I just want to remind everyone that the purpose of the stories I am sharing with you here is to show you the real people behind the products you see on the website http://www.tashanda.com/.
Batsiranai is actually the first producer group I visted on the second day of my arrival in Harare.
For those of you who haven't heard of Batsiranai, let me tell you about it. But before I begin... let me tell you about the stigma associated with having a handicapped child in Zimbabwe. I never really believed it existed because my own cousin was born with downs syndrome. His name was Fadzi and he was the light of our lives. I didn't know he was disabled because nobody treated him as if he were. It was only as I started to get older as he struggled to learn how to walk and talk that I realized something was wrong. Regardless, as a little girl he was my favorite toddler because he was so lovable. I remember sitting on a couch with my sister, Fadzi between us, and he loved to give hugs. That particular day he gave me a hug then my sister pretended to sulk and he turned to her smiling and have her a hug. Then I pretended to sulk and he turned to me and gave me another hug. I don't know how long this went on but he continued to give us one hug after another.. that memory makes me smile. Fadzi passed away a few years ago but he will always have a special place in all our hearts.
So going back to the issue of stigma associated with disability, I do recall attending a mini-olympics for disabled children in Harare and sittling next to some ignorant fools who were laughing at some of the children running on the track... Other than that my personal experience has not been negative. While there are many schools in Zimbabwe for children and adults with disabilities there remains a common fear of the unkown amongst the public about people with disabilities. Fear fuels prejudice and unfortunately this is something from which the whole world suffers... Jairos Jiri, St Giles, and St Catherines are three major institutions for children and adults with disabilities in Zimbabwe. Fadzi attended the latter two schools during his childhood.
If you want to know more about the handicapped in Zimbabwe please refer to the NASCOH (National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped) website at http://www.nascoh.org.zw/
Batsiranai, which means "help each other" in Shona language, started in 1998 as a support group for low income women with handicapped children. I can imagine that it was important for these mothers to share their struggles with one another and develop solutions as a team. Chief volunteer at Batsirania, Lynne Poole, describes it best: "Batsiranai is a member of Zimbabwe Parents of Disabled Children Association (ZPDCA), an advocacy organization registered with the Government of Zimbabwe's Ministry of Social Welfare. Within ZPDCA there are 600 families with severely disabled children living in various townships around Harare. The original Dzivarasekwa group consists of 24 mothers and George (an older brother of a disabled child). The sale of handicrafts has enabled the members to reach out to include additional mothers from various townships around Harare. Today there are 110 mothers working with Batsiranai (November 2007). The dream of this project is to grow and grow quickly, so that all 600 families may participate in the success of Batsiranai."
As always happens when we visit Batsiranai we got a little bit lost. The center is situated in a high density suburb which means there are many narrow roads with street names that are not always visible...We stopped by a group of children aged about 8 or 9 who were playing and asked them if they knew how to get to the center from where we were. One young boy started directing us and a passerby told him to hop in our car and take us there. I tell people that going to Zimbabwe makes me feel grounded again & reminds me of who I am. This encounter with the young boys and the stranger passing by was a reminder. How many parents in a different part of the world would condone a stranger telling their child to get into the car of another stranger? The stranger meant no harm and I have no doubt that the young boy would have gotten into the car, but needless to say, we told them it was ok and that he did not need to get in.
When we first visited the center in December 2006 it was very quiet since it was Christmas and most mothers had gone home for the holidays. This time around it was a completely different scene. As we walked into the yard there were children oustide playing on a swing set, and there were some mothers near the entrance working on their needle work. It was quite a lively and noisy atmosphere. The childrens classroom is the first room you enter into, followed by a play area further ahead with toys and books. On the left side of the room is a napping area as well as a huge mattress where some of the children with hydrocephalus (big heads) lie. Hydrocephalus is caused by not having a shunt put in at birth which is what would happen in the west... the delay in surgically putting in the shunt causes the swollen head which is permanent. It was hard to look at these children because the swelling looked painful to me. They cannot lift their heads up because they are so swollen and heavy so they have to just lie there... all day...It just broke my heart. Just today there was a news report that Britney Spears had been hospitalized. It was headline news on CNN World report! The paparazzi need to leave her alone & stop taking so much malicious enjoyment of her personal problems. Surely these kids in front of me made better cases for headline news...?? Life is so unfair.
Continuing with my description of the center... next to the napping area is a kitchen where all the childrens meals are prepared. To the right is a long hall way with an inventory storage room and another kitchen on the left, and a raw materials storage rooms on the right - includes needles, thread, fabric etc... The hallway leads to a large open space where all the women make their crafts. See the video above.
Most of the mothers have children who are handicapped as well as children who are not handicapped. We met two older (non-handicapped) children as we were touring the premises and one of them asked me to take a photo of them. For some reason they had already decided they wanted a photo at the back of the house, away from the mothers, so we went there. There was one beautiful little girl named Nyengeterai who decided she wanted to be in on the picture as well. She struggles to walk so she was dragging herself on the ground to follow us. She was wearing a pretty blue dress which was getting ruined as she chased after us. The older kids just laughed and told her to hurry as she made sounds that she wanted to come too. They weren't being mean at all, just treating her like she was fully able to follow. And sure enough, within a few minutes she was sitting next to the others with a triumphant smile on her face. Notice in the picture that she is the only one smiling! Zimbabweans don't smile much for the camera, so while here they have a serious look on their faces, literally seconds before they were laughing & joking with me.
I decided Nyengeterai deserved her own photograph for her efforts & here she is!!
About twenty minutes into our visit Lynn Poole arrived. Lynn is an American woman who has dedicated her time, money and efforts to support the women of Batsiranai. She tries to give the women as much independence as possible but I know she works really hard behind the scenes to get the word out about the center. She also spearheads the product design and development amongst other things. She says it took a whole year to get the dolls made right! We sat and talked with her about the center and the challenges they face. The challenges of course are many and she didn't really need to spell them out. I could see for myself that the children needed more equipment to aid them with their disabilities for example wheel chairs and special shoes, and the center needed materials and equipment to make their products.
I could also see that in spite of the positive direction the center was moving, donations were still very welcome. I say this because on behalf of http://www.tashanda.com/, I donated cash equivalent to $2 per doll sold on the website back to them. They ullulated and sang a short song of thanks to Tashanda which was so touching... Their gratitude was so real it made me want to do even more in 2008 to help them. We purchased more dolls which you can see on http://www.tashanda.com/BatsiranaiDolls.html. This time they had a selection of larger dolls known as "mama dolls". Mai Nyegeterai (one of the leaders) told me that when I last came ot the center my friend had suggested that they make dolls with babies on their backs and this is exactly what they did. I was so happy to hear this because it shows how serious they are about growing their business and being more competitive.
I asked for permission to interview some of the women and ended up talking to only two. I spoke with one woman named Rosey for a
few minutes. Rosey is an exception to the average woman at the center because she has no children. She came to the center because she used to take care of her disabled niece who later passed away. She stayed on and has become a permanent fixture at the center. Rosey has had a tough life. She was a "chimbwido" (virgin girl who served the "mujibas" - a messenger and carrier for the guerrillas ) during Zimbabwe's war of independence in the 1970's and also suffers from epilepsy. These issues interrupted her education very early in life. In fact, when I asked her the year she was born, she couldn't tell me and pulled out her ID for me to read for myself. The date was July 17, 1965. This means she was ten years old when she started as a Chimbwido.
I was preparing to find a second woman to interview, when I looked across the room and saw a boy in a short pink chair that looked like a high chair because it had a flat surface to place food. Something about the child, seemed odd so I walked across the room towards him. He was EXTREMELY thin and looked malnourished. He was also crying but no tears were in his eyes. He was clearly in distress so I reached out to hold his hand. His entire hand covered my one finger, he was so small. When he felt my touch he stopped crying for a minute and looked around as if he was more aware that there were people around him. I wondered how old he was because while he looked no more than three or less, his teeth were very mature and well developed. As we waited for his mother to come Rosey told us that they couldn't afford to buy him a special chair so their brother group, known as "Batsiranai - fathers with disabled children" (see http://batsiranai.blogspot.com/2006/04/introduction-to-group.html), made him this chair using papier mache. The chair was strong and I was impressed by the innovation of the fathers who made it.
His mother eventually came and she told us his name was Paul and that he suffered from cerebral palsy and brain damage after a long and difficult childbirth. She said he was ten years old.... The video and pictures below show Paul and his mother as we interviewed her.
This was a hard interview to conduct. You cannot see it clearly but his mother was in despair and tried to put on a brave face. It’s so important for me to show you this interview because I want you see the life behind the Batsiranai product you purchase, whether from www.tashanda.com or from any other website.
Paul’s mum buys medicine and other necessities for her child with the sales proceeds. She's not asking for handouts, as many poor nations are accused of squandering - no, she's walking miles & miles a day to this center, to make a toy, bag or jewellery to sell to you. The product quality is no different from a toy at a mega toystore, she's simply at a disadvantage because she's poor.
Me: “What does he need?”
His Mother: “He needs a pram from me to move him around”
Me: “You’d mentioned earlier that he needs a specific sized pram. What size?”
His Mother: “I am not sure what sized pram he needs”
Me: “How old is he?”
His Mother: “he’s turning ten years old on November 29” (in about 16 days time)
Me: “Ten years. Has he ever walked in his life?”
His Mother: “No”
Me: “So is it just a pram he needs? Is there anything else?” “ Is medicine available?”
His Mother: “Sometimes you can find it and other times you cannot. The name of the medicine is Phenobarbital and Valium ( Diazepam )”
Me: “Is there anything else you want to say”
His Mother: “He also needs special food. These days he prefers milk, popcorn and soft foods.”
After meeting Paul I could not do any more interviews.
Readers, you have to have been there to understand. It took a lot of energy out of me because his situation was upsetting. I don't mean to paint a bleak picture though. The other kids had lesser disabilities, they were vey healthy and could talk, walk and play. Added to this, the atmosphere as I mentioned before was lively and positive. It's just that meeting Paul took away a little something from me that day and I couldn't stop thinking of him for the rest of my vacation. During those remaining 2 weeks I searched all the childrens stores to find a pram and i couldn't find one! Could it be because most mothers carry their children on their backs and the rest can afford to shop for them in South Africa? I don't know but I do know that I've seen many prams in Zimbabwe before & never really wondered where they came from.
Does anyone have a donation they would like to make for Paul and other children like him? Email me PLEASE! Or click on the donation button on our home page http://www.tashanda.com.
To learn more about Batsiranai, or if you want to purchase products wholesale from them, please click their website here: http://www.batsiranai.co.zw/ . You will also find their entire product range here. If you need help contacting Batsiranai, you can also e-mail me & I can put you in touch with the right people.
My final question to Lynn was about the need for volunteers. She said volunteer assistance from anyone with an interest or a background in design would be very welcome. Added to this they would deeply appreciate donations of natural thread such as embroidery cotton, wool or cotton yarn (used to make the dolls hair so should be black, brown, yellow or gray), scissors and sewing equipment. in addition to this any donations of felt, paintbrushes, needles and tape measures would be welcome.