Zambia

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.”

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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)

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Chembo Muwaya Zambezi doll financial person

Piece #2 Chembo
Sydney’s long time friend, Chembo Muwaya had all of these skills and was already interested in the project. But she lived In Ndola, a six or seven hour busride away. I was surprised when she expressed serious interest and agreed to come to Livingstone to discuss things. I was even more surprised and delighted when she agreed to join us as the third team member.
From the moment we met it was chrystal clear that she was a perfect fit: smart, energetic, good humored and passionate about setting up a successful business for the women and for ourselves. Her description of how to organize the business end was clear and authoritative. She was sitting next to me on the couch in the living room of the guest house at the Mama Bakhita, which became our meeting room. I touched her hand and looked at her in wonder. “Are you real?”
She moved to Livingstone the next week and set up a three month business plan, three months being the minimum needed to reach the breakeven point. She took inventory, figured out what each doll cost in materials, how many dolls we needed to sell to break even (50 a week) and how many to make a profit (more). One big unknown was how many finished dolls the women could complete in a given time. We had been operating since 2010 in a piecemeal fashion, because I was selling the dolls myself at Christmas and summer sales and had to limit quantity. I could give them two big orders a year, paying them several thousand dollars each time, which was great but not consistent enough to sustain them year round. They have their small businesses to try and make ends meet, but often it is not enough.
We had no idea how much time they needed to produce one doll.

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Zambezi doll company home

Piece #4  A Place of Our Own

The doll makers have been working in the hydrotherapy room at the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Home, a facility that was financed by an Irish organization called Touch Ireland. It was built five years ago and, along with the physiotherapy room, has been used hardly at all due to Zambian bureaucratic regulations and lack of maintenance.

The Mama Bakhita has supported our efforts to create a doll business for these women, some of whom have or had disabled children at the the school here. Sr. Agnes supervised them in the first years after I designed the simple dolls and began training the women to make them. It was her idea that the women share the different tasks in making a doll, with each woman doing the part she was best suited for and all sharing equally in the profits. This has worked well over the years since 2010, when we began, causing the women to form a tightly knit group that supports each other.

I come every winter to work on the quality of the dolls to improve their marketability. For many years, I have been the main customer, buying a large quantity of dolls, at least 100, twice a year. This gave them a surge of cash twice a year but not the consistent income they need to support their minimal requirements. Often this means that I send money to sustain them, because I want them to keep at it. I have always had faith that one day our project would be a success. And, surprisingly to me, they continue to believe this too.

Although the hydrotherapy room leaves much to be desired as a workspace, the rent is free, so we have been very grateful for that. In return, the women volunteer to cook lunch for the school children three days a week.

In the back of my mind has been the desire to rent a small house that will serve as a workspace where they can work comfortably, safely store their valuable doll supplies and cook their lunch inside instead of outside on a brazier.

One day Sydney and I ran into A friend in the street in town. “Proby is in real estate now” Sydney mentioned to me as we approached and I asked if he knew of any houses to rent in our neighborhood. Well, yes, there was a house around the corner from the Mama Bakhita.

We walked through the gates of the property, shaded by mango trees, and into a very substantial cement house built in the Indian style, very large central space with two open areas and two long galleries on each side for the five bedrooms and four bathrooms and a kitchen. There was a pantry for storage, closets in every room and the rent was a very reasonable $300 a month.

The doll makers were overjoyed. This was clearly a sign that things were starting to happen. On Friday we signed a lease. On Saturday we all cleaned the house. Not having furniture was a problem, but Sydney and Chembo found a few tables and chairs and so the doll makers went to their new workshop on Monday. That same morning that I left for the States.

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