A fashion designer volunteers her skill in Tanzania and gains an experience of a life-time

Volunteer Emilie Bendix Hansen at the volunteer house in Dar es Salaam

Volunteer Emilie Bendix Hansen at the volunteer house in Dar es Salaam

Written by Saara Kanula (Finland)
Edited by Lynne Hambury (South Africa) (Originally published on Apr 24, 2014)

Emilie Bendix Hansen is a 22 years old girl from Copenhagen, Denmark. She has been dreaming of coming to Africa for many years. She finally made her dream come true last January when she came to volunteer at Art in Tanzania (AIT).

As a volunteer Emilie has been teaching English in a nursery school in the mornings and Adult English in the afternoons – this is a typical type of volunteer project in AIT. Depending on one’s education, background and interests, one can participate in many other projects made available by AIT. In Emilie’s case, besides teaching, she found a project where she could use her professional skill as a fashion designer.

Emilie graduated last December from Teko Design and Business school and has been designing women’s clothing for Lolly’s Laundry in Denmark. While volunteering  Emilie designed clothes for Art in Tanzania. These items will then be produced by the Getting Older is to Grow (GOIG) Society – a certified Fair Trade producer of unique and sustainable handcrafted products. A non-profit organization founded in 1991, GOIG’s mission is to enable disadvantaged children in Tanzania to reach their full potential through receiving a quality education relevant to their needs. At GOIG the youth is trained to produce quality traditional handcraft products for internal and external market access.

During its start up in 1994 through to 2005, GOIG received significant financial and technical assistance from the Finnish Handcrafts Society and FINNIDA. Now GOIG is collaborating with AIT and producing items for their Fair Trade shop in Dar es Salaam and online shop in Finland.

I had a chance to meet up with Emilie and ask her few questions about her design work at GOIG.

How did the idea arise to design clothes for Art in Tanzania?
The idea came about during a conversation with a team leader at AIT. After finding out that I was a fashion designer, the team leader told me about GOIG and suggested a possibility of working with them to produce a clothing line. I took some time off from my teaching projects and then started designing women’s clothing together with GOIG.

GOIG Modern Schools situated in Dar es Salaam

GOIG Modern Schools situated in Dar es Salaam

How did you find working as a designer in Tanzania?
I knew that would be different from designing in Denmark and before I started I couldn’t really imagine what it would be like. Everything works so differently in Africa compared to where I come from. I came to Africa with an “open” mind but still found some unexpected things. This is not a bad thing as it taught me about a different culture to my own.

The GOIG Society is a very nice organization and the people are very friendly. Just a few workers speak English so communication was a little bit difficult. Luckily I had a Tanzanian co-worker, Jessica, who was fluent in English. At first she was a little bit shy, but when I got to know her, I really liked her and enjoyed working with her. We designed the collection together.

GOIG is located in Dar es Salaam, about half an hours drive from the Bahari Beach volunteer house. The GOIG building is quite modest when one compares it to any of Denmark’s buildings. Working spaces are simple and equipment is quite rudimentary – Workers sew with very old sewing machines.

Staff members (sewers) at the GOIG Society

Staff members (sewers) at the GOIG Society

How does the work differ from a designer’s work in Denmark?
In Denmark students learn how to design clothes and most of the production is done in Asia. At GOIG the teaching concentrates on teaching women to sew, so all of the designed items are made here. The process of making clothes is really different too. I was surprised to see that the workers cut the fabric without a pattern to guide them. Sometimes the outcome works well, however there are many mistakes made and fabric is wasted. Workers have graduated from the GOIG vocational school and some of them are very talented. I was amazed when I saw Jessica making clothes from bed sheets! She didn’t cut the fabric or use any needle or string. All she did was place a few pins where needed and after five minutes there was a really beautiful dress! She is able to make many different styles of dresses like that. This is something I would love to learn. One of the really great things about this project is that I did not have strict guidelines to follow and was able to be highly creative with the collection.

The final product ranges from dresses to back-packs and bags

The final product ranges from dresses to back-packs and bags

From where did the inspiration for the collection come?
The collection, which includes twelve different design pieces, nine for women and three for children, was designed for Finnish markets. In the Women’s collection there are casual, beach and party outfits. We had some instruction about what types of clothes are in demand, but otherwise we could work very independently and be creative. Marjut Valtanen, a team leader at AIT co-ordinating the Fair Trade projects gave us some insight on what would be “IN” next Summer in Finland and that guided the designs. After designing the clothes Jessica and myself chose the fabric we would like to use. We wanted to use the best Tanzanian materials so we chose some ketenge, kanga and batik. The variety of the colours in local markets were amazing. We tried to use the kind of colours that would be suitable in Finland. In Tanzania women use lots of bright colours. Finnish people are more moderate in this respect, so we tried to keep that in mind. At this point the staff is making samples of the designs. I haven’t seen them yet, but I am excited to see what the outcome is. Our plan is that the collection appears in a market next summer.

How would you describe the experience of volunteering at Art in Tanzania?
I have had a really great time – There are many opportunities to see a lot and do many different things. I’ve experienced the school system, done some designing work, planted trees in the Moshi area, been on a safari, swam at the beaches in Zanzibar, taught kids how to swim and even attained a diving licence. Working here is so different from working in Denmark – it is a difficult environment, but really rewarding. Because things happen at a slower pace, I have learnt some patience. One needs to be laid-back and things will happen when everyone is ready. Akuna Matata!

Do you think that volunteers can actually make a change in Tanzania?
Yes, one makes a change by doing little things. For example when teaching in nursery schools, the kids are very happy when just learning new songs and playing different games. Some of the teachers have also adopted new teaching methods from the volunteers. This is a really good thing – some old-fashioned methods practiced before have been replaced with new alternative methods that have increased effectiveness. The most rewarding thing for me has been teaching Adult English. Students are very eager to learn and they are so grateful to get these lessons for free and they really appreciate it. Another great moment was when I taught children to swim and helped one little girl to conquer her fear for water.

What would you say to people who are planning to come to work as a volunteer in Tanzania? One cannot really not prepare for anything one will face here. The best advice is to be open-minded. It is definitely a worth-while experience not to missed!

For more information about the GOIG Societ go to www.goigsociety.org

Kindly contact Marjut Valtanen (marjut[at]artintanzania.org) for more information about volunteering in AIT’s Fair Trade projects.

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