African-American quilters set to bring hope back to African brethren
For six years, a dozen North Charleston quilters have been quietly creating their works and sending them to a West African village so that newborns and orphans don’t have to sleep directly on the ground.
Want to help?
The Gethsemani Quilters going to Ghana in a week are collecting supplies through Aug. 2 to donate to local villagers.
Quilting supplies needed include:
Rotary cutter plus blades (45 mm and 60 mm)
All-purpose quilting thread, beige or white
Rotary cutting mat that will fit in a 30-inch suitcase
Combination pack sewing needles
21 yards of batting
For more about Project Okurase or to donate, contact Dr. Cynthia Swenson at 876-1802 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, go to www. projectokurase.org.
In a week, four of those women will leave their homes to deliver a dozen handmade quilts in person to the villagers of Okurase in Ghana. They will meet face-to-face the impoverished people their scissors, thread and works of love will benefit.
The journey will mark a homecoming.
For these African-American women, family roots dig deeply back to a time that mars American history, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For hundreds of thousands, the journey began in West Africa and ended in Charleston.
While history and physical distance separate the local quilters from their African brethren, bonds remain strong.
“We are here, but they are still our family. We haven’t forgotten them,” says Ida Taylor, director of the Gethsemani Community Center, a part of the city of North Charleston and where the quilters meet.
She recalls traveling through Okurase on previous trips and hearing locals say: “Welcome home.”
“It is like going home to a place you’ve never been,” she says.
The quilting group grew from the Gethsemani center’s senior programs run by the city of North Charleston’s recreation department.
The dozen women called the Gethsemani Quilters meet weekly to sew and talk, and talk and sew. Four of them will take a dozen handmade quilts to folks in rural Okurase, a village of about 3,000 people, nearly half of whom are children.
They leave Aug. 4 and return Aug. 18. Each is paying her own way. None is wealthy; the trip marks a long and determined labor of saving.
One woman embarking on the journey, Helen Ward, just turned 70. This is her first trip to Africa, and her first time flying.
“It took me 70 years,” Ward says. “It will be more than a homecoming. It will be a thrill. It’s an answer to my prayers and an answer to my dreams.”
She is going with her daughter, Iris Poole. Also joining the journey is Virginia Watson, the quilting group’s instructor. She is taking a partially done quilt to show local residents the skills to create their own.
Perhaps those who learn the skill will start their own small quilting businesses, says Dr. Cindy Swenson, co-director of Project Okurase, who will accompany the quilters on their trip.
The nonprofit project began, in some ways, in 1998 with Swenson’s work as a research psychologist at MUSC. Through MUSC’s Healthy South Carolina Initiative, she led a community violence study in North Charleston’s Union Heights community to explore solutions to youth violence and substance abuse.
She joined with Taylor at the neighborhood’s Gethsemani Center.
What did local residents suggest? People need positive community projects to focus on.
Given the connection to West Africa, they decided to teach West African drumming and dance and created Djole African Dance and Drum Company.
The kids showed tremendous talent. But they lacked authentic, professional drums.
In stepped a Coastal Community Foundation worker who introduced the group to Samuel Nkrumah Yeboah, a drum maker and master drummer in Ghana.
One day, Yeboah received a drum order from Charleston, S.C.
Taylor and Swenson learned that in Ghana, Yeboah is called Powerful. For good reason.
He became their linchpin in Okurase.
Yeboah, who already was working to better his village, invited the Djole dancers to visit his country.
In 2006, 21 children who had never even been to the Charleston airport flew to Ghana and spent 18 days working with him on HIV/AIDS education through dance.
Yeboah introduced them to Okurase, a drum-carving village where they saw “a dire situation,” Swenson says.
People there live without running water. Electricity is available in only a few buildings, and it is unreliable even then. Medical care is rare. Orphans and other vulnerable children live on the streets.
“We saw this extreme life of poverty, and yet they were extremely joyful,” Swenson recalls. “All they have is their joy and their dancing.”
The North Charlestonians have been fundraising for the villagers since. And Okurase residents send them authentic drumming instruction videos in return.
In stepped the quilters.
Many are older women. Meeting once a week to quilt meant a chance to get out of their homes and meet with friends to socialize. It also offered a chance to help the children of Okurase.
“To keep them from sleeping on the ground, the women of Gethsemani began making quilts,” Swenson says. “It’s really important for them personally. This is their gift to give back, and Ghana is their heritage.”
For six years, Swenson has delivered the women’s quilts to children in Okurase when she visited.
But this time, a group of quilters will make that journey themselves.
They will cross the Atlantic Ocean that saw the enslavement of their ancestors, though this time on a journey of hope.
Swenson drove around last week with several quilts in her van. One quilt featured the American flag.
When they arrive in Ghana, the Gethsemani Quilters hope to teach their skills to villagers. Then, along with local residents, they plan to create a community quilt to hang in a school being built by Project Okurase.
Until then, they are raising supplies to donate to the villagers, who in turn will supply fabric.
It is all part of a larger effort called the Nkabom Centre, overseen by Project Okurase and designed by students from Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston. Eventually, it will house 16 buildings, including a school, training center, security hut and housing for families to foster orphans and other vulnerable children.
A local Water Missions International crew is in Okurase now working on a clean water system.
And a Charlestonian, Douglas Logan, just installed solar-powered lights in the local marketplace and in the project’s volunteer building where people from around the U.S. and world come to help.
Everyone with Project Okurase is a volunteer. They raise funds, donate their personal funds and pursue small grants.
Swenson makes regular trips to provide medical outreach. Her next goal: build a medical center.
But first, the vocational school. About 60 percent complete, it is being built with bricks made by local hands and cement mixed on site with volunteers and local labor.
“We’re all doing it together,” Swenson says.
Now, the local quilters will provide their piece: a community quilt made with local residents.
When the school is complete, they will hang that quilt on a wall, reminding students and teachers of the American family that won’t forget them.
Taylor laughs recalling how she was dragged into quilting by the older quilters who insisted upon it.
“They’re the bosses,” Taylor says. “They kept telling me, ‘You have to make one!’”
So, she did. And she surprised herself.
She’s made several but insists that her skills are nothing compared to the other ladies, some of whom quilt entirely by hand.
Taylor has been to Ghana twice already, once with the group of local kids.
Many stories from that journey still touch her, perhaps one more than any other. The American children were riding in a bus with several African families when one of the kids came up with a project motto: “1 + 1 = 1.”
“It was basically, you plus me equals us,” Taylor says. “We are but one body. It’s all about family. It’s about unity. I am my brother’s keeper. And he is mine.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.