Friday, January 10, 2014

Fashion and Flourishing in Tanzania

By Sarah Tang ’16

For Rebecca Light ’03, her dream to live and serve in a developing community began with a missions trip. As a junior social work major focusing on social policy and community development, she traveled to Nicaragua with World Focus, adding practical service and a global perspective to her coursework. In Nicaragua, Rebecca saw communities working to enact change in order to combat poverty and oppression—and she felt the call on her own life to be a part of such work. Now as project manager for a new venture called Inua, a women’s empowerment project in Tanzania whose name means “lift up” in Swahili, Rebecca is putting this calling into action.

After graduating from Gordon eleven years ago, Rebecca worked at a Department of Children and Families (DCF) group home for adolescent girls on the North Shore and obtained her master’s in social work at Salem State University. Rebecca then spent five years with a small Cambridge-based nonprofit called On The Rise, where she worked with homeless women in a daytime shelter. During this same period Rebecca volunteered for a year as a co-organizer for the Boston Oxfam Action Corps, expanding her understanding of extreme hunger and poverty, women’s issues, lack of educational opportunities, and other global social justices. Experiences like these continued to solidify Rebecca’s passion for social justice and international development.

Rebecca’s ability to recognize and step through open doors of opportunity—as she had done for the past ten years—eventually led her to Inua. In the spring of 2013, Rebecca received the opportunity to volunteer in Tanzania. What began as a three-month endeavor became a seven-month stay, and then prompted the decision to move to Tanzania for another year to start the development project.

“I took the opportunity wholeheartedly… During my time in Tanzania, I have witnessed first hand many of the injustices and oppressive systems and policies I spent time discussing and learning about beginning with my time at Gordon and continuing through my experience volunteering with Oxfam,” Rebecca says.

Rebecca began a partnership with Sylvie Ofstie, an American with a background in fashion, design and education; and a local Tanzanian woman, Pili Mtonga, an accomplished tailor, designer, artist and educator. Together, these three women founded Inua as a community outreach to support women in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, through vocational training and educational initiatives.

The empowerment project is designed to equip women with the skills needed to pursue careers and generate income independently. In addition to tailoring, design and other crafts, the yearlong curriculum designed by Rebecca and Pili also offers English and computer courses. “Without access to education, young women often do not obtain job skills or a way to earn a sustainable income and often end up married and pregnant at a young age, thus continuing the cycle of extreme poverty,” Rebecca notes.

In an effort to ensure that the organization could be self-sustaining, Rebecca and Sylvie have also created a socially conscious clothing line, called naSuma, in collaboration with Pili and her tailors. Beautifully designed and tailored by the team, every piece of naSuma's collection uses traditional African fabric featuring vibrant colors. The pieces are designed in modern and flattering cuts and are very wearable but also unique—unlike anything one can find in stores. These items are sold on their Design From Bagamoyo Facebook page, the naSuma Etsy shop and in Pili’s shop in Bagamoyo, and the Spring/Summer 2014 collection will be sold in several boutiques in the US and Europe. Revenue from the project will provide a fair and sustainable source of income for the local tailors, and will fund Inua's operating costs.

To get naSuma up and running, Rebecca, Sylvie and their new member and business consultant, Ted Humphrey, have launched a fundraising campaign. The funds they raise will be used to ensure the clothing line pays fair wages, provide workshop spaces and material, and covers other administration fees. This crowd-funding campaign offers donation options ranging from fifteen dollars to a thousand dollars, and each option comes with “perks,” which range from special thank you message and update videos from the students of Inua to naSuma items such as totes, scarves and throw blankets.

You can support this Gordon alumna and her team in their work to empower women in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, by spreading the word or making a donation before January 15.

Photo: Rebecca Light ’03


Sarah Tang '16 is a sophomore Sociology and Communication Arts double major at Gordon from Hong Kong, China and a writer in the Office of College Communications. She is a member of the Campus Events Council and works as a barista in Bistro 255. She is passionate about human trafficking and special needs orphans and has a burden for Southeast Asia.

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