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Rugby to Malawi

By Staff | Jul 19, 2013

The women in the sewing group have already developed a quilting co-op and are sharing their new skills with other women in nearby villages.

By now, Rugby native Mary Tuchscherer is a veteran of trips to the African continent.

She founded VoiceFlame, which has given dozens of women from Malawi a chance to tell their stories.

But on her most recent trip, Tuchscherer had a new traveling partner in the form of an old friend, and a new mission – to give African woman a new skill to help make them thrive in a more self-sufficient manner.

Tuchscherer was joined by childhood friend Coralee (Paterson) Johnson for a trip to Malawi this spring.

While Tuchscherer’s past trips have focused on passion for writing and enhancing women’s ability for expression, this one used the sewing and quilting talents of Johnson and others to give the African women a new skill and sense of self.

Rugby native Mary Tuchscherer (second from left) is the founder of VoiceFlame. On a recent trip to Malawi, Tuchscherer and childhood friend Coralee (Paterson) Johnson helped bring the skill of quilting to women in two African villages.

“It was so much fun to have Coralee on the trip with us and to reconnect with her on such a deep level and to be able to share this experience with her,” Tuchscherer said.

The group was greeted by students who were ready to learn.

“When we got there, they greeted us with dancing and song,” said Johnson, a Hazen resident. “They were so excited to be part of the group who was selected for the quilting program and hopefully help them get an income. Universally, mothers want the best for their children. The women wanted a better life for their family.”

After picking up some local fabrics, the teaching began, as the 15 women in the quilting group were each given packets with scissors and measuring tools. Each of the three quilting teachers had five students.

“The amazing thing was the excitement of the women they were working with, some of them who had never held a pair of scissors in their life,” Tuchscherer said. “They started out by teaching each to do the four blocks and the idea was to put those four blocks together. We worked with them for five days. They started with one square and how to put that together. At the end of five days, every woman had a complete piece, four blocks put together.”

Like the VoiceFlame writing projects, the women were encouraged to tell their stories through the pieces, something that is often rare for women in African cultures.

“They were so happy to learn something other than their normal chores,” said Tuchscherer, who now lives in California. “This was such a beautiful experience for people to learn about their creativity and to watch each one’s uniqueness come out.”

Although the trip was different than Tuchscherer’s writing workshops, the idea behind it was the same.

“A lot of important things start with one or two people having a vision,” Johnson said. “Our little group of five really could make a difference. Mary has so much energy and so much passion. It was fun to reconnect with her after so many years.”

The travelers predictably ran into some language barriers, but it didn’t stop the learning process.

“You used a lot of gestures and examples,” Johnson said. “We had examples of what the final outcome was. In every group, we had at least one person who could interpret.

The communication wasn’t fluid, but it was functional. We had four different patterns of quilt blocks. They felt very very proud of the project and celebrated their uniqueness. The teaching was very simple because we had such veracious learners.”

The project didn’t stop when the women returned home to America.

The women in Malawi started a quilting group, which will allow them to cooperatively raise funds and purchase more supplies, in the hopes of teaching more and more women the skill.

The initial group became so large that the women split up into two groups from separate villages.

“They have already shared it with their neighbors and friends and have 13 women in their sewing group,” Tuchscherer said. “There’s a plan for what they do with the pieces when they’re done sewing them. They bring them to a central place and have some marketing. Each (quilter) gets a percentage, and a percentage goes back to the co-op so they can buy more materials to keep them going.”

Tuchscherer recently resigned from her job and plans on putting more time into her work in VoiceFlame, with more trips to the African continent.

Johnson doesn’t have any immediate plans to return, but isn’t leaving any doors closed for future similar work.

“Whether it’s stateside of international travel, I’m hoping opportunities fall into my lap and I have the finances to do it,” she said. “It’d be fun to go again and see how they’ve progressed.”

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