Neema Crafts in Tanzania is thrilled to be moving into much larger premises this summer, not least because it will create more opportunities for the disabled people it employs
In February 2008, as cameras snapped and flashed, the Japanese ambassador handed Susie Hart a cheque for $85,000.
Not only did the cheque represent 12 months of number crunching and report writing (as part of the process of applying for a Japanese government grant), it was the final piece of the puzzle needed to complete the new Neema Crafts Centre in Inringa, Tanzania.
“It was the best news we could have possibly had,” Susie said, describing the moment when Mr Mizouchi called and told her Neema had been selected to receive funding.
“Joy erupted in the office as we praised God together for his provision. The trainees looked on in bemusement as I bounced around the workshops to tell them the news.”
Many of the workers at Neema Crafts would not have heard Susie’s initial cries of joy. After all, the employees of Neema Crafts in Tanzania are either deaf or disabled.
When we first reported on Neema Crafts in Inspire two years ago, they had already outgrown their rented warehouse workspace. What started four years ago with Susie training three young deaf men how to make and sell paper from elephant dung, had already grown into a multifaceted crafts business with over 60 deaf and disabled employees.
Today, more than 90 people have been trained and given work by Neema Crafts (Neema means “Grace” in Swahili). “It got so over-crowded that I had to have a wooden platform built above the paper making area on which to place my desk, which is only accessible by ladder!” says Susie.
Thanks to donations from individuals and groups, as well as the Japanese government grant, Susie and her team are looking forward to moving into their new permanent premises this summer. More importantly, they are excited about being able to employ more deaf and disabled people who currently have to sit on a waiting list due to lack of space.
Besides paper making, jewellery making, textile production, screen-printing and woodcarving, Neema has expanded into other areas over the past couple of years. These include a café, a solar workshop (see inset) and recycling glass beads from discarded bottles and jars. Says Susie: “We are now the first – and only – organisation within the Iringa region to be recycling glass.”
The new building will contain all the current workshop areas, as well as a larger shop area, gallery café (entirely staffed by deaf people as in the current location), conference room, office, staff room with wheelchair-accessible toilets and showers and a physiotherapy department.
“The latter is something we are particularly excited about as for the first time we will be able to serve the needs of children with disabilities as well as adults,” said Susie.
This includes children like Musa, an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. When Andy Hart (Susie’s husband) and a physiotherapist employed by Neema first visited Musa, he had never spoken or walked.
As is the case with most severely disabled children in Tanzania, Musa’s family assumed he couldn’t do anything – and that nothing could be done for him. So Musa sat alone while his brothers and sisters helped with housework and went to school.
During the first visit with Musa’s grandmother, the physiotherapist showed her some exercises to help Musa use his limbs. Andy says: “When we told her Musa could walk if he had the proper aid, her eyes lit up.
“When we returned a week later she had made crutches from the best material she could find and Musa had managed to walk with them! She also fashioned a bar that he could use to stand against a wall of their hut.”
At the time, Musa’s four-year-old sister was pounding spinach with a mortar and pestle. She brought it to Musa to try using as a way of strengthening his grip. He found it hard but he loved trying.
“For the first time ever he was doing a job to help his family and his face beamed,” Andy recalled.
Then they tried some speech therapy with Musa. After only five minutes he could make signs for ‘bowl’ and ‘cat’ and make a recognisable ‘P’ sound for paka (cat in Kiswahili). This was the first time that his grandmother had seen him directly communicate. Tears filled her eyes. “Musa has so many abilities; he just needed someone to unlock them,” Andy said.
Unlocking people’s abilities is what Neema is all about. The Harts are looking forward to seeing the physiotherapy division of Neema grow whilst remaining committed to the arts and crafts work.
Neema has garnered a reputation for creating high-quality, ethically produced handicrafts and orders are pouring in from around the world.
Yet it’s not just the beautiful crafts; it’s the people behind the beautiful crafts that make Neema so special.
Because of the stigma attached to deaf and disabled people in Tanzania, they are normally refused work. Often they are hidden away out of shame or because their family has no idea how to help them. Sometimes they have no choice but to beg in the streets.
At Neema, they are given skills, hope and dignity. You may remember Josphat, an.orphan, was looked after grudgingly by extended family members. All his life he felt unwanted. Deaf people use shorthand signs for each other’s names, and as he has a prominent curvature of the spine, Josphat was known as ‘hunchback’.
But after being trained in papermaking at Neema, Josphat became so highly skilled that the other trainees changed his name-sign from ‘hunchback’ to ‘he is able’. Whereas once his whole identity was based on his disability, now he is known and respected for his ability.
There are dozens more stories like Josphat’s. When a woman called Neema lost both her legs to an infection, her husband left her to support herself and their child. Neema had to drag herself around on the ground – until she came to Neema Crafts. There she learned how to make beaded jewellery, becoming so skilled that she is now able to support herself and her son.
Neema also received new prosthetic legs. When her husband saw how capable she was, he returned to her and the family has been reunited.
Changing Tanzanian people’s perceptions about disabled people is as much a part of Neema Crafts’ mission as transforming disabled people’s lives. Perhaps as they see how capable deaf and disabled people are, other employers will follow Neema Crafts’ example.
It’s one of the things that make the new permanent building for Neema Crafts so significant. According to Susie, “God has faithfully provided through literally hundreds of ordinary people who together have made it possible to make a permanent home for Neema Crafts Workshop, assuring its future as a beacon of light and hope in the community for generations to come.”
A group of deaf/disabled artisans from Neema Crafts, Tanzania, along with Susie Hart, will be featured at the Greenbelt Festival this summer and will host a special evening in Central Oxford on Monday 8 September. For more information contact Julie Whitfield at CMS. Call 01865 787400, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.cms-uk.org
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