21 Jan
  • By Isaac Msiska
  • Cause in

Love and the sewing machine

I recently came across an article about the inventor of the Singer sewing machine.  Isaac Merrit Singer was an actor turned inventor and reading about him you cannot help but agree with his biographer’s well-put remark, that he was “the kind of man who adds a certain backbone of solidity to the feminist movement”. To illustrate, he ran three families, was a wife-beater, had at least 22 children and an insatiable womanizer. When I say inventor, I mean partly as he made tweaks to the shuttle and needle bar that finally made it work properly. But when he initially saw the machine he remarked, “You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet.”  Yap! first-class kind of guy.

That being said, he was instrumental in making society start to appreciate women as decision-makers who can aspire to financial independence, as he and his partner used ‘novel’ marketing strategies like hire purchase and ran ads that stated, “Sold only by the maker directly to the women of the family” (such a shocking statement in the 1800s) and that “Any good female operator can earn with them $1,000 a year”. As the writer of the article concluded and I agree, ‘social progress can be achieved by the most self-interested of motives.’

That being said, thanks to Mr Singer, Loveness got a chance at self-reliance and financial independence. Loveness comes from Zidunge Village in central Malawi. She is 21 years old and has seven siblings, one sister, and six brothers. When you look at her, she is such a sweet tiny girl. But even with the timid demeanour that African girls are socialized to have as they grow up, you can see she has big dreams.

It was fascinating to talk to her because while her body language said one thing, her thoughts were quite the opposite. For instance, when I asked her to describe her village, honestly, I was just trying to get her settled and feel at ease. I don’t know what kind of response I expected but I am sure it isn’t what she said. She went straight to the problem: early pregnancy among teenagers. There are partly due to high poverty levels and when the girls go out in search of jobs, they have to give themselves to secure and retain the jobs.

She knows all about this because she is the secretary of the Network for Youth Development in Agriculture in her village. Where she, and the Village Chief – who is the chairman and her role model – have frequent meetings with the youth. Whenever there are issues affecting girls she is brought in as their representative.

This piqued my interest. I asked about her role model. Wasn’t she afraid of him? Or ever felt threatened? To which she confidently answered, No. He is a good mentor, she said. Whenever there are boys who come to hit on her, he is always there for her discouraging any actions that would be to her detriment. And before you (dear reader) start forming notions in your head, she added, he has a family and has 7 children. He does farming and keeps livestock and makes his money by selling milk and meat. Be still my heart, I told myself, don’t doubt, this is one of the good ones willing to empower without ulterior motives.

She, in a matter of fact tone, pointed out that that is why she came to do the tailoring course in There is Hope (TIH); to be a role model to the girls in her village. She had failed her final high school exams, mainly because since her parents were so poor, they could only pay exam fees and not tuition, which meant she was never prepared to take the exams.

But something good came out of it since this is where she heard of the vocational training happening in TIH. She went through interviews and got a slot, which included tuition and boarding for only MK7000, approximately $10. As an entrepreneur, I thought this is not sustainable, but it turns out TIH is keen on empowering local communities to be self-reliant and so seek sponsorships to cover the expenses. Anyway, the parents were ecstatic to hear this and were in complete agreement with her boarding, as it will ensure that “she is serious with the studies and if there are any challenges her friends in the hostels can help”. I can see other benefits to a young girl boarding.

At first, it was difficult but she refused to give up. She put in the effort and practiced with the machines regularly. Consequently, she always passed her exams and generally thrived and excelled in the program. She finished the program on 26 June 2019 and promptly secured a job in July at DMI University run by the Sisters of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate in Malawi.

I was interested to know how she secured a job so fast. Turns out that after completion, the day she went home, the Village Chief came to her and told her there was an organization that came looking for people who know to tailor and he recommended she take it up. She accepted the role even though she was not very confident about all her skills. The Chief encouraged her, she followed his advice, worked hard, and now she trains others.

When I asked her how this has changed her life she instantly lit up. She said at first she was failing in life but since she got a job she is now independent and even her parents are depending on her. For instance, as tomato farmers, she has been able to buy them a water pump and chemical fertilizers to help with the farming. She was able to do this within just four months of earning an income. I was very impressed.

“Before I was facing challenges but since doing this training, I have discovered different things. I didn’t know a lot about life but now I can learn and hopefully reach far.”

I am a firm believer in education. Whatever form it takes. While she was learning how to tailor she gained critical thinking skills and can now grasp different concepts. I was reminded key lessons in life from talking to this powerful young lady: 1) Education is not just about getting As in class, it’s about gaining a skill and 2) the immeasurable power of a mentor in one’s life and finally the importance of giving back no matter how little you have.

Story courtesy of Linda Wamalwa