Getting (sewing) schooled in the Congo

The instructor at Bondeko sewing school. Photo by JMD.

On Monday, May 7, Nancy, Nina, and I visit the Bondeko sewing school, sponsored by the Bondeko Mennonite church in Kinshasa.  (I wrote about it before my trip here: I am looking forward to this visit—I know about sewing. Plus, I have the gifts my sister Julie and I made for the school and I am ready to give them to the women.

Nancy and I arrive first (Nina is staying with another family) and we are welcomed into the classroom with two young women students and one instructor. The instructor is wearing a beautiful halter dress with ruffles down the front which she sewed herself. She is a walking advertisement for her sewing skills.

The room is small, with three cement walls and one wall of windows that looks out onto the busy street. Crowded into the room are five hand-cranked sewing machines, tables, and plastic lawn chairs. Most of the tables are pushed aside to make room for us, their visitors and Nancy and I wait for Nina’s arrival.

The professional sewing room with one of the seamstresses. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Next door is a similar room with two sewing machines with fabrics, notions, and pictures of various women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing designs. This space is the professional room where people come to order clothing or to get alterations.

Marie-Jeanne, president of the Bondeko sewing school and one of our hosts.

Marie–Jeanne, president of the sewing school, is adjusting the tension on the machines while the bobbins are acting funky, and it appears that one can only sew one seam at a time then re-thread the machine and fiddle with bobbin before sewing again. The machines are old, black Singer machines with gold lettering and decorations. And, I marvel at Marie-Jeanne’s patience with them because I would’ve been swearing at my machine (and at myself) if I had to fiddle with my sewing machine this much.

Bondeko sewing classroom Photo by JMD

The two students are working on assignments from the instructor. When they finished one part of the assignment—sewing a collar—they gave it to the instructor, she looked at it, and without feedback, give them the next assignment. It’s very different from my grandmother and great-grandmother teaching me to sew.

After Nina and Izir (our translator) arrives, we receive a history of the school, a demonstration by the students, and then they offer us an opportunity to sew on the machines. I volunteer, thinking this will be easy, but I am quickly disabused of this idea! It is tough to crank the side wheel to get the machine going, get the fabric under the needle and sew a straight seam. The women had a good laugh at my clumsiness and the instructor helped me with the wheel. Both Nancy and Nina took turns and each did fine—I’m assuming they learned from my awkwardness (and not, perhaps, that they are more coordinated than me!).

Here I am getting (sewing) schooled. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Nina offered a blessing for the school, the instructors, and the students. Then I talked and this is what I said:

“It is traditional for the older women to teach the younger women to sew and my grandmother and great-grandmother taught my sister Julie and me to sew. They showed us how to thread a needle, tie a knot at the end of the thread, and how to take out my stitches when I made a mistake, which was a lot! (The women laugh at this).

My great-grandmother and grandmother died many years ago and I miss them a lot. Yet, sometimes, I can hear their instructions when I sew, like, “Don’t leave that mistake in—re-sew that seam.” (The women nod their heads in understanding). Sometimes my sister and I sew together although she lives far away and we consult with one another by phone when we have a sewing problem.

My sister Julie and I made these sewing kits for you in memory of our grandmother and great-grandmother. I know they would’ve loved to meet you and visit this sewing center!”

I distribute the sewing kits and pin cushions and the women are delighted and touched that we had made these gifts for them. The instructor immediately understands how the wrist pincushions worked and asked me to put around her wrist and wore it the rest of the day.

The women holding their sewing kits in the classroom. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

In each kit is a seam ripper, measuring tape, tailors chalk, needles, and a seam gauge.

Bondeko sewing kits made by Julie. Photo by Julie-Ann McFann

The pin cushions are filled with straight pins (after this photo was taken).

(Julie wrote about the designing and sewing of the kits and pin cushions on her blog:

Marie-Jeanne formally thanks Julie and me for the gifts and says, “We look forward to your sister visiting us.”

Then Nina, Nancy, and I took many photos of the group with the sewing kits.

Holding the sewing kits in the classroom. Photo by JMD

And outside of the sewing center, I try to get them to say “Cheese” for the photo. I think they oblige me to be polite!

Outside the Bondeko sewing school (with Izir, our translator). Photo by JMD


Congo–Wherever you go, there you are

The next day we return to the Mennonite Central Committee office to spend more time with the other MCC staff and learn about their work. Ben tells us about his work with the health centers around Congo, tells us his story, and his commitment to MCC ideals. Ben tells us that he moved from a major medical non-governmental organization (NGO)—with a big salary—to work for MCC because it pulled together his work with his faith (while touching his heart with his open hand).

Ben at the MCC office. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

Our time with Ben is interrupted by news that the Bishop was waiting for us. We drop everything and follow the our escort through the hallways and up and down stairways. We first stop at the office of Pastor Milenge Mwenelwata, the second vice president of the Church of Christ of Congo (ECC), the organization that owns the large building where MCC—DR Congo is housed. Pastor Milenge had visited North America this past April as part of a delegation from ECC to meet with government officials in Canada and the US and officers in the United Nations. When their Canadian visas were delayed, the delegation visited Nina’s congregation, Florence Church of the Brethren-Mennonite, on Maundy Thursday and participated in a footwashing. Pastor Milenge also had dinner at Nancy’s home so he knew both Nancy and Nina. After a few minutes of lingering in Pastor Milenge’s office, we are told the bishop is ready for us. As I leave Pastor Milenge’s office, I move toward the bishop’s office when the translator stopped me and said, “No. Pastor leads the way.” So begins my introduction to Congo protocol and my ongoing bafflement of what is or is not proper protocol.

The bishop’s office is large and very chilly with two sets of sofas facing one another with two glass-topped coffee tables joined together at the middle. On the coffee tables are two wooden candelabra-like shapes filled with a variety of flags from around the world. On top of the bookcase behind the large desk piled high with files and papers is a wooden triangle with an American flag folded into it. I recognize this as a sign of prestige and power, yet I am curious about the story of that flag and why the bishop had it, yet I refrain from asking about it.

I sit next to the first vice president of the ECC and across from the bishop. I have no idea what the purpose is for this meeting, although I am grateful for the air-conditioning. But blended in with my bafflement, my innate resistance of important religious men begins to surface. I observe the deference that Pastor Milenge shows the bishop and the reticence of the first vice president next to me. I recognize this defiance as my own immaturity and I have an inner struggle of wanting to be polite while trying to squish my desire to be impolite. And, I am aware that I am invited to this meeting because I am an American and the bishop is showing deference to me. I also suspect that this meeting is undergirded by a hope for financial support, although nothing is explicitly said.

I spot the bishop’s red socks and immediately think of Kevin and the red socks I gave him for his birthday. I ask Suzanne to take a picture of the bishop’s red socks and explain that my husband loves red socks. The Bishop agrees to the photo which Suzanne takes. I am trying to be playful but not really succeeding. I wonder if my playfulness can cross culturally. Later, Suzanne tells me that it’s inappropriate to talk about bodies or body parts, especially to a bishop. She and I agree that I was probably subconsciously tweaking the bishop. *Sigh* I am reminded that I take all of me—the polite and the impolite parts of me—wherever I go.

The meeting lasts maybe an hour and the four of us leave a little baffled about the purpose of the meeting. It is the first of several cross-cultural moments that we don’t quite understand. Our primary purpose for the trip is to develop and nurture relationships across cultures and we are reminded that all relationships take work—and relating to our new Congolese friends we need to cross languages, cultures, histories, class, and our very selves that we bring with us wherever we go!

*Photo of the bishop by Nina B. Lanctot

My prayer for the New Year–2012

June Mears Driedger, 12/2007


This year, make your presence known, O God
throughout the world.
Reveal your true face to us–
the face of love, mercy, compassion
(rather than the face often attributed to you—
wrath, punishment, impatience).

Help us mirror your true face—
mirror back to you and to one another
so that, in our mirroring your true face
we might transform this world.



This year, make your presence known, O God
throughout the global Church.
Reveal your wide embrace to us—
your embrace of hospitality, engagement, kindness
(rather than the crossed arms often attributed to you—
exclusion, rigidity, dogma).

Help us to receive your embrace—
embrace you back and embrace one another
so that in our embracing of you
we might transform this Church.



This year, make your presence known, O God
throughout me.
Reveal your heart to me—
your heart of tenderness, attentiveness, patience
(rather than my projections of you—
perfectionism, distance, disinterest).

Help me to embrace your heart
so that in my embracing I may be transformed.


(The above image is from my brother’s home and I was so intrigued with the tile work I had to photograph it. I am reminded of celtic knots the way the pattern weaves in and out of itself).