| In honor of International Women’s Day, I’d like to share a story of an amazing woman in Tanzania. She is the mother of a child with physical and intellectual disabilities, who is now part of the program Mosaic International works with in Tanzania, Building a Caring Community (BCC). There are many women who are becoming stronger and more empowered because of the work the program is doing for them and for their children. This is a powerful story, and one that illustrates the ripple effect our work in Tanzania has. There are many other inspiring stories just like this.
I met Laia in early 2011 at her home, while visiting with staff from BCC. We found her undernourished and weak. Any food that she had was given to her children. Her home was made up of one room, approximately 70 square feet in size, without plumbing or electricity. Three beds filled the space. Cooking was done outside on a wood or charcoal fire. She made beaded jewelry at home when she could afford the supplies, and sold it locally when she could.
At the time of my visit, Laia had four children. The youngest child had both physical and intellectual disabilities and was totally dependent on others for care. He had attended one of our day centers off and on, but wasn’t at the time of the visit because his wheelchair was broken. Fixing or replacing the wheelchair was well beyond what Laia could afford.
To understand Laia’s story, it’s important have some understanding of her background. She is of the Maasai tribal culture, which has had a place in Tanzanian history for centuries. The Maasai are now semi-nomadic, pastoral (raising livestock) and still patriarchal. Laia’s Maasai husband was recently deceased when I met her and she had been inherited by his brother, as was tradition.
This meant that Laia had neither economic nor social control of her life. She was isolated and trusted no one. At some point she agreed to give her earnings from beading to a friend in Moshi to keep it safe so that the man could not take it from her. This was a huge step for her, especially since she had no education nor any decision making powers within her culture.
Jumping ahead to fall 2013, big changes had taken place in Laia’s life. Following that first visit, friends from BCC formed a support network around her. They started with the easier things – providing food, school supplies and a new wheelchair for her son. Engaging this scared, distrusting woman who saw no way out of poverty, poor health, low self-esteem and with no sense of safety with others was a really slow process. It was much harder, but it happened in time. It was her talent for beading that sparked that change!
Laia’s children now attend school regularly and her son with disabilities regularly attends our day center. He is also part of PROMOT Health, a program that provides preventative and ongoing healthcare for all the children in the program in Tanzania. So, her children are all thriving and growing, which was her most important goal.
Because of her love of beading, a skill she has really taken to an art form, Laia eventually became a part of the beading co-op, a group of women who work right at the day center where her son attends. She has used her skills to teach the other women in the co-op, thus expanding the variety of merchandise they create and sell.
Not only did that help her income (and that of the other mothers of children with disabilities who work with her), but it meant she had a support system. The co-op helped Laia become comfortable chatting with women who were not from a Maasai background. Through this interaction, she realized that she had a skill worthy of sharing, could find friends she could trust and she started to see a better future. Laia, in short, started to believe in herself.
Today, Laia and her family are still poor and continue to face the extra challenges of providing for a child with severe disabilities without the basic amenities. However, much of her fear and isolation from others have decreased considerably. She is comfortable receiving support and offers her own kind of support to others. Laia has friends with whom she talks, laughs and shares the common threads of both beading work and raising children who have disabilities. At the same time, her son receives care, therapies and nourishment from the day center’s staff. Laia looks forward to receiving the money she earns and being in charge of how it is used. This, in turn, has provided a sense of security, knowing that her family is fed and healthier.
Laia is grateful to the role that our program plays in her life. The support of the program and the staff have helped her to grow emotionally stronger, enabling her to break through some of the cultural barriers to reach for empowerment.
I’m so very proud of Laia. I’m also honored to be part of this work, that not only provides health, hope and happiness for children with disabilities, but to their mothers as well.