By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 19 November 2019)
When have we seen survivors of ethnic clashes transform their trauma into works of art? And when have we seen disadvantaged women create art out of the difficult conditions they face on a daily basis, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, early marriage and lack of access to clean water, electricity and even health care services for their sick children?
For some of the 11,000 delegates who attended the International Conference on Population and Development that recently ended at the Kenyatta Conference Centre, the answer to those questions is ‘last week during the ICPD in Nairobi.’
Those experiences (and many more) were graphically illustrated in an exhibition of hand-crafted quilts curated by The Advocacy Project, a humanitarian group committed to helping marginalized people tell their stories and raising public awareness of their issues in the process.
The exhibition, entitled ‘A Women’s World’, consisted of 20 large (as in 2.5 by 2.5 metres) quilts that had been hand-crafted by women from all over the world. Two in particular had been created by Kenyans, one by women from Kibera and Kangemi, the other by women from Pokot and Samburu. The other countries represented were Bangladesh, DRC, France, India, Jordan, Mali, Nepal, Uganda, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
The Advocacy Project (AP) was founded by the former BBC and Guardian journalist, Iain Guest, out of the conviction that the communities most affected by difficulties are the best ones to become ‘agents of change.’
“Often it is people working at the community level who are the most capable of creating change, yet it is their stories that are rarely heard, which is why we started the Advocacy Project,” says Mr. Guest.
Initially, quilts were not part of the project. It was only after he began working with Bosnian women who wove carpets and created autobiographic images in them that he got the idea of other groups creating not carpets but quilts that reflect priority issues affecting their lives.
And since human rights featured prominently during his days as a journalist, and even now as an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University, all the quilts have some aspect of that subject stitched into them.
“When I realized we would be coming to Kenya to participate in ICPD, I contacted Gill Rebelo since she’s well-known in the quilt world,” says Guest referring to the current Chairperson of the Kenya Quilt Guild.
It was short notice, but he hoped Mrs Rebelo, working with community-based women, could produce a quilt to exhibit at ICPD and thereafter be given to the United Nations to become part of its permanent collection. She readily agreed.
The Quilt Guild was already working with one women group based in Gachie on the outskirts of Nairobi. But Gill needed to assemble a new group of women. Ultimately, she gathered 22 young women from Kibera and Kangemi. None had ever quilted before Gill introduced them to Christine Kibucka, a master craftswoman from Uganda who taught them not just how to embroider but also to translate some of the challenges they face every day into picture stories that they could stitch onto denim squares and finally onto one monumental quilt.
“It was their squares that Iain’s colleague, Bobbi Fitzsimmons appliqued onto a giant quilt that already had a map of the world stitched on it by American quilters who work closely with the Advocacy Project,” says Gill. The title of the Nairobi quilt, ‘A Women’s World’ also became the title of the whole quilt show.
Not all the squares could fit on their quilt, but those that did told visual stories in multicolored threads about women’s struggles to deal with everything from domestic violence, child labor, early pregnancy and the miles millions of women still walk every day to find clean water and firewood for cooking.
But the Nairobi women’s quilt wasn’t the only one crafted by Kenyan women. Prior to Guest’s contacting Mrs Rebelo, AP had started a ‘Cow Project’ in northeastern Kenya related to conflict resolution among the Pokot and Samburu. That quilt was crafted by four women from that region, two Pokot and two Samburu women who, like the Kibera and Kangemi quilters, came to ICPD and attracted much attention for their quilts as well as for their colorful attire.
At the closing ceremony of the conference, the Nairobi women’s ‘Women’s World’ quilt was given to the United Nations rep to take back to New York where it will be hung at UN Headquarters for the world to see.