Passion Points: Giving Back
Same Sky, the inspiring organization devoted to helping self-supporting HIV-positive women through jewelry sales, was launched by visionary founder Francine Lefrak in Rwanda in 2008. Recently, the organization expanded to Zambia and LeFrak visited the artisans in their new workshop. Here are her impressions of a trip filled with spirit, passion and beautiful singing-voices.
‘The plane touched down at Lusaka airport in Zambia, a sub-Sahara African country riddled with AIDS, where one in seven adults is living with HIV. I traveled here to meet the Same Sky HIV-positive artisans and visit the house my friend and I rented for them. After making my way through customs and before I could even look for my driver, named Medicine, I was overwhelmed by beautiful singing. I followed the melody and there were the Abataka Same Sky women with smiles you only see in Africa. They were singing Chichitekelo Francine which means “believe” in their language, Njenja. The song referred to the pride the women feel in themselves and each other, and how proud they are that I believe in them so much I travelled to their country. Next they sang Balamupapa Francine, which described their desire to travel together on their life journey, carrying each other on their backs. Finally they sang Inkonto Yandi signifying a walking stick and the support and hope it provides.
‘The women sang their hearts out and when people in the airport asked which church they belonged to, they explained “No church, we are the HIV women who have changed our lives by making jewelry.” As I was looking at these women filled with such joy and heart, tears welled up inside of me and I couldn’t catch my breath.
‘My travel-weariness soon set in and I found Medicine with his dazzling Clark Gable smile and headed to the house. I didn’t want to leave the women though—their joie de vivre is addictive—and luckily their singing continued all the way home as they madly waved out the car windows.
‘When we arrived at the house, the women made me turn around and walk through the door backwards, a Zambian ritual for one’s first time in a new home. I realized just how much this house—one they’d never dreamt of having—represented the start of their new lives. The women proudly walked me and Mary from room to room, showing off their place of work. It was within these walls where they had gained self-esteem, bonded with each other, been able to openly discuss important worries and improve their health.
‘The leader, Ida, is so beautiful. The strong lines of her chiseled cheek bones and mane of thick braided hair remind me of a perfect Yoruba mask sculpture. Ida has one of those smiles that electrifies—if only Con Edison could figure out a way to plug her in, she’d be able to light a city.
‘These women were once struggling with AIDS but now that their illness is controlled with medicine, they are struggling with social issues. Working in a collective with other women and making a sustainable income empowers them to face these challenges.
‘We all began to work so my suitcase would be full of bracelets to sell back at home. I measured the bracelets for proper sizing and judged their closures to make sure they were seamless. The women appreciate feedback and are always looking to improve the quality of their work. All the time the women were working, they were singing songs they had written themselves in five-part harmony. The atmosphere was charged and full of life, and I felt blessed to be present.
‘One night I ate dinner at Ida’s house. She made a feast with pots and pots of food. She put a scarf on my head and a chitenge around my waist and we cooked Nshima, a form of grits very popular in Zambia. We also enjoyed delicacies such as caterpillars.
‘A highlight of my trip was visiting the Mother Teresa compound, which houses babies and young children with AIDS. The children danced and passed out flowers and the babies all had a stuffed animal they clutched. Two American doctors who work in Lusaka, along with their own young children, toured the facility with us. The doctors had given the center ARV drugs and the kids were improving. The nuns who run the facility are realizing that this house, which once merely prepared the children for death, has a new function, preparing some improved patients to leave the hospital, HIV-positive but relatively healthy.
‘Zambia is filled with hope for a brighter future. There is a new president and ruling party after 20 years, and the people are hopeful that infrastructure will improve and the battle against the HIV epidemic will be won.’
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