Sewing Masks for Malawi

On the back porch of Orant Charities Africa, bordered by green gardens and a forest preserve, tailors thread their sewing machines. With accuracy, they cut textiles into mask patterns. Swiftly and surely, they sew colorful masks out of chitenge fabric. They add elastics on the sides of masks to slip easily around the ears. These tailors will play an instrumental role in protecting their community from the spread of coronavirus. 

Chisoni Puleti Kaundama wears bright red shoes and a navy skirt. She sits in front of her sewing machine with a mountain behind her. Her machine, her craft, and her income are all points of dignity. “I am proud that I am a tailor and I am able to make a living and support my family,” she says. She is 29 years old and married with a two year old daughter. She will be a powerful role model for her daughter, an example of hard work and perseverance. 

Like many school-aged girls in Malawi, Kaundama faced the insurmountable challenge of tuition. According to USAID, in 2016, less than 40% of girls who were enrolled in their final year of primary school continued on to their first year of secondary school. Kaundama made it through both primary and secondary school, but did not pass Form 4, the last year of secondary school. Despite wanting desperately to repeat Form 4, Kaundama couldn’t afford it. 

Before Orant, Kaundama found Zoe. The NGO enrolled her in a program that taught her to be a tailor. They gave her a starter pack with a sewing machine and clothes. She had all the tools necessary to start her own business and earn her own income. “In the first months, it was challenging to pay rent for the shop and to find customers,” she says. But after four months, she was established. “I learned that in life, I should not give up.” At Madisi Trading Center, she created her own success by making dresses, skirts, shirts, and other cloth products.  

Unfortunately, when Covid-19 hit Malawi, business slowed. People rarely brought materials for Kaundama to sew like they did before. Income seemed less reliable and stress was palpable. 

Orant felt the stress, too. In order to lessen the virus’ spread, Orant needed to normalize mask wearing. In order to normalize mask-wearing, Orant needed masks. And to make masks, Orant needed craft expertise. So, Orant offered Kaundama a contract and she accepted. She made masks at a faster rate than Orant could’ve anticipated. 

“I am happy I have found a contract,” Kaundama says, “It’s an improvement. I have targets. My income is certain. I’ve also learned to make masks, which means I’ve added another skill.” 

Kaundama dreams of having her own land to build a house and a tailoring shop. Orant dreams of employing more women in programs that give them the tools and skills to provide for themselves and their families. To support Kaundama’s salary and Orant’s mask-making initiative, read about Masks for Malawi.

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