Get To Know: Amani ya Juu
A Community of Givers
By the time I was walking, my world was full of colorful cloth. My family were missionaries in Kenya, a country in East Africa, and wherever I looked women were wearing kitenge skirts, wrapping their babies in kangas, or spreading a shuka on the ground to sell mangoes in the market. Beautifully patterned fabrics with beautiful names. By the time I was nine I had learned to sew, so I had an excuse to buy that cloth!
The first time my mom and I visited Amani ya Juu in Nairobi I knew that this was a place where they understood the things I loved. When we walked into the shop, full of colorful fabric products, we were welcomed with a hug. It was clear from the start that the woman who directed us around the shop loved the things she was selling as much as I did. She was proud of her work and that of the women she worked alongside.
Amani is a fair-trade social enterprise that provides skills training and employment for marginalized women in Africa by producing a range of high quality hand-crafted products. The training programs are designed to equip women with confidence and transferable skills. What that description can’t fully convey, however, is the throbbing, singing heart of Amani: its community. Beautiful products, hugs for visitors, and gently proud words from a shopkeeper are simply indicators of the dignity and peace that marks the women at Amani.
As an intern at Amani Kenya in 2015, I was privileged to work under the leadership of passionate women from African and Western countries. These women, and the women they were training and leading, knew who they were – survivors of life with strength, love, and skills to offer their community. Founded on principles of reconciliation and peace, I saw how long-term relationships, nurtured through work, daily life, and worship, led to transformation in women’s lives.
Amani ya Juu means “Peace from Above” in Swahili, evoking verses from Scripture like Colossians 3:15,
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.”
Spreading peace – which includes material, relational, and spiritual restoration – is not a role for leadership alone at Amani. Rather, “as members of one body” the women care for one another’s dignity. Women who come to Amani full of fear, bitterness, and shame become the very ones who reach out to their co-workers and neighbors after a season of healing. Those who have been on the receiving end of aid become the givers, able to provide for their children, train other women in skills they’d mastered, and share their stories with joy.
If You Want to Go Far
There is a proverb that says,
“If you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”
Treating a woman with dignity breaks the cycle of poverty and shame and allows her to enter a new cycle of empowerment that moves her out toward others. I saw the beginning of that cycle within the walls of Amani Kenya. However, what motivates me most as an Amani team member now are the stories of the women who keep moving out, inspired by their own experience of dignifying community.
Simprosa Okot, the Amani Uganda Country Director, was a Ugandan refugee who returned home with her family in 2011, after being at Amani Kenya for eight years. In Uganda, she was heart-broken by the hardships of the women and girls kidnapped as “wives” for the LRA soldiers during the country’s long civil war. Though the war was over, the freed women experienced shame and rejection as they returned home with children born from their abusers. Partnering with Amani ya Juu, Simprosa started a new sewing center in Gulu where women could receive skill training, fair wages, and trauma counseling. Now over 30 women have been trained at Amani Uganda.
Similar stories happened in Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, and various neighborhoods in Kenya. Women who had healed from deep wounds returned to vulnerable places in order to provide contextualized support and healing to others. To me, this is what sustainable development looks like. This is peace!
Delighting in Dignity
The colorful fabrics I've loved since I was little have become more beautiful to me as they are tied to the stories of women like Simprosa (or Rahab, Goreth, Lucy, and many more). Each tea towel, purse, and toy I sell has the name of its maker on the tag. It is a reminder that this object made of little pieces of bright cloth symbolizes a community of people who are joined together in dignity.
I don't work in the same country as most of my Amani sisters, but I do get to participate in spreading the same peace. I get to tell the stories and invite people to partner with Amani by purchasing our products and by becoming Amani Ambassadors who share the mission of Amani with their own communities.
C.S. Lewis has a wonderful quote:
"Just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising."
I've praised what I think is even more beautiful than African fabrics: the dignity of the women who wear and create with them. I hope you’ll join me in that delight!