The boy lays on a frayed woven mat whose colors have long since faded over the years. His contorted legs are supported by an old cushion over which his two crooked, clubbed bare feet hang. His thin body curls in a half moon shape while his two stiffened arms and balled hands reach for an old soccer ball by his side.
“Oh God Bless, he does love that ball,” laughs Saskia Rechsteiner, a tall, blonde, 41-year old mother of two young sons herself. As we carefully step over the boy, whose name is in fact God Bless, he looks up at us. One eye focuses — or so it seems — and the other trails off 45 degrees to the left. While he doesn’t respond overtly, it seems to me that he senses the kindness of this lovely woman.
Kindness. That’s the name of the game in this magical place. So much so that it is the first thing visitors see when they arrive. Written in large, bold script on the entry wall is:
“Kindness is a language that blind people can see and deaf people can hear.”
We continue our tour around this unique compound where boundaries are marked by walls built from hundreds of glass bottles, piled high upon one another with nothing more to hold them steady than balance, like card castles. And inside “rooms” that are delineated by partitions made from lines of brightly-colored, single- and multiple-strand mobiles and wind chimes.
“She came to us a few months ago,” says Saskia, as she relates to my sister and I the story of God Bless and his mother, Teresia. Teresia is in front of us, working away at her station, which is positioned carefully just feet from her son, stringing mounds of red, yellow, blue, green, black, and white Maasai beads onto spools of silver wire. With her bright eyes, big white smile, flawless black skin, and slight frame, she barely looks 20. “Teresia came around asking for work, and she was carrying God Bless on her back. I asked how old her boy was, thinking that perhaps he was 3 or 4 years old. 17 she told me. She had been carrying around that child on her back for 17 years.”
Teresia is one of only three of Saskia’s 42 employees who does not personally live with some kind of disability. Everyone else has one or more handicaps, ranging from deafness to physical abnormalities, and—what we think afflicts God Bless—though we cannot be sure because he has never seen a proper doctor for a diagnosis, severe cerebral palsy.
Shanga, which means “bead” in Swahili, is the name of this place. Located alongside of one of the largest and most successful coffee plantations in Arusha, Tanzania, this unique for-profit business pays local people who are living with disabilities honest and fair wages to design, engineer, and produce lines of unique and exquisite product, all made from trash. Employees work six days a week, 11 months a year, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a 30-minute lunch break. Lunches and uniforms are provided by Shanga. The number of job applicants is steadily growing; the current waiting list is over 200.
Shanga started in 2007 when Saskia, then home on sabbatical from her work managing safari camp sites in the National Parks, asked her housemaid’s sister, who just happened to be deaf, to help her make a few necklaces to sell at a Christmas fundraising bazaar. The response to their necklaces was overwhelming, and the seeds of Shanga were planted. Today, five years later, Shanga is a thriving and internationally-recognized African enterprise. Their 10 acres are divided into sections. By the river, there is the Riverhouse restaurant where hundreds of tourists come each week to sit at outdoor tables made from recycled Indian dhows in brightly colored cushioned chairs and enjoy organic, locally grown lunches. Up a ways from the river is the Shanga Store, where tables and countertops overflow with the Shanga designs. Necklaces, bracelets, sandals, wraps, scarfs, handbags, wallets, wall art, glassware, clothing, baskets and more. One-hundred percent of profits go in to the running of Shanga and hiring more people in need. Saskia herself does not take a salary.
Closer to the entryway and roadside are the workshops.
There, tires that once carried human, livestock, and material loads across East Africa are made to adorn children’s clothes as buttons and bling. Glass from discarded water, soda and liquor bottles, and even eye glasses, is melted and transformed into beads of all shapes, colors, and sizes, all kinds of glassware, bottle rings for jewelry and mobiles, and mosaics. Aluminum taken from the parts of old airplanes, cars, trucks and machinery is transformed into bracelets and necklaces. Used paper collected from schools and offices is gathered to make recycled products such as boxes and cards, which are then decorated with thinly-cut tin African animals of varying sizes. Cow bones and horns are boiled down and sliced into jewelry components.
“Even our machinery is made from rubbish,” says Saskia, showing us their generator, which was created from an old engine and alternator. An old washing machine engine, bicycle tire, and sewage pipe were used to construct the machine that now smoothes Shanga’s glass beads. Their smelting machine, used to transform the aluminum, is made from two truck wheels and an air pump.
Here, truly, nothing goes to waste. In this poor East African country where there is no organized waste removal of any kind. Where garbage litters streets and streams, rivers and roadsides, Saskia and her team have pioneered a recycling center that is not only giving new life to material waste, it is giving new hope, opportunity, and respect to a community of human castaways. Ignorance, poverty and a widespread belief in witchcraft and sorcery condemns most all Tanzanians who have disabilities—both children and adults alike—to lives of isolation, pain and suffering. Not so for those who have made it to Shanga.
“Our mantra? We are able!‘” says Saskia, flashing a big, beautiful smile.
Shanga is UNITE The World With Africa’s latest partner in our building and development of
the Ashé Collection, an online collection of unique African artistry at www.ashecollection.com. This post originally appeared on the Ashé Collection blog.