A Discussion with Sarah Moore, Director of AmaniDC
October 29, 2014
Background:Every fair trade business has its story and in the case of Amani ya Juu, deep faith in the wake of conflict provided the seeds of inspiration. Crystal Corman met with Sarah Moore, former director of the Washington, D.C. boutique, on October 29, 2014 to gain an understanding of Amani’s connections to Kenya. Sarah described Amani’s mission of working with refugee women to help them not only develop livelihood skills but to also build peace, including personal healing. The Amani model has expanded to five countries that include Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Burundi, and the U.S. The Washington, D.C. boutique was closed in December 2014 but products can still be purchased online and in centers in other countries.
What is Amani and how did it begin?
“Amanai ya juu” means “peace from above” in Kiswahili. It’s a women’s faith-based non-profit with locations in Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda. We’re a stitch and sewing operation, and our focus is economic development; we also do job skills training. In each of our five peacebuilding centers in Africa, a group of women learn how to sew and stitch, and how to run their own retail stores. They learn to keep books and records. We work to identify a woman’s specific skill set and gifts, then work on training her in whatever area that is. We also offer training in leadership and ensure that local women serve as center directors. In Kenya, Amani also has a café so people are trained in cooking, food service, and customer service. The training program is meant to be two years in length for each woman, and the ultimate goal is to equip them with the skill to go out and work somewhere else, start their own businesses, and become leaders in their community.
We are endorsed by the Fair Trade Association, but we go beyond fair trade. We are a holistic healing faith-based center. Each day the women do a devotional together in each of the centers, including here in the U.S. They pray together. We also have counselors in the centers because many of the women have survived war zones or conflict. Since many have experienced real trauma in their lives, they often come to our centers with these burdens. In our centers, they may work alongside women who exist on the opposite side of the conflict zone; at Amani they learn to walk with each other and carry each other’s burdens while working under our motto “peace from above.”
We believe in a peace that transcends cultural boundaries, country boundaries, language boundaries. God extends this peace to every women and every human. We’re part of spreading and bringing that peace to each woman.
Why did you focus on women and why refugee women?
We originally started working with only refugees. That’s actually how our executive director [Becky Chinchen] started the organization 18 years ago. As a missionary in Liberia, she became a refugee herself during the ‘90s Liberian civil conflict. She was forced to leave her home, all her possessions, and flee with her husband and daughters to Nairobi, Kenya, which is where many other refugees end up.
Our director met four other women refugees from various war torn countries in Africa, and they started sewing together. She taught them how to sew placemat sets, which we still carry today. They started selling those and were soon able to start selling more products and support themselves and their families. They gained dignity from having a job and having a skill, but they would also pray together every day. She ended up getting some momentum behind it so she went back to school for nonprofit management. She then started the Kenya Nairobi Center with a small grant from a church.
Originally we worked with refugee women. These women have survived horrible conflicts; the war in northern Uganda for example. For the women who are willing to share and do want to tell their story, that’s part of the healing process. The stories are horrific; many of them have been separated from their families or have had family members killed in front of them.
Now you work with more than refugee women. Why this change?
More recently, especially in the Kenya center, we’ve seen that it’s local Kenyan women who just need a job or a skillset. Many of them are poor and impoverished, but haven’t necessarily lived through a conflict. We also welcome those women. In our Liberia center the women have survived so much, like spousal abuse at home, which they are continuing to work through even now. Liberia has had an exceptionally hard time getting back on its feet, especially in terms of developing leadership.
We work with women who need peace—and need other women—and are seeking peace from God, among other women. Many of them bring their babies to work. Many of them have children from the conflict time when they were attacked by soldiers and in the Amani center there is no stigma. They come and will not be judged.
How did Amani grow from running out of a garage in Nairobi to centers in multiple countries?
From our Kenya center, the other four centers have sprung. In Burundi for example, a women named Goreth went through our Kenya training program, and then went back to her home country once it had stabilized. She asked for seed money to start her own Amani Burundi center, so we gave her a microfinance loan. Now we source from her in the U.S., as do the other Africa centers. The same is true in Uganda. In Liberia it’s a little different. That’s where our executive director is from. We currently have a designer from California there as director, but she is very much training other women to fill that role. It’s meant to be a short term training program that we then use to launch these women off to their own businesses.
How big is the operation in each country?
In Kenya there are around 100 women specifically employed by Amani. That’s not including any of the external vendors or men on the grounds. Our Uganda center is around 10 or 15 women. I think our Liberia center is around 20 women. Burundi I think is around 20 women.
How do women find Amani or do you go out to find them?
Often they’ll be referred to it, through a friend. The women come to us, not the other way around. Many of them hear about it through friends or neighbors.
Amani focuses on women, but what about men?
In our Liberia center we have also started having men come. Interestingly men in Liberia are very skilled sewers and tailors, so we hire men there now as well. We have also started hiring men to make greeting cards. It’s sort of a separate project, but our executive director started this side project with men in Kenya who also needed jobs. All the greeting cards that we carry here are made by men.
Men also support the larger work of the centers. Men work on the ground in our Kenya center, repairing walls or doing construction on the fixtures in the buildings. In Burundi, Goreth’s husband supports the work that she does; they have a really loving relationship. She is the face of the operation, which in African culture is so fascinating.
So men are also a part of it. However, the need that spoke the most to our founder is these refugee women that she was meeting, and the fact that they survived so much in conflict but were still the cornerstones of their families. It’s empowering for them to then be able to pay for their children’s school fees and buy school uniforms.
How does faith fit into Amani’s work?
That is a daily part of the way that the center is run. In each of the centers we have a devotional together every day. We pray together daily in all the centers for each other. For example, I get prayer requests from the Kenya center, so we’re always lifting each other up [in prayer]. Each product we make and sell is also a part of sending God’s peace to people. It’s really the peacebuilding part of this work, where we feel that God is most present and doing the most work. The job skills training and the fact that we pay them at least twice the minimum wage of that country is all important, but for us the most important part is God’s peace and reconciliation. Even if they come from opposites sides of the same conflict, at the beginning of the day they come together, pray together, pray for their enemies, and become friends and sisters through that.
Amani is a Christian faith-based nonprofit, so we talk about Jesus frequently and openly. Directors are Christian, but it’s not a requirement for any of our women in our center. They’re invited every day to pray together, and they almost always say yes. But it’s not ever forced.
What types of skills training do you focus on with the women?
In Nairobi, Kenya we have a café called Amani. It’s one of the most popular spots in Nairobi to go to eat to get a fresh salad, chai, or muffins. They have a head chef who really knows what will sell well. They train women in cooking and then in customer service. So they are serving the food and plating it.
We also have bookkeepers and women who are in charge of packing, shipping, and warehouse management. We train women in leadership. Goreth is a great example; she has to understand every aspect of operations in her center. We also have women trained in retail management. Maggie is famous; anyone who stops at the Kenya center will meet Maggie. She’s just very skilled at being the face of the store front. Costumers will come in, she’ll hug them, make them feel loved, and then be the sales person, as well as explain the story behind Amani.
We identify what a woman’s strengths are. We might not find that right away. We might put someone at sewing, and find they’re not very skilled at that, so then we move them something else to try that. It’s all about empowering each woman to learn more about herself and her own skill set so she will know how to use that to benefit other people.
What about style and design? Do the women design the fabric prints or items?
In the Kenya center they hand dye and screenprint everything by hand. That’s a huge part of their operations there. They buy white cotton and then do all the prints and designs. So all the designs are done in-house. At the Liberia center, we’re not at capacity yet; it’s one of our smaller centers. At the moment we outsource the material within Monrovia for clothing items made there. However, they’re trying to build capacity in Liberia so they can do their own waxprint. It’s called lapa in Liberia. It’s called kitenge in other parts of Africa, like Uganda. It’s the same technique.
The women in each of the centers are very much a part of the design work. Many of our products have western cut, but African color and fabric. It really is a fusion of various cultures. We actually even have a few women in our Kenya center from India, so they also have a say in design. For example you may see our really cool sequin clutch that looks very much like it’s from India. While you’ll think “That’s not African at all,” it was made in Africa. It’s definitely a fusion.
A design team meets once a year in Kenya, gathering the design directors from each country. They decide on the color palette and the cuts for the next year. It’s very much a collaborative effort.
How was the Washington, D.C. shop established?
A college student who was an intern in our Rwanda center started this center. She was helping to do some design work and she had this idea, so she asked the executive director if she could start a center here in the U.S. Originally the idea was to be an outlet for the Africa centers, but the vision evolved into it becoming its own Amani center where perhaps production might happen, and we would have our own job training center as well. We hoped it would become a place for women in the local community to gain job skills, and a place for them to come every day that was like a second home.
The original model of volunteer and home sales is still running today, and it’s one of the biggest pieces of our operation in the U.S. Volunteers host a sale in their home, church, civic center, or work place, and they extend the message of God’s peace and Amani to their community and friends. Through that they were able to make enough sales and gain enough momentum to then fund this location and start selling the product here.
How do you work with the community here in Washington, D.C. and the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood?
It’s the goal of each center that we find local women to serve and that we gain support by the local community. In Mt. Pleasant local residents have been a huge support for us. Volunteers are the ones who open the shop on Saturdays. They support us through one-off volunteer events such as wine and cheese night in Amani and inviting all their friends. We also have local small groups who ask to work with us as part of their community service projects, such as National Community Church. Amani is their special project on second Saturdays, and they started promoting the shop or stocking the shelves. We have a lot of community support.
[Update: The boutique in Washington, D.C. was closed in December 2014. Amani continues in its other locations around the world and products can be purchased online.]
What brought you to work at Amani ya Juu?
I was friends with the two girls that started this place; I knew them from my church, Church of the Advent. After teaching high school English for a few years, I decided to try something different. So I quit my teaching job and did a few odd jobs for a few months. I was praying and asking God to put me wherever He could use me best. This job came open. They needed someone who could do bookkeeping, communications, operations, etc. It was the first job that I heard about that made so much sense. I felt like I could use my own skills and gifts in this awesome ministry that I had always heard about through church. I really believe in the mission and purpose behind Amani ya Juu and the idea of spreading God’s peace and building God’s kingdom, extending that to these women who are so broken. That’s when I applied for the job and ended up getting it. That was around two years ago now.