Our cooperative began with a simple request. While volunteering in Congo, my good friend Mama Aroyo asked for help generating income to build a home for her family. Recognizing her talents as a seamstress, I requested that she make 25 African handbags that I could sell to family and friends in the U.S. Soon after, other women in the village expressed interest in joining our project. We weren't sure what our business model would look like, but what I did know is that my year spent as a volunteer in Africa changed my life. As I encountered suffering and tragedy, I also grew in fellowship with the local community. A day never goes by when I am not inspired by the creativity and resilience of our artisans. It is my hope that we will renew our image of Africa so that we, too, may see the true beauty and endless joy that abounds in our world today.
Katie Hile, Founder + CEO
April 2014 – Our first meeting was held in the village of Aru, Democratic Republic of Congo. We gathered with 10 local women to create the first artisan cooperative. A cooperative is a group of individuals who voluntarily join together for shared economic, social, and cultural benefits. Due to the lack of government presence and support, cooperatives are key to the positive growth and formation of communities across the developing world. Our artisans strengthen their creative talents by working together to meet the social and economic development needs of their village.
February 2015 – We partnered with Yobel International to provide a business-training workshop for the cooperative. It is our mission to educate and empower Congolese artisans and entrepreneurs to create and manage successful business of their own. As a Denver-based social enterprise, we are aware of the great economic opportunity that exists by marketing our products to the global community, but to truly empower our artisans we must also encourage success at the local level. By teaching accounting, marketing, and leadership skills, we are investing in the next generation of African leaders and entrepreneurs.
Summer 2016 – These women in Congo have overcome many social and economic barriers. By 2016, we had 18 cooperative members, who over the course of three years supported 264 family members by helping with school fees and healthcare costs. When I returned to Congo last summer they approached me with a proposal to train young women in the village how to sew. These women are eligible to participate based on not having had the opportunity to attend primary school. Our cooperative is now helping those living in even more desperate circumstances. How incredible is that? So you can see that our model is not only working, it’s thriving.
Today – Our cooperative’s capacity for confidence and creativity has grown tremendously. We encourage you to take a few moments to read the personal narratives of our artisans.
WHAT DOES TOTONGA BOMOI MEAN?
In the local Congolese language of Lingala, it means BUILD OUR FUTURE.
WHERE DO WE BUY OUR FABRIC?
The fabric, known as pagne, is purchased by our artisans at local markets. Most pagnes are printed in West and Central Africa. Designs can reflect nationality and cultural traditions. The most popular Congolese pagnes are of Christianity and Independence.
HOW DO I WASH MY PRODUCT?
To keep colors vibrant we recommend that you hand wash our products with cold water and a pinch of salt. Hang to dry in the shade.
WHERE DO ARTISANS LEARN TO SEW?
Artisans complete Coupe et Couture (sewing) studies at their local high schools in Congo.
WHERE IS DRC?
The DRC is located in Central Africa. It is bordered by nine countries including; South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. The DRC is a vast country which compares to ¼ the size of the U.S. Seventy percent of the 75 million inhabitants live in rural areas. The DRC has less than 3% arable land as jungle dominates the region creating obstacles for agriculture, transportation and communication.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONGO
Present-day Congo was settled by the migrating Bantu people of Nigeria and Cameroon in the 7th century. It was a society centered on agriculture and the copper trade. By the 14th century, the Kingdom of Kongo became one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa and remained so until Portuguese influence in the early 19th century. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, also known as the Congo Conference, European powers divided the African continent.
King Leopold II of Belgium incorporated the Congo in 1885 under the guise of a non-governmental organization, known as the Congo Free State. In his pursuit of rubber exportation, the most inhumane and vicious forms of slavery were carried out. In 1908, British consul—Roger Casement—discovered and reported Leopold II’s crimes against humanity. The Congo Free State became an international scandal. Writers and activists including Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad (author of Heart of Darkness) formed the Congo Reform Association which demanded Leopold II’s immediate end. Belgium officially colonized the Congo and ruled until independence on June 30, 1960.
In the decades that followed, the DRC fell into violent instability. The first democratically-elected prime minister – Patrice Lumumba – was assassinated in 1961. His rival and head of military forces – Mobutu – ruled until 1997 when Laurent Kabila assumed power. Kabila led an army of Congolese from the eastern part of the country to the capital of Kinshasa. Laurent was assassinated January 18, 2001. Joseph Kabila (son of Laurent) took his father’s place and leads the DRC unto this day.
The transitions were not easy. Millions of lives were lost as a consequence of civil conflict. The majority of deaths were attributed to widespread famine and disease. Neighboring countries have rarely held the best of intentions and continue to support rebel factions, who illegally extract Congo’s natural resources, including: cobalt, copper, petroleum, diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, uranium and coal. Rape is a malicious weapon of war which has made the DRC one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. In 2013, the DRC was listed 186 out of 187 countries on the World Bank Human Development Index (HDI). Most of the country is deprived of security, healthcare, education and economic opportunity.