In a library somewhere in the world there is a sentence on a wall.
The sentence reads “The world grows one word at a time”.
For us at Ndara, this hits home in a very real way.
A couple of years ago the Ndara artisans could not read and write. When we were just a group of women weaving, braiding and quietly learning how to create products this lack of reading and writing skills wasn’t a problem. We were talking to each other in our local language Sango and we didn’t give it much more thought. But, when the moment came when we decided that we wanted to sell our creations, this changed. How would we write an invoice? It was no longer enough to learn a new weaving or braiding technique. To be able to be independent and in control of our own sales we had to learn how to read and write.
The first Ndara artisans learnt the alphabet, and eventually how to read and write, a couple of years ago. This made it possible for them to make an invoice, manage an inventory and calculate prices. But, it wasn’t enough to actually be able to talk to, and understand, our clients.
In the beginning, before we built our Ndara boutique, our sales were made at private events.
As these events were pre-planned we could organize someone to come help with the sales, chatting to clients about the process of making our products, telling our personal stories and answering clients questions. But quickly, it became clear for the Ndara artisans that if they wanted to be independent, and not have their sales depend on another person’s agenda and availability, they could not stop at just having the basic knowledge of the alphabet. They had to learn a whole new language.
Any adult who has tried to learn a new language knows how hard it is.
If you are still getting acquainted with the actual alphabet, and struggling to get your hand to form foreign shapes with a pen on a piece of paper and assign sounds to those shapes, then it is even harder. Now, add to that the language you need to learn is FRENCH. One of the most complicated languages in the world.
When we built our boutique in Bangui and decided that it would be managed and run by the Ndara artisans it became even more urgent for them to be confident writing, reading and communicating with clients. But, learning these skills as an adult, while working full time, raising little kids, navigating and dealing with the everyday hardships of living life in a war-torn country, takes time. We built and opened the Ndara boutique knowing that we had to learn on the job. That it would be messy, imperfect and frustrating for the artisans (and for our clients). Managing the boutique, trying to close sales and take custom orders without having a full understanding of the language our clients are speaking is a challenge. And, it has indeed been very messy, imperfect and sometimes very frustrating.
Twice a week during the past 11 months Josiane, Meryse and Nadia have set up their classroom in the garden in front of our boutique. A teacher specialized in teaching adults comes to walk them through French grammar, pronunciations and how to build sentences. He has them do role plays, each of them taking turns to enact dramatic, demanding and difficult clients while the others have to first, try to understand and second, craft the responses that are fit for this particular client. They are great actors, they go all in imitating clients and they are often, including the teacher, bent over laughing during the classes.
The road to being able to make your own decisions for your life starts with the ability to be independent. What this means is different for everyone, but for us it means that as a first step, we need to learn French. Quite literally our world, and our ability to make choices for ourselves and our lives, expands, one French word at a time.
If you are a client who has been to our Bangui boutique, thank you for your understanding as we struggle to form sentences that you can understand. Thank you for your patience as we are taking a little bit longer to write your invoice, we are still making friends with the alphabet and writing is still intimidating. Thank you for your continued support, even though we may be struggling to understand each other and therefor mess things up. Thank you for your kindness when we sometimes get embarrassed and stumble across these foreign French words in our mouths. Thank you for the grace you extend to us, while we learn. Without your understanding, patience and encouragement, there would be no Ndara.