The Seamstress Apprentices
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
I wrote in a previous post that I don’t sew. My mother, however, was a dedicated seamstress for our family and she made quite a few of my clothes until I reached sixth grade and put my foot down: no more homemade attire. The wide-legged brown pants she made me that year garnered no compliments but only snide comments from peers concerning elephant legs. I was an adolescent with stocky thighs and calves (still have ’em) and so these were mortifying moments. I put the pants in the hand-me-down bag as soon as I got home and nicely requested to my mother that she not make me any more clothes. As I made my request, I ignored the thought of her hunched over that old black Singer sewing machine that was on the dining room table during sewing weeks. Of course, now that memory makes me only want to hug every homemade article of clothing my mother stitched – if only I still had even one of them.
I also wrote in a previous post that I was traveling to Ghana in honor of my mother. That first trip I took last May had my mother’s memory wrapped all around it for reasons I could not really explain. Now, I think have an explanation.
I returned to Ghana exactly two months ago and was sitting in the Methodist church in the village waiting for the services to begin. One of the pastors came to speak with me before the service to let me know that she had arranged a meeting of women who were interested in learning a skill: sewing. Word spreads fast in African villages and she had heard that we were interested in helping women begin small businesses that might help bring steady income to their families. “There will be many women here on Friday at 10 a.m. We told them you were looking for women who wanted to sew.”
That was true, but we were hoping to quietly find a couple of women we could match with experienced seamstresses who would help them learn to sew. We didn’t have a program yet, so we didn’t want to promise anything. However, it now seemed that a large group of women would be convening at the church in five days expecting something. I tried to explain our dilemma to the pastor, but she shook her head politely. “I’m sorry, the meeting has already been set.” Later in the week I tried again to cancel the meeting, but the pastor did not budge. The meeting, she repeated in her very measured and polite voice, “has already been set.”
So I gave in and decided that we would move forward because it seemed clear that the meeting had already been set.
On Thursday, the pastor told me that she had been called to another village for a meeting and would not be able to attend the Friday meeting with the hopeful seamstress apprentices. “I can’t speak Twi,” I reminded her, as if she needed me to point that out. “I’ll need a translator.” She promised she would arrange to have one there. In my mind, I threw my hands up in the air even further. This was beginning to feel like a disaster. Eighteen women were going to show up and expect me to offer them some process to start a sewing business. We had nothing to offer. We had made a connection with only one professional seamstress and her apprentice slots were already filled.
There is that moment when you realize that something is completely out of your control. These are hard moments for me, because I mostly have a death grip on control – or at least I think I do.
On January 7, Afia Asantewaa and Doris Boakye will begin their seamstress apprenticeship in the shop of Felicia Lumbor in the village of Ankaase, Ghana. They will be supported by my friends Diana and Janet. And through the sale of our Ankaase bags, Isaac will be able to purchase each of them a chair, scissors, measuring tape, machine oil, and pins, and a black Singer sewing machine just like the one my mother used. She never upgraded her machine, and now I’m thankful. Sometimes the very best gifts don’t come wrapped up in packages and tied with a bow. Sometimes we don’t even recognize them as gifts. They might come in the form of a meeting that “has already been set”, a tiny sewing shop on the red-dirt streets of an African village, and two friends who opened their hearts to two women they might never meet.
If I could sew, I would stitch a pair of brown pants on my mother’s old Singer in honor of the Ankaase Seamstress Apprentice Program. And I would wear those wide-legged pants proudly.