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The angel on a sewing machine

She is jovial, smiles a lot and is a strong-willed young woman who has the determination to excel in life. In spite of living with a disability which limits her mobility and would otherwise have deterred her from engaging in any physical work, she never let this bring her down. She can grab a hoe and cultivate maize, she can do laundry and she is able to cook – all on her own and without needing any support. And if given a piece of fabric, she can weave a shirt, blouse or pair of shorts.

Her name is Angelina – which translates to ‘angel’. Angelina is 17 and she was born with a physical condition that confined her to a wheelchair. Although she underwent 2 comprehensive orthopedic surgeries as a child, doctors were not able to cure her condition. This caused her to be fully reliant on her father and mother for literally everything. The condition even affected her education right from the start. When she started primary school, it was her mother who carried Angelina on her back to and from school. Sometimes, her friends helped Angelina’s mother with the task but it was not to last long.

“When I became pregnant with my third child, I could not manage to carry Angelina to school and I had to stop.” Explained her mother. Angelina soon found herself missing a good part of her primary school education because there was no one else to care for Angelina, who was little then. Angelina’s parents realized that if they could not do anything to help the girl stand on her own, Angelina would be stuck in a situation where she would forever be dependent on someone. So, determined to see their daughter grow to be a survivor, the parents started teaching her basic household chores like laundry and cooking.  Angelina proved to be a fast learner and quickly, she was able to handle these chores on her own.

“She even surprised us when she started learning farming. She would get a hoe, leave for the garden and start preparing ridges without anyone helping her,” said her mother. Angelina grew maize, groundnuts and potatoes and the little harvests she got from her garden were used in the house. She was gradually becoming independent but farming was not exactly what Angelina was bent on pursuing as a career. At age 11, Angelina started taking an interest in tailoring. Whenever she found a piece of fabric lying around the house, she would neatly cut it into patterns and using her mother’s needles and threads she would manually sew a skirt. At first, she would sew only her clothes but as time went by, she began sewing clothes for her siblings too. To her parents, this was a blessing at an opportune time.

“There were times we could not buy clothes for Angelina and her siblings because we just did not have money for that. She filled that gap by sewing clothes for everyone,” her mother recalls.

The more clothes she made, the more her passion for tailoring grew. Angelina herself explained that since the day she stitched her first cloth, she knew that she was a natural born tailor. In her own words, tailoring is ‘where my heart belongs’. Angelina’s skills with the needle caused her mother to start looking for ways of helping her to improve the talent. In June this year, through the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (MACOHA), she registered for a course in tailoring at our vocational training centre. From working with hand held needles, Angelina is now training with a professional sewing machine under the supervision of a certified instructor. Best of all, she no longer worries about mobility issues since she is now staying on campus for free in the residential facilities we provide for female students.

Besides having a passion for sewing, one of the reasons that drew Angelina’s inspiration to pursue the tailoring trade was the financial situation of her parents.

“There were some things that my parents could not manage to buy for me. I understood that doing a vocational course would help me earn money that would let me buy whatever I was lacking,” she said, adding “when I am fully stable, I will also use the money to take care of my parents.” Angelina’s mother sells firewood for a living and has no exact means of earning an income. Her father is a struggling subsistence farmer who owns a very small piece of land that does not produce enough to support the family. When it is off season for farming, he makes ends meet by mowing and selling dry grass. Despite the many financial and material obstacles that Angelina’s family faces, they want the best for their daughter. They are very optimistic that Angelina will become the inspirational tailor she has always wanted to be.

“I love my daughter and I have all the hope that she will get skills that will let her be fully supportive of herself. I know that we will not live forever so in case we, her parents, pass on, she will be able to support her welfare as well as care for her siblings,” her mother remarked. Angelina herself has big plans after graduating. What she wants is to open a big business in the city and she has the confidence that she will succeed in that.

“My ambition is to start a tailoring business in a major city like Lilongwe,” she confided, referring to Malawi’s Capital. “That is my goal and I want to see that vision take shape.” That vision is indeed slowly taking shape because a in few months’ time, Angelina will graduate as a qualified tailor, ready to take on the tailoring world with her sharpened skills.

As There is Hope, we strive to make our programmes inclusive and accommodate people with disabilities. Our aim is to uplift the livelihoods of even those who are physically challenged because we understand that that group of people face difficulties to access education or income generating opportunities. By giving a chance to individuals like Angelina, we aim at proving the adage ‘disability is not inability’.

This year, the European Union (EU) awarded us a grant to enhance our vocational training programme. Through the grant, we have increased the number of students we enroll in the programme, which has helped us take in students living with disabilities for the first time. The EU funding has also enabled us to add three more courses thus giving a broader choice of trades to the youths we are targeting.