TANZANIA, AFRICA – Seven women gather at a workshop near the eastern coast of Africa. The chatter that typically characterizes a group of women isn’t there. There is no electricity. And the only sound strikes as the women pedal over the five sewing machines in front of them, as if to a metronome.
Gloria, the owner of the shop and a sewing teacher, stretches her fingers over the fabric in front of her and takes out a tape measure. She doesn’t speak English, but says in Swahili: “I’ve been blessed. I couldn’t ask for more and I have Mary Ann and Jack to thank for that.”
The pedaling continues until late in the afternoon when the women call it a day. Meanwhile, Jack and Mary Ann Hanson are asleep at their home in Valley City.
The workshop was built using money loaned by the couple’s Asante Network. But Gloria’s story is just one of many in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania that has been changed for the better by the couple’s nonprofit organization. Mary Ann and Jack’s work has given empowerment, security, opportunity and food for hungry children and women in a place many hold a prefixed notion of poverty and unhappiness.
It was fall of 2002 when the Hansons were asked to help with the Hunger Network Committee of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Elca. They were living in California at the time; Jack was a special needs educator and Mary Ann was a financial planner.
“We had just joined the committee when a missionary friend of Jack’s came to dinner,” Mary Ann said. “He told us he just returned from a mission trip to Uganda, where he had met a group of women who made beautiful baskets but had no one to purchase them.”
Jack’s friend asked if the couple could sell some of the baskets when they went to congregations to speak about the work their committee was doing. “I wasn’t sure if we were going to be allowed to sell anything in a church, but when I spoke to the pastor he said yes,” Mary Ann said.
That morning in Elam Lutheran church in California the couple sold nearly 40 baskets. “The rest is history,” Mary Ann said. But it wasn’t. That spring Jack took a trip to Tanzania, Africa. While there, he met with a pastor and his wife Janet Shoo.
Shoo was the creator of the Miichi women’s group.
“Miichi group is all about women doing good for others in the community aside from creating to make a living,” Shoo said as she stepped outside of Gloria’s house. “We all have side projects along with supporting ourselves with these crafts.”
When Shoo heard about the couple’s work with the women in Uganda, she told them all about hers and sent him home with a piece of stained fabric that the women use to create traditional garments.
Selling the garments in the U.S. provides a source of income that wouldn’t be possible at local markets. With the exception of formal occasions, most of the people in Tanzania cannot afford the brightly colored, hand-sewn dresses. The fabric is expensive and comes from the capital, Dar Salaam. It is then dyed at the workshop and then brought to the women.
Mary Ann said she was wary at first.
“I told Jack I didn’t have time to take on more,” Mary Ann said. “But my conscience ate on me.”
She wrote Shoo a letter along with a check for $150 and told her to send her other samples of the Miichi women’s work. “A few weeks later a huge box arrived from Janet. Inside was an invoice for an additional $500 to cover the total cost of the crafts. I had to sell them just to send the money back.”
The women in the Miichi group are not on salary. Mary Ann and Jack both have said that after visiting Tanzania and Uganda and seeing the needs there they decided to return all profits from sales to the women. They also began putting the money towards loans for other projects.
Eventually, the couple hired Shoo as the group’s coordinator in Africa. She contacts all carvers, seamstresses and jewelry makers in the Kilimanjaro region while watching over the other projects the Asante Network takes on. As of today, the Network works with four women’s groups: the Neepu and Rwenzori of Uganda, and the Naapok and Miichi of Tanzania.
Mary Ann said Shoo informs them on the needs of schools in the area, leading Jack to educate teachers and principals about solar lights and energy.
“All our efforts are committed to helping women in east Africa and connect the women there with the U.S. markets,” Mary Ann said. “This keeps the women making their traditional arts into a viable home-based business.”
The Asante Network, which has 501(c)(3) status and is part of the Fair Trade Federation, has only five volunteer coordinators across the U.S. But it has touched the lives of many more people in Africa. The Miichi Women’s Group, for instance, has 21 members who use their profits to pay for their children’s education, clothing and food.
Colin Haring, an anthropology student at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, visited the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania in November to observe the work of the groups supported by the Asante Network. He said groups that work for grassroots changes have had a widespread effect on the daily lives of many Africans.
“As many of us are aware from the current economic situation, throwing money at a problem does not necessarily fix it. Motivated people with experience and skills, along with direction and community do,” Haring said. “On a micro level with progressive intentions and close relationships, the means find a way to grow.”
-Kristine Kostuck is a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.