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Updated: Mar 5, 2022

The Mama Bakhita Cheshire Home in Livingstone, Zambia, is part of a group of 11 centers for the care of disabled children named after Leonard Cheshire, an Englishman who began these organizations in India in 1955. Each center in Zambia seems to be organized differently. Some are actual living situations others are referral centers. All are run by local Zambian Franciscan Sisters trained for this work by the Franciscan order. They all provide physiotherapy, medical attention and education according to the child’s disability.

The Mama Bakhita Center, named after a black Catholic saint, Josephine Bakhita, opened in 1995 with five children in a private house in Livingstone. These Sisters went into the community and sought out families with handicapped children who were kept out of sight. They convinced these five families to bring their children to them for physiotherapy, medical referral, and limited education.

The facility has grown to include a small school with an excellent trained teacher, Evelyn Kazoka, a small hall for large group activities, a physiotherapy room, a covered porch for art making, and a guesthouse to help raise money.

In the last two months fourteen children were taken to Lusaka to receive medical attention and operations at the Italian Hospital. People come from great distances in hopes that they can avail themselves of the state-of-the-art physical therapy room and to find hope for their children.

They also have an extensive outreach program providing help for disabled children who live too far from the center to attend. Whatever needs the children have are met, including food and clothing and sometimes grants for small business start-ups for the mother.

The percentage of the disabled population that these children represent is very small. The majority are still kept at home and rarely seen, though this is changing. The lucky ones at the Mama Bakhita, instead of being a source of shame for their families, exude confidence and joie de vivre as a result of their participation at Mama Bakhita's small school. Children who might formerly have been excluded from society are part of a small community where everyone is unique and has abilities where they shine. This alone is enough to keep me going.

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At our first World Market Monday sale we ended with a fundraising event for special guest Sr. Immaculata Mulyei who described her women’s income initiative in Secute, Zambia. She named it “Mpekala” meaning “Where We Live” in the local language, Lozi. In gaining the means to produce income, the women are able to send their children to school. This is especially important for girls who often stand second in line to their brothers when a family can only afford to send one child.

Last year Sr. Immaculata spent several weekends walking from village to village assessing the needs of the women and then considering what endeavor might be best suited to those groups that showed serious interest.

Here in the US we were able to raise money for a pilot training program. Two professional basket makers from a nearby village were hired to teach the women how to make the baskets with prepared sisal. Step two was to plant sisal, a desert plant requiring very little water, to eventually provide the raw materials.

Sr. Immaculata brought with her from Zambia 16 finished bags to sell at our market and a power point presentation to tell the story. At the end of the presentation, people crowded to her table and bought all but three of the bags which is very good news for the women in Secute and will motivate them to further improve the details of the bags.

Because this is a sustainable project and can weather the vagaries of climate change, we are looking to find funds to start an eager second group. If you would like to contribute to growing this project, these women can gradually improve the quality of life in their home and community and educate their girls, reducing the need for early marriages.

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Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Until the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Home came into being in 1996, there were few options for children with handicaps in Livingstone, Zambia. They stayed at home and many were kept out of sight because of prejudice and shame. The free services offered at the Mama Bakhita, such as education, physiotherapy and medical attention, gradually made people aware that these kids could learn and contribute to their community.

Still, the lack of work and the minimal pay scale for the menial jobs available, left their mothers struggling to pay rent and feed their families. Having handicapped children made working that much harder. It was clear that these women needed income.

It seemed to me that a simple, handmade doll could be a valuable product that the mothers of children at the Mama Bakhita Home might be able to produce and sell.

And so, Zambezi Dolls were born....

In 2011 I spent three weeks working with these women to develop a doll that could be made entirely by hand, and could be sold for enough money to make an economic difference in their lives. I hoped that, in time, these dolls might generate real income for these determined craftswomen.

It was also clear to me there are not enough dolls of color in the world and that we do not need more plastic polluting our environment. So these dolls needed to be made of natural materials in a variety of skin tones. Add to these facts the need for meaningful work for economically challenged women anywhere, and you have reasons that Zambezi Dolls seemed like a very good idea.

Production began, but it was not at all easy. We began to make dolls with the idea that each woman would make her own from beginning to end. But because everyone had a different level of skill in handwork. Some were able to make five well-made dolls in the time it took another to make one less well-made doll. What to do?

Sister Agnes Daka, then director of the Mama Bakhita Cheshire School, solved the problem beautifully. She suggested they break down the doll making into steps, from the cutting out of the body patterns all the way to the making of the clothing. Everyone was capable of doing several parts of the production and together they were able to create finished dolls.

In this way they evolved into a true cooperative that produce beautifully made dolls entirely sewn by hand. Gradually every detail has been studied and practiced and the quality of each stitch is evident. Each doll is unique and no two are alike. This makes them very special indeed and ensures variety and creativity for the doll makers. As each woman advances her skill level, she can take on new and more difficult aspects of the process, like embroidering the faces and designing new hair styles. They are rightly proud of their achievements. And it means that any child anywhere can find the doll that is right for them.

The twelve women can produce about 400 to 500 dolls per month. When the sales of the dolls increase, we will assemble a new group of twelve economically challenged women from the same community to be trained alongside and by the skilled original doll makers. We hope to grow this way and improve quality of life in the area.

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