When Lydia Wirkus retired from her job as a high school teacher in Wasilla, she looked forward to spending more time developing her skills as a stained glass artist. But after six months, she grew restless. Although she enjoyed making art, she also wanted to be of service to her church, her community, and the world at large. “I was doing too much communing with my (studio) garage,” she said.
Then she read an article in a magazine about a woman from Valley City, North Dakota, who had begun a network that was making a big difference in the lives of women artisans in Tanzania and Uganda. The newly conceived organization, Asante Network, helped impoverished women in Africa sell their hand-crafted baskets, fabrics, carvings and jewelry to an American market. The organization also fostered literacy and supported a school for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Lydia emailed founder, Mary Ann Sheets-Hanson, asking what she could do to help. Mary Ann replied immediately. Could Lydia travel to California to attend the organization’s first board meeting? And could she go to Tanzania and Uganda – in two months?
Lydia felt immediately drawn to this ministry; but still, she wondered. She hardly knew these people. She talked to her adult sons living in San Francisco who encouraged her. “Go for it, Mom,” they said. And door after door opened for her to step forward in what she describes as a profound journey of faith. Within a few short weeks, on her 57th birthday in April 2007, Lydia found herself on a jet traveling to the heart of Africa to meet the women of Uganda and Tanzania.
“What struck me most was their hospitality,” Lydia said. “They were all so welcoming and generous.”
Lydia experienced Masai village life, drank goat’s milk from smoky gourds, and saw how Rwenzori mountain women drew colorful basket dies from the earth. The goal of the Masai women’s cooperative was to pool enough resources for each woman to buy five goats. With five goats, a woman is considered independently wealthy; she can feed her family and sell or barter milk for other essentials. Meanwhile, her husband’s stature in the village rises with her increased wealth. Everyone stands a little taller.
Lydia explained that as the women began selling their wares to the Asante Network, it became necessary for them to open a bank account. A signature was required to open the account; so one of the women learned to sign her name. Seeing the power of the written word – a bank account in her own name – the woman insisted it was time to learn to read. And since that time, literacy has been one objective that the Asante Network has been happy to support.
Run by just five American volunteers, including Lydia, Asante Network has been able to better the lives of hundreds of African women and their families. Asante Network works with four women’s cooperatives. Most of their wares are sold at American church craft bazaars and all of the profits are sent back to the women artisans. Proceeds have also gone to fund micro-loans for women to start home-based businesses and to a residential high school.
Since her first visit to Africa, Lydia has gone back to work for the State of Alaska as a program reviewer for Child Nutrition Services with the Department of Education. Her job will help fund future trips to Africa where she will continue to help women as they grow more independent in a changing world economy. During her last visit in February, she took a friend, and showed African women the kinds of colors and fabrics that American women would purchase to make quilts.
“The most rewarding thing has been seeing women recognize their own value as individuals,” Lydia said.
In this season of light and love, Asante Network provides gifts both given and received, treasures of the heart and art that last long beyond the holidays.
For more information about Asante Network, visit their website at www.asantenetwork.org