These are the e-mails we hate to receive from overseas: Linet Okia Sunguti died last Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 1 p.m. at Mbagathi District Hospital.
The copy from our Kenyan co-laborers, Caleb and Eunice Otieno, reads:
“We are thankful to God that she has gone to rest, she was in deep pain day and night and at the same time we are very sad because she was a very hard-working woman and very keen on her work. She was not just a member of St. Martha’s Ministry (Caleb and Eunice’s outreach in Kibera slums), but she was also a very close and dear friend of Eunice who led her to accepting Jesus Christ as her personal saviour. She was also very active on the Ministry activities. Linet, at the time of her death, was leading our group in Kibera on Global Bag Project sewing. The burial date has not been set since we are still waiting for communication from her relatives. Linet left a son aged 13 (the last of her four children) and it was her last prayer that we would take care of her orphaned son.”
I am writing this in Washington, D.C., where I have been attending a conference sponsored by World Vision for its women auxiliary chapters. The theme of this year’s conference is: “Every Woman Has a Story. Change Her Story … Change History.” Valerie Bell, my sister, who is on the speaker’s bureau for Women of Vision, recognized this theme was synergistic with the Global Bag Project tagline on the DVD’s. We slip one into the outside pockets of every kanga-cloth reusable shopping bag made by our Kenyan bag-makers: “Every bag has a story.”
At the invitation of Cindy Breihl, the World Vision Director of Women of Vision, Carla Boelkens, Director of GBP, mailed a box of kanga-cloth bags out to Washington, D.C. The conveners were expecting 500 women; the bookseller thought we might be able to sell at most 50 bags, so Carla shipped what would fit into one box: 73 bags. All but eight bags have sold so far—and this without a presentation from the platform (and with a lower attendance than expected—just 250 women). The bookseller gave us wonderful “real estate” on the display tables, the first corner the women saw as they entered Ballroom B. (And we did roll the bags in all their African glory down the halls on a hotel coat-rack into Valerie’s workshop: “Changing My Story: Becoming an Activist,” where she gave us a great plug.) For the most part, the bags appear to sell themselves.
Here in this conference, I am made aware again of the statistics:
• More than 12 million children are orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Africa. This is a staggering statistic! Nearly 9 out of 10 children who are HIV-positive today are from African countries.
• Every 15 seconds five children die—most from preventable disease or malnutrition.
• Since it was discovered, AIDS or complications from this disease has killed 28.2 million people—more than three times the population of Sweden.
These realities and Linet’s death press with urgency on our desire to help. The need is extreme. Tragically, it takes so little to assist those who can barely afford to live.
In March of 2009, David and I, Carla Boelkens and our son-in-law, Doug Timberlake, a video and TV producer, traveled to Kenya, where we began to film the stories of those who were becoming our first bag-producers in this pilot phase of the Global Bag Project. After a morning of slipping over the unpaved footpaths in Kibera slums (there had been a recent rain) in order to film one of the HIV/AIDS widows sewing in her small room (and believe me, every single footstep was dangerous), David and I decided it was the better part of wisdom to sit out the scheduled walk to Linet’s place. Consequently, I can’t really focus my mind on a memory of her face. But Doug, with Caleb Otieno as his guide, did make the second Kibera jaunt along the back paths, and returned again in September to get more footage with better sound and videotaping equipment. He asked with authentic sadness in his voice, “Did you get the e-mail that Linet had died?”
When numbers turn to faces, when statistics become flesh and blood, we feel differently about the overwhelming information world-monitoring organizations compile for us. Linet’s 13-year-old son is a child now without a mother or a father, and Caleb and Eunice Otieno have promised that he will be raised in accordance to the prayers and last wishes of his dying mother.
My husband’s response was more practical: “Check and see if they have money for a coffin.” In September 2009, Margaret, a member of this same group, also died. There was no money to give her a proper burial. Obviously, if there is barely enough for the bare necessities of living, there will not be enough for the elemental proprieties of dying. So the GBP team (David again back in Africa) scrapped together the monies that would provide a coffin for this sister who had suffered so. We have done the same for Linet, wiring the funds to Nairobi.
Scripture says that God is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:7). In Isaiah 1:17, the prophet speaks this for God, “Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”
So with thoughts of Linet and of Margaret and of all those suffering and dying from AIDS, I announce that the Global Bag Project, www.globalbagproject.org, is designed and online. The e-economy is functioning (with a few glitches). PayPal is working and we should have merchant accounts soon so that people can use credit cards to make purchases. I believe we have a viable model forming in Nairobi. My prayer is that we will be able to soon place orders for bags with the many sewing groups that already exist who desperately need work.
Here’s what you can do to help.
• Visit the Web site. Place an order for a reusable kanga-cloth shopping bag made by artisan bag-producers in Kenya. Think about giving bags when you need to purchase gifts. Remember that Earth Day is April 22. Mother’s Day is May 2. When you buy a reusable bag, you feed a family and help preserve the planet.
• Host a “Bag Party in a Box.” We can ship a party in a box anywhere in the country. Instructions are included, and the DVD introduces your guests to the Global Bag Project concept. Each DVD includes the story of one of our bag-producers. We are in the trial phase and will welcome your ideas and feedback.
• Give a one-time financial gift to help defray the startup costs our Mainstay office has incurred. With the high fees for overseas shipping in addition to U.S. Customs charges, our margins can be threatened if we don’t raise operational costs from other giving sources. Ideally, we want all the monies from bag sales to go into fair wages for the bag-producers and into development projects on the field. For any gift over $35, we will gladly provide the latest DVD in the “Every Bag Has a Story” series. It is Caleb and Eunice Otieno’s story. I guarantee there will be few dry eyes among viewers.
The morning I left for Washington, D. C., this e-mail came from our colleague, Linda Renner.
“Just wanted you to know what happened yesterday with regards to our GBP sewing women here on the NEGST (Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology) campus. I have been sewing with them for the past week. We are making curtains for the guest house here, just to give the women work while waiting for further bag orders. Salome, one of the young women sewing with us, gave birth on Saturday to a baby girl. She was at the sewing room yesterday (Monday), after walking from Dagoretti. I did not even know she was pregnant. I asked her where the baby was. She had left her at home in the care of a “young girl.” Not sure how old that young girl was, I listened as Salome told me the baby would be given water to eat until Salome returned home from work. Mary Ogalo (our GBP Project Manager in Nairobi) told Salome she had to go home for two weeks so she could recover from the birth and to be available to feed the baby. Salome has four other children and no husband living at home. Salome really needs the income to buy food for her children and herself. She is a very hard worker and seems very nice. I have only known her for this one week. Please pray with us as we try to figure out how to help Salome.”