M’Pekala (Where We Live)

by Marsha Winsryg

M’Pekala is the name that the 10 women have given to their economic initiative project making sisal bags. It refers to the fact that they are able to add to the prosperity of their community by fashioning and selling these products and not only by their traditional agricultural work.

This project is the result of Sister Immaculata Mulyei, a Franciscan sister, who once lived in the region and is well aware of the difficulty these woman face earning cash money, being hours away from the nearest town.

Sister Immaculata Mulyei

Two groups from two villages have taken up her challenge to come up with a plan to manufacture a salable product. One group is making oil from a local nut, called mungongo in the local language and known as candlenut in English. M’Pekala was taught to make sisal baskets by master Zimba basket maker, who they hosted in their village for two weeks three years ago.

On the way to Sekute, the M’Pekala group’s village north of Livingstone

Then they planted sisal plants to make their baskets with. The beauty of this plant is that it needs no water. Drought has made their normal method of earning extra cash, raising meat animals, impossible. Sisal is a good solution, but it takes a long time to get big enough to harvest. Someday they won’t need to buy raw sisal, which they have difficulty finding.

Three women of M’Pekala with the young sisal plant, already three years old

Each winter season when they are through working in the fields, the women focus on weaving sisal bags and finding ways to add handles or lining. Each year, the quality improves, and the AACDP wants to offer them for sale on its website. The biggest problem right now is shipping the finished product to the US, because it costs a small fortune. The price to fedex 15 bags was $300! The local postal system was reliable until a year ago and now is almost defunct. That’s one hurdle to approach.


Zambezi Dolls Are Born

by Marsha Winsryg

Until the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Home came into being in 1996, there were few options for children with handicaps in Livingstone, Zambia. They stayed at home and many were kept out of sight because of prejudice and shame. The free services offered at the Mama Bakhita, such as education, physiotherapy and medical attention, gradually made people aware that these kids could learn and contribute to their community.
Still, the lack of work and the minimal pay scale for the menial jobs available, left their mothers struggling to pay rent and feed their families. Having handicapped children made working that much harder. It was clear that these women needed income.
It seemed to me that a simple, handmade doll could be a valuable product that the mothers of children at the Mama Bakhita Home might be able to produce and sell.
And so, Zambezi Dolls were born….
In 2011 I spent three weeks working with these women to develop a doll that could be made entirely by hand, and could be sold for enough money to make an economic difference in their lives. I hoped that, in time, these dolls might generate real income for these determined craftswomen.

Doll Work/mothers of disabled children
Zambezi Doll Makers

It was also clear to me there are not enough dolls of color in the world and that we do not need more plastic polluting our environment. So these dolls needed to be made of natural materials in a variety of skin tones. Add to these facts the need for meaningful work for economically challenged women anywhere, and you have reasons that Zambezi Dolls seemed like a very good idea.
Production began, but it was not at all easy. We began to make dolls with the idea that each woman would make her own from beginning to end. But because everyone had a different level of skill in handwork. Some were able to make five well-made dolls in the time it took another to make one less well-made doll. What to do?
Sister Agnes Daka, then director of the Mama Bakhita Cheshire School, solved the problem beautifully. She suggested they break down the doll making into steps, from the cutting out of the body patterns all the way to the making of the clothing. Everyone was capable of doing several parts of the production and together they were able to create finished dolls.

In this way they evolved into a true cooperative that produce beautifully made dolls entirely sewn by hand. Gradually every detail has been studied and practiced and the quality of each stitch is evident. Each doll is unique and no two are alike. This makes them very special indeed and ensures variety and creativity for the doll makers. As each woman advances her skill level, she can take on new and more difficult aspects of the process, like embroidering the faces and designing new hair styles. They are rightly proud of their achievements. And it means that any child anywhere can find the doll that is right for them.

Dolls of color, natural fiber

The twelve women can produce about 400 to 500 dolls per month. When the sales of the dolls increase, we will assemble a new group of twelve economically challenged women from the same community to be trained alongside and by the skilled original doll makers. We hope to grow this way and improve quality of life in the area.

Zambezi handmade ethnic dolls cotton soft unique
The Zambezi Doll Company women in 2019


Young people at the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Home for children with disabilities can exercise their minds and muscles every week, instead of a few weeks a year.

For many years I brought Tempra paint in beautiful colors when I came to stay at the Cheshire home for a few weeks each winter. From the very beginning they enjoyed the process immensely, especially those who had cerebral palsy and were unable to master many of the skills required of the other students, because their muscles would not cooperate. But we devised a way for them to paint. A way where they could chose the colors they wanted, and manage to use their hands and arms to put the paint where they wanted it. After several years it became clear to me that this was a powerful motivating force for them to gain some control over their arms and hands. All of the youngsters enjoy the process because they can paint for their own pleasure. There is no right or wrong way and non-representaional art is admired as much as any other kind.

What if they could do this frequently?

This year we set out to find a local Zambian artist with teacher training to come every week and offer this option. We had two finalists, Lubinda Kingfisher and Mary Pensulo. Both were competent and gentle teachers. If I could’ve hired them both to work together, I would have done that. But in the end we chose Mary Pensulo because, although my “freestyle” approach was new to her and not exactly in line with government curriculum, she could see how much the children benefitted from an uncritical experience.

In her words: “ This is so much fun! They obviously are enjoying themslves.”


The Organizing Principle Falls into my Lap the Day Before I Leave for Zambia

Piece #1 The Book and Why Do We Exist?(As a Business)
After eight years of slowly developing a product and a way to market it, 2018 was the year the Zambezi Doll project found its true shape and came into focus.

It began when my friend Roberta gave me a book she had found useful in organizing her own business, called The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni with the very descriptive subtitle “Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else”. I read the first half on the long plane ride going over and was intrigued to find no facts about profit margins or anything else like that. Instead the author listed the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself : why you are doing this business and what are your core values?

As soon as I arrived Sydney Mwamba, the Zambian manager of the AACDP, and I brainstormed about the first three questions that would be the foundation of our new enterprise.

#1 Why do we exist?
Firstly, to create a stable income for the doll makers out of their own creativity.
Secondly, the world needs a friendly doll made of natural materials and a choice of skin tones from dark to light.

#2 What are our basic values.? Compassion, integrity and consistency.

#3 What do we do? We make handmade dolls.

#4 Who is the leadership team and what are the areas of expertise?

Here was our first hurdle. We were missing part of the leadership team.

There is Sydney  who monitors the programs, identifies needs, requests funding and is a liaison to the local people being served in philanthropic ways.

And there is me. I raise funds, buy crafts, doll supplies, develop the basic doll patterns and train the doll makers in best practices and quality control. Sydney and I share the social media and photography.

It was a glaringly obvious to us both that a business-savvy bookkeeper was needed to complete the team. We started out writing a job description:

Bookkeeper needed to make finance reports, set up systems for production and evaluation, monitor stock, order supplies, market products on internet, work with the doll makers smoothly and be committed to working for the poor, especially women.
Sydney said to me, “I know the perfect person.” So call her!
(To be continued)