WEST NEWBURY — A chance encounter at a museum a year ago has led to a unique cultural and economic exchange opportunity between local citizens and a group of women entrepreneurs in Africa.
In spring 2012, Main Street resident John Hutchison attended an artisan sale at Fitchburg Art Museum. His purpose was to sell stitch resist indigo-dyed damask cloth and tote bags created by women in a city called Dalaba, located in the West African Republic of Guinea. Hutchison, professor emeritus of Boston University African Studies Center, is co-founder of the sister-city organization, Alliance Dalaba-West Newbury.
As luck would have it, one of Hutchison’s customers that day was textile designer and art teacher Ruth Suyenaga. Intrigued by the beauty of the intricately designed indigo cloth, Suyenaga offered recommendations on how to better fabricate the tote bags. Hutchison convinced the Royalston resident to donate her services to improve the design of the “Dalabags.”
“The goal was to get the women of Dalaba producing high-quality products for the American market using their own locally produced textiles,” Hutchison said. Lois Ferguson of Glean and Gain, an NGO for women’s health, also participated in the collaborative process.
The next month, Hutchison and the others invited several African women currently living in North America to attend a sewing workshop led by Suyenaga at the Boston University African Studies Center (BUASC).
With help from assistant, Maureen Blasco, she worked with the group to develop templates that would be used by the woman working at a cooperative back in Dalaba that is run by a woman named Hadja Nafissatou Bah. Hadja works to educate and empower both girls and their mothers in order to address generational problems associated with the early and arranged marriages that have for so long characterized traditional society there.
The workshop participants toiled throughout the day on 10 sewing machines set up in the seminar room at the BUASC, pausing only for a meal of manioc and rice with different sauces, Guinean cuisine provided by Kadidiatou Bah, one of Hadja’s nine children who had journeyed from her home in Quebec to participate in the sewing workshop in Boston.
By the end of the day, they had create four uniquely styled purses — a flat rectangular bag, a sling bag, a loop bag and a tote. They photographed and documented the process and made two of each style bag — one in white muslin, the other in the colorful indigo-dyed cloth of Dalaba.
Suyenaga and Blasco collated the photographs and added notes in English about the process. Hutchison then tapped the budding linguistic expertise of students in French classes at Masconomet Regional High School to translate the guidebook into French, the primary language spoken in Guinea.
For the past several years, Hutchison has given a PowerPoint presentation in French about the Alliance Dalaba-West Newbury, the status of girls and women in Dalaba, and the efforts being made to help them to become independent economic operators in their society to French classes led by Masconomet’s Joanna Megna Wallace, who is also a West Newbury resident.
Wallace’s students Ashor Azeni, Sarah Bradshaw and Jessica Tin were responsible for the final version of the guidebook. In gratitude for their help, Hutchinson presented Wallace’s class with a collage of the indigo cloth for display at their school. Hadja will use the finished guidebook at a workshop she plans to conduct at her cooperative in Dalaba early this fall.
Hutchison praised the collaboration as a way to enhance the financial autonomy of young girls and women in an Islamic society.
“It is a step in the process of combating the tradition of early and arranged marriages that has kept girls from having equal access to educational and professional opportunities and more complete lives,” he said.
But, in a time when limited access to visas is stifling travel to parts of the world like Dalaba, it is also an opportunity for people locally to connect meaningfully with another culture.
“This kind of project enables us to collaborate with West Newbury’s sister city in spite of the distance that separates us,” Hutchison concluded.