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CMS Sept 06

Handcrafted jewellery, quilts and elephant dung cards are all helping restore the image of God among a forgotten people

“When you first started this, we couldn’t imagine why you would want to try to teach these people,” the man said to Susie Hart as he looked around the Neema Crafts Centre in Iringa, Tanzania.

By “these people” he meant the deaf and disabled, who are normally considered the refuse of society in Tanzania, but who comprise almost the entire staff of Neema Crafts.  (“Neema” means “grace” in Swahili.)

“People with disabilities in Tanzania are considered almost sub-human, a mistake, a curse,” explained Susie.  Consequently, finding employment as a disabled person in Tanzania is virtually impossible. Most are reduced to begging in the streets or are hidden away by embarrassed family members. 

But some Christians are working to give “these people” a future and a hope. Just over 10 years ago, a local church started a primary school for deaf students in Tanzania.  By the time CMS missionaries Susie and Andy Hart arrived with their baby Grace in 2002, the school was about to honour its first graduates.

But despite their education, employers still shook their heads, refusing to hire the deaf graduates. They were left with little choice but to return home and be “nothing but a burden”.

As a new mum, Susie hadn’t planned on working her first year in Tanzania. But seeing the plight of these marginalised people, she just couldn’t wait to put her skills as a textile artist and teacher into action on their behalf.

So she began laying the groundwork for an income-generating crafts workshop. This involved finding a suitable workspace and then putting in the necessary equipment. Then she created samples of products that the deaf trainees could make which would appeal to prospective buyers.

As Susie began teaching the art of papermaking to three young deaf graduates, she was amazed at how quickly and eagerly they learned the new skill. Even more encouraging was the overwhelming response to the products – especially the paper products made out of elephant dung!

Who would have thought that cards and folders made from elephant waste would prove so popular? Before long, the first three deaf trainees were busy training others, and Neema had to quadruple their workspace to accommodate orders coming in from across Tanzania and the UK.

“It’s amazing how God provided,” Susie recalled, “Just a few months earlier, these young people were isolated in their silent worlds, without hope. Now, many of them have become the primary breadwinners for their families.”

As the work with deaf trainees progressed, Susie began looking for a new project for people with physical disabilities. “Most of them are confined to wheelchairs, if they can afford them,” she said. “Others use a wooden stake to propel themselves along, or they simply drag themselves across the ground.”

She began teaching a group of disabled people how to make beaded jewellery, which has been hugely successful.

“We trained one young man called Steven who could only use one hand,” said Susie. “It changed his life. As a wage earner, he gained confidence and he recently got engaged – which would have been unthinkable for him before!”

Josphat is another example of a life transformed. An orphan, Josphat 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 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. 

In its first few years, Neema Crafts has trained and employed more than 60 deaf and disabled people as paper makers, quilters, jewellery makers, weavers, cooks and wood carvers. Neema also operates a café entirely staffed by deaf people. The menus feature sign language diagrams and customers are encouraged to communicate with the staff through signing.

Susie realises that as a self-funding enterprise, Neema Crafts can only employ a small portion of the vast number of disabled people in Tanzania. Although Neema sometimes receives donations for equipment, all operating costs and salaries are paid directly out of product sales.  “This means we can’t take on more people until we’ve expanded our markets,” Susie explained.

This expansion may happen soon. Recently, a local hotel owner donated a plot of land to Neema for the construction of a purpose-built workspace and shop.  Susie hopes to establish a new prosthetic limbs workshop, where people will make callipers, crutches and other disability aids, which are so desperately needed. 

Meanwhile she prays that others will follow Neema’s example and give “these people” a chance to show just how much they can do.

Recently, one visitor’s comments showed how Susie’s prayers are being answered:  “We couldn’t imagine why you would want to try to teach these people,” he began, “But now we can’t believe our eyes! They are making such beautiful things. This really is the work of God. Now I realise that everybody is important because everybody can do something if you give them the opportunity.”

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