Last month, when my family came to Tanzania to visit, we drove through Iringa on our way to safari and made it a point to stop over at Neema Crafts for a visit. Andy Hart (whose wife, Susie, has been running Neema Crafts for the past 8 years) gave us a really comprehensive, educational and inspiring tour of the place – which left a lasting and deep impression on my mind and heart.
Neema Crafts employs disabled people to work in a host of different creative and eco-friendly activities. These include, weaving, sewing, drawing, producing recycled paper products, making beaded jewellery and ornaments, producing recycled glass products, and serving at their in-house café.
When we entered the workshop, I was struck by how many different things were going on. In one room, 4 people were weaving at customised looms which allowed them to work entirely with their hands and did not require the use of their legs. In another room, people were working on a sewing machine to fasten beads on fabrics, there were others threading beads. Others were making recycled paper, and one man was concentrating hard on drawing intricate silhouettes of zebra and baobab trees on greeting cards made from recycled paper. I loved the atmosphere – it was quiet (most of the folks are deaf/mute), but it was buzzing with purpose. I felt like we (the gawking tourists) were getting in the way of people doing serious work; a big change from the usual Tanzanian establishments I was used to where the staff were invariably bored, tired and unmotivated.
The café was staffed and served entirely by deaf people. The menu contained nuggets of useful tips like how to say “I would like…”, “how are you” and “thank you” in sign language, and one would make orders by filling in the order slips on each table. This provided a great interaction experience between the staff and customers – and personally it challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and communicate directly to the staff in the simple sign language taught by the menu. The café also had a corner where magazines and information on various topics such as book-keeping and computer skills, were available for the staff to read and learn.
Other things we saw on our tour included the kiln (produced and constructed by Neema themselves) where old glass bottles were melted down, recombined and reshaped to form beautiful glass beads, and the two men working the kiln – one is deaf and the other had one arm. The physiotheraphy rooms where children with cerebral palsy could exercise. There was even a project where they sold basic and low cost solar powered bulbs, radios and battery-charging devices to people living in the rural parts of the country who either had no electricity or could not afford electricity. Andy told us great stories about kids whose grades improved tremendously because they were now able to study in the evenings.
The giftshop was full of pretty trinkets and beautiful woven products. Some of the signature Neema products included the Kanga patchwork blankets, woven shawls, beaded jewellery and recycled paper journals and photo albums. While my mother and sister went to town loading their shopping baskets with gifts for their friends back home, my husband and I quizzed Andy with our burning questions, such as, is Neema Crafts self-sustaining (they are working towards it, but 20% of income still comes from donations), and how much capacity do they have to hire all the disabled people who come to them seeking for employment (the waiting list is limited to 40 persons – but they do not employ all (see second last paragraph below)).
As we walked, Andy shared with us personal stories of various individuals at Neema Crafts who had been locked up and condemned by their families for a good part of their lives, escaped to Neema Crafts where they learnt skills and found employment, and their lives were transformed after they became economically productive and turned around to become the breadwinner of their families. The change in their lives was not only on an economic level but on a personal level from the dignity and confidence found from being skilled and employed.
I was simply struck by how effective Neema Crafts was. They were involved in so many initiatives – all were eco-friendly, low cost and received great response from the public; the skills which the disabled people picked up at Neema Crafts were not only useful and income-generating, but the creative process which they were engaged in also turned out to be therapeutic, for many of them suffered from depression, trauma (due to abuse, or from an accident which paralysed them) and/or low self-esteem. I kept nodding emphatically at everything Andy said during the tour, because I agreed so much with everything they were doing! In fact, I was so envious – Neema Crafts had built up such a great reputation and were obviously doing so well – would Wamama Kahawa someday see this kind of success?
But at the end of the tour, we realized that Neema Crafts were not so much interested in numbers or sales or expansion. What is really on Neema Crafts’ heart – which is the basis underlying every new initiative and project they undertake, is the changing of society’s perceptions; that instead of being written off, or hidden as an embarrassment or curse, disabled people can be, and are, good workers. They are employable, and they deserve to be – in fact, many of them exhibit more motivation and drive than able-bodied people. It is not Neema Crafts’ aim to keep expanding their sales and operations so they can employ everyone on their waiting list. Instead, they help many on their waiting list to find jobs in other businesses and organisations outside.
The success of Neema Crafts is a testament to the fact that disabled people are ABLE. It is evident from the bustling coffeeshop, the giftshop which is always packed with tourists, and the masses of hand-made products ordered by hotels and shops around and outside the country which are sent out everyday. This success in turn boosts the image of the disabled and encourages the community in Iringa (and Tanzania) to accept and embrace them – socially and economically – instead of shunning or hiding them. Such long-lasting change – not just to individual lives but to social perceptions and attitudes, is to me, sustainable social and community impact at its best.
Visit Karama to purchase selected items from Neema Craft.