can understand why and how we came to be who we are today." That's a lot of meaning packed into a short word, but it shows the process by which lives change.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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