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Photo by Katherine Brandt

Patchwork sisterhood

Business | A new Washington boutique is bringing hope to Africa and to the capital

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

WASHINGTON-Five blocks from the National Zoo, a banner outside a brick storefront on Mt. Pleasant Street announces the grand opening of Amani Ya Juu's first U.S. boutique. Amani, an organization started in 1996 to offer hope and trade skills to struggling women in East Africa, since its summer opening has added an artsy, fair-trade feel to the tony establishments in northwest Washington.

Inside the boutique colorful dresses, purses, and jewelry fill up shelves along orange walls, as girls in patchwork aprons scurry about making sure customers have enough chai tea latte. Brittany Noetzel, a 26-year-old with a glittery nose ring who co-manages the shop, helps her mom man the cash register.

Noetzel has had ties to Amani (Swahili for "higher peace") since 2004 when she traveled to Tanzania with a group from Wheaton College. While there, she met up with fellow Wheaton student Rachel Kistner, who was interning with Amani in Kenya and Rwanda. There, Noetzel observed women-many of whom had lived as refugees, endured famine, and survived genocide-interacting like sisters while crafting beautiful textiles. And even though her red hair and fair skin set her apart, she said she didn't feel out of place.

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"I was struck by the way that relationships between people who are very different can be so genuine at Amani . . . whether you're American or African, no matter what tribe you represent . . . you're valued."

Over the next five years, Kistner and Noetzel took Africa beyond their college experiences, to represent Amani in the United States and launch the organization's first stateside shop in January (see "Look back, walk forward," Jan. 17, 2009). Over the past seven months, the women have watched the three rooms they rent at Community of Christ (also known as "La Casa"), a tiny church in Mt. Pleasant, grow into a popular venue in the quirky corner of the capital.

Clientele come in all shapes and sizes: middle-aged, middle-income, African-Americans who are drawn to the Afro-fabrics and patterns, Latinos who like the bright colors. And plenty of humanitarian types, as Mt. Pleasant has a high concentration of former Peace Corps volunteers.

Jessica Weaver, a 25-year-old Mt. Pleasant local, first stopped by the shop because of Amani's tagline-"Beyond Fair Trade." She said she was impressed with Amani's mission to help African women sustain themselves; to "[teach] someone how to fish, rather than give them a fish."

Weaver-who now volunteers once a week at the shop-also liked the merchandise. "What impressed me was that the products were authentically African but adapted for an American audience," she said. "The bags, purses, and jewelry were things I would want to buy."

Jewelry seems to be a bestseller, especially necklaces, along with children's items, like a stuffed animal safari set.

All of Amani's U.S. products come directly from the workshops in Africa. It's a symbiotic relationship, Noetzel explained. "We rely on Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi for our products. They rely on us to buy the products."

In the past, Amani depended entirely on U.S. volunteers to act as salespeople, but the recession has slowed volunteer sales significantly. Not so with the store. Noetzel says they've tapped into a new market.

"You would think you wouldn't want to open up a shop during a recession," she said, "but it's actually proved to be really productive."

At the end of the day, it's far less about the money, and far more about passing on the vision. In the future, Amani DC plans to provide in-store internships for at-risk girls in the district, to expand the hope, healing, and sisterhood that began in Africa.

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