On Friday, area residents will have the opportunity to do some Christmas shopping while helping women in East Africa. The Asante Network, a charitable group that markets the crafts of several groups of African women, will hold a Bazaar Friday in the gift shop at the Sheyenne Care Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The bazaar will feature; textiles, including batiks and embroidered pieces that range from wall hangings to clothing and bedding; carvings; vividly colored beaded items including jewelry and household items; and hand woven baskets and mats in an array of colors.
Profits from the merchandise go toward fair wages for the women who make the crafts and to support their groups.
The Asante Network (Asante means “thank you” in Swahili) is a volunteer organization dedicated to groups of women in parts of Africa. Founded by Valley City residents Jack Hanson and Mary Ann Sheets-Hanson, the Asante Network sells products made by four groups of women in two areas in Africa; the Miichi Women’s group and the NAPOK Women’s Group, both in Tanzania; and the NEEPU Women’s Group and the Rwenzori Mountain Women’s Group both in Uganda.
The Miichi women design and hand-produce batiks and tie dyed textiles and textile products using fabric made of local cotton. The textiles are turned into wall-hangings and can be used for sewing or quilting. Some of the decorated fabrics are sewn, by local seamstresses, into clothing as well as bet and table linens.
The NAPOK women are beaders, according to Mary Ann. They produce hand-beaded jewelry, napkin rings, Christmas ornaments, clergy stoles, and bead-accented household accessories.
The Rwenzori and the NEEPU women are weavers. They use locally grown materials to make hand-woven baskets in a variety of shapes, many with intricate patterns. The Rwenzori women use dyes from naturals sources to color their baskets while the NEEPU women use natural as well as chemical dyes for color.
Carvings, hand-made by men’s groups and purchased by the Miichi women are also sold by the Asante Network.
Mary Ann and Jack first learned the need for help when they became involved in a group called Stand With Africa as part of their Evangelical Lutheran Conference of America church in California. The couple gave lectures to other church groups about helping out in Africa. They met a man who had been to Africa and asked if they could sell some hand-made baskets at the lectures.
Later, during a trip to Africa, Jack had the opportunity to meet the group of women who had made the baskets. The crafts were amazing, said Mary Ann, and the couple wanted to create a way for the women to sell their crafts.
Mary Ann referred to the Bible parable about teaching a man to fish, and he can eat forever.
“In our case, the women already knew how to fish, our women had boatloads of fish but they had nobody to buy their fish, their fish being their crafts,” said Mary Ann.
So the couple found a way for the women to sell their “fish,” using Mary Ann’s marketing skills developed as a former financial advisor.
The Asante Network is part of the Fair Trade Federation, a group that helps ensure that member groups pay their craftsmen a fair wage. The African women’s groups set the prices for their goods, the Asante Network has a mark-up that pays for operating expenses and to pay for other programs in Africa including building a women’s sewing center, scholarships, school uniforms and the current big program that includes purchasing school lunches for 300-400 children for 10 months of the year.
The Asante Network used to make micro-loans to African women who wanted to start their own businesses, but by developing the women’s groups, it’s now possible for the groups to make and manage their own loans, according to Mary Ann.
Another project included funding a sewing center where women produce school uniforms that they sell.
The women aren’t the only ones who benefit from the Asante Network, Mary Ann has been inspired by the women of Africa that the group helps.
During a trip to Africa in 2004, (she has made two) Mary Ann had the honor of meeting a woman named Mama Sara (after her oldest daughter).
Mama Sara was part of the Miichi Women’s Group. The woman was very sad, having lost her sister recently to AIDS. The sister’s husband had died previously, so Mama Sara had her own three children as well as her sister’s three children.
During a tour of the very poor family’s farm, Mary Ann noticed that they had no cow, no goat, just a chicken and a rooster.
After visiting a while, they said their good-byes and Mary Ann and her group was on her way back to their vehicle when they were called back. There stood Mama Sara with her whole family, presenting Mary Ann with the family’s only chicken.
“I told Janet (one of Mary Ann’s traveling companions while in Africa) I couldn’t accept the chicken, but of course I had to,” Mary Ann said with a tear in her eye. “It changed my life really. Janet told me ‘Now, Mary Ann, you have been touched by the African soul.
That African soul is so huge, they have nothing but they’ll give you their last chicken, they’re so grateful.” she continues.
After returning home and sharing Mama Sara’s story, the family received donations and were able to turn their lives around. They were able to get educations for their children now and one of Mama Sara’s daughters now owns a sewing shop of her own and recently sent Mary Ann a bedding set from her shop.
“The women basically are so proud to be able to make a living, it gives them pride and dignity. That to me is worth just everything that we do.”
The Asante Network currently works with six volunteers in Alaska, California and North Dakota.
Eventually, the group will need some younger blood to keep its work going.
For more information, or to purchase Asante Network goods, contact the group’s website at www.asantenetwork.org .