Alice in Tailor Land
Imagine a young teenage girl in a maize farm under the scorching heat of the sun, sweating profusely as she repeatedly thrusts her hoe against the dry ground to make ridges. The heat is intense and every now and then she pauses and raises her hand to wipe off the ripples of sweat dripping down her face. She is not alone. A couple of metres away, two of her friends are occupied with the same task, hoes in hand and hard at work. Now, imagine being told that these girls are working in this maize farm as hired labour.
And imagine being informed that the girls make a meagre USD6 for the job!
This might appear like an introduction to a fiction novel but in reality, it happened. This was the normal routine for Alice, a young woman aged 19. Alice stays in one of the remotest areas of Dowa district, a few kilometres away from Dzaleka Refugee Camp. As a means of making money to cater for her personal needs, Alice and two of her friends formed a group that worked as hired labourers in maize farms. Working as a farm hand is one of the toughest jobs in Malawian villages and it is rare to see girls working in maize fields but…
Alice had no alternative.
“It was the only option I had. It is difficult to find formal work in the village.” Alice reflected. Most of the times, Alice explained, she would work almost the whole day tilling fields or making ridges and the work was too demanding. “It was exhausting. The work was hard and the pay was low. Farm work requires a great deal of physical labour and at this affected my health. At times I would get sick.” Depending on the size of the maize field, Alice and her partners would sometimes take two to three days to complete the work. The girls charged a minimum of MK5, 000 (about USD6) for the labour. The worst part was that the money had to be split between the three, which meant that on average, each girl took home USD2.
It was a painful way of making a side income.
This was not what Alice aspired to do. She is a brilliant young woman who had plans to start a tailoring business.
“Tailoring is a booming business in my community. Lots of people prefer hiring a tailor to make customized clothes rather than buying the attires from the market.” Alice said. However, the problem was that she had no skills in tailoring and she could not just enrol at any tailoring school since such schools were costly. Her parents could not help. Alice’s parents have 5 children and their main source of income is the two dairy cows they own. They sell milk but the revenue they generate from the trade is not sufficient to support Alice at a private vocational training school.
What Alice needed was an institution that offered such a course at an affordable tuition. All she could do was hope and wait. Last year, Alice’s aspirations suddenly turned to reality when she was among the students who made it to our vocational training centre. She enrolled in her dream course – tailoring. At last Alice’s journey to achieve her goal of starting a tailoring business had eventually kicked off.
“I was determined to work to the best of my ability to excel in class. This was what I had been waiting for.” Alice chuckled as she spoke. Her determination to excel impressed her fellow students.
“My classmates did not believe that it was the first time I was working with a sewing machine.” She revealed, “I was just that excellent even though I was new in the course. I think I was born a tailor.” She laughed. Alice’s skills caught the attention of her teacher too. Before the girl even completed her six months – the duration of the course – the instructor took Alice in as an apprentice in a tailoring shop she runs at Dzaleka Trading Centre.
That was her big break.
Alice still works at the shop. From working with a hard hoe, she now works with a soft needle. She no longer has to endure hours of hard labour in maize farms under the hot sun. Alice now works in a comfortable environment, she sits on a chair in a spacious room with plenty of shade.
How much does she make now?
“I charge four thousand Kwacha for a shirt but a suit costs up to fifteen thousand Kwacha.” She said. That is quite a lot of money compared with the mere MK5, 000 she used to make. Even better, the money she makes from the shop goes into her pocket alone. She no longer has to split the earnings three-way as was the case when she toiled in farms with her friends.
At home, she is the only tailor within the vicinity and her neighbours scramble for her services.
Alice’s parents are enjoying the benefits of her tailoring skills too. A month ago, Alice made a suit for her mother and a couple of shirts for her siblings and her father.
“I see a big change in my life now.” Alice closing remarks are a perfect summary of her story. Change. That is what our vocational training programme stands for. Every year, we develop young men and women into productive youths who are well armed with the necessary skills to enter the labour market. We are here to make a positive change to their livelihoods.