These pages carry stories of COVID-19 that were stitched by 39 women from the informal settlements of Kibera and Kangemi, Nairobi. The embroidered blocks are being assembled into advocacy quilts in the US and will be profiled on these pages when they are complete.
The stories are part of a 2-year global project by AP to provide women and girls with a creative outlet for their frustration after months of lockdown and fear. As of writing, the project has yielded over 180 stories and six quilts from High School students in Arlington Virginia, Wilmington NC, Zimbabwe and Nepal. Infections are rising in the Global South and we are still accepting stories.
The Kenyan women who produced these blocks have become accomplished fiber artists while working with AP, as is shown by the high quality of their work. AP first got to know them in November 2019, when they first received training in embroidery and produced stories for the Women’s World Quilt, exposing the lack of services for women and girls in the two settlements.
Their next project was to produce blocks featuring animals from Kenya, for Sister Artists 2. These have been made into 40 dazzling quilts by art quilters in North America.
After two highly successful embroidery projects, it was not surprising that almost all of the artists responded to AP’s request for COVID stories. The pandemic has hit Kenya hard and as of mid-July, only two of the 25 artists in Kangemi had received a vaccination. Their apprehension is clear from their WhatsApp group messages.
Both groups have been led by inspiring community activists – Caren Mbyaki in Kangemi and Stella Makena in Kibera. As in the earlier projects Christina Kibuka provided top-up training in the early stages. Gill Rebelo, a former president of the Nairobi quilt guild, coordinated the project from Nairobi. Bobbi Fitzsimmons, Delaney Rogers, Ryan Pham,and Saliha Gozel worked on the project from the US. Abby Hack produced these web pages.
AP will auction the quilts as we did with the Mali quilts of Sister Artists 1, and invest proceeds in the two groups. The Kibera team seems likely to use their funds to expand a promising start-up to help women use vermiculture and composting, which is also supported by AP. The Kangemi team has opted to continue with embroidery and create a market among quilters in the US, with AP’s help.
All of the COVID story-telling projects have produced important, if unexpected, outcomes. The nine Arlington artists have developed a personal friendship with the young artists in Zimbabwe, and both groups have met regularly on Zoom. This has provided further motivation to the Zimbabwe girls to produce and sell soap, as a way to reduce their vulnerability to early marriage.
The three artists who produced COVID squares from Nepal have developed a beautiful style all of their own, which AP is promoting with design schools in the US. The magnificent Wilmington quilts were commissioned and exhibited by the Cameron Art Museum, and provided focus and morale for the museum and its friends during the dark days of the pandemic.
One result of these Nairobi stories has been to strengthen the Kangemi artists, who formed the Kangemi Self-Help Advocacy Group to facilitate training and work together. The group has acquired legal status, and Caren Mbyaki hopes to start advocating for better services in the settlement once the pandemic ends. Several of the Kibera artists have formed a savings group, as part of their composting efforts. They almost hope to support and train a promising start-up for families of children with albinism.
Finally, there is the future! The three sets of embroidered stories have been assembled into quilts by four expert quilters – Susan Louis from New York, Carol Churchill from California, Judy Miller from California and Nancy Hershberger from Pennsylvania. Nancy, Susan and Judy all produced quilts for Sister Artists 1 and we are grateful to them for sharing their skills again.
Looking ahead, we have sent the second quilt back to Nairobi, where it will be used by the artists to advocate for vaccinations. The COVID-19 crisis persists in Africa, and we will do whatever we can to support this vital initiative. It shows once again the enormous possibilities offered by advocacy quilting.
Our thanks to Humanity United for providing financial support to our quilting program.