Head of the Class
by Marcia Barker, Vice President of Education for Quilts, Inc.
It is often said that, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and perhaps that is the best way to tell this story today, for this first picture spoke volumes to me. It spoke of the joy of sewing; it spoke of connection between cultures through fabric; it spoke of the universality of creativity. But maybe we should get the whole story…
Anne Rollins, one of my Education Show Team members, is a talented quilter and an experienced surgical nurse in her real life. She is also adventurous and dedicated to helping others. A veteran of medical mission trips, this was not her first trip to Rwanda, and she was well aware that the village that was her team’s ultimate destination did not appear on any map. That alone takes courage. After all, what do most of us know of Rwanda? I dare say, were it not for the movie, Hotel Rwanda, most of us might still be oblivious to the atrocities of genocide that stripped the country of any sense of normalcy 25 years ago. She knew to expect poverty and struggle—and of that there was plenty—but she would discover so much more.
The medical team members worked long and hard to complete 31 surgeries in just four days! Their patients, with orthopedic injuries that had gone unattended for far too long, finally received the surgery they needed, setting their bones to mend correctly. Perhaps the strength and resilience of the Rwandan people was best represented by a young patient she saw, up and walking less than 24 hours after surgery with fresh surgical bandages the only evidence of any challenge.
So, what does a vastly displaced, slightly exhausted quilter/nurse do in her time off? She sets out to explore the lives of those she has come to help. Anne enjoyed walking through the primitive market place, finding it to be lively with activity, animated voices, vivid color, and a strong sense of community. It was obvious that these people, as a country, have come so far!
Surprisingly, she happened upon an explosion of color on the ground which turned out to be a pile of America thrift store garments shipped into Rwanda in the ultimate recycling effort to find happy recipients for the clothing in a remote corner of the world. As her explorations continued, she found the true treasure—the scene that spoke to her as a quilter—an amazing array of African textiles. Here was her common language, if you will, and who can argue with $9 for 6yds?
Just beyond, in the minimal shade of a few umbrellas, sat a line of young Rwandan women busily working their treadle machines and taking orders from passersby for a dress, a skirt, a wrap, or maybe a tote. Undeterred by the lack of electricity, they kept the machines whirring and their scissors flying as they deftly cut shapes without patterns and designed without our modern essentials—their love of “craft” more evident in its raw form that we might ever hope to see in our country.
Paramount among these busy ladies was the lady with “the smile,” pictured at the top and again here. This was a smile that projected a joy in purpose and an enviable attitude toward a day’s work. The stack of colorful fabrics you see behind her are actually mattresses. In a climate too hot for sheets, they sell beautifully covered mattress so a sparse bedroom might still be attractive.
I’m happy to say that “the smile” photo now has a place of honor above my own sewing machine—a positive reminder of the light after the dark and a shared love of fabric across many miles and cultural lines. Where once there was fear and death, the whir of a treadle sewing machine now breathes life into Rwanda, and not only into the colorful stacks of fabric, but into the seamstresses themselves!
Now, the rest of Anne’s story was less about fabric and more about discovery—the kind of education that can only be enjoyed through travel. Another favorite quote of mine is, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” Perhaps for our purposes here, we should expand it to say, “Travel and FABRIC are the only things you buy that make you richer.”
We all understand the warmth felt in the presence of fabrics, handicrafts, quilts, or clothing that feature fabric from a distant seamstress. To have a bit of the spirit of these women represented in our own collections adds richness to our daily lives. My personal mantra: “Travel. Explore. Discover. Buy fabric.” I’m proud to know Anne and so very happy she has allowed me to share her experiences here—as a nurse, as a quilter, as an adventuress.
And yes, that is a very large silverback gorilla just behind her—massive creatures they are! How wonderful that they too can now enjoy a peaceful homeland along with the tribesmen, and that people like Anne can come to not only revel at the vast strides the country is making, but provide important medical assistance, and maybe even a little financial boost in the form of some amazing stash builders in the suitcase!