Tennessee Woman’s Newly Recognized Fair Trade Concept, Amani ya Juu, Changes Lives In Post-conflict African Nations

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A woman from Tennessee is using her personal experiences to grow a non-profit, social economic company to support women in Africa who have experienced genocide, war and extreme loss. Amani ya Juu, Swahili for “Peace from Above”, is a sewing and business training project for women in Africa that recently became a member of the Fair Trade Federation.

Becky Chinchen, founder of Amani ya Juu. Bobby Pall Photography.

I went through the emotional roller coaster experience of loss

Becky Chinchen could have lived an idyllic life enjoying long summer days on the Tennessee River and mild winters in her hometown of Chattanooga. Instead, she found herself fleeing from a Liberian civil war with her husband and daughters in 1996. A refugee herself, she landed in Nairobi and never forgot the feeling of loss and helplessness. But, the very emotions that once dehumanized her became the source of inspiration for a social economic company she fostered to support victims of genocide throughout Africa. It is called Amani ya Juu, Swahili for “peace from above.”

Seventeen years later, Executive Director Chinchen sits in the Nairobi headquarters of her growing international company. She feels validation that Amani ya Juu was recently recognized as a member of the Fair Trade Federation. What started in her living room now profoundly impacts women and their children in countries that have suffered the worst atrocities of African tribal genocides.

"I went through the emotional roller coaster experience of loss," Chinchen said in Nairobi. "The feeling that life comes to a halt; the feeling of being a lesser being because life is in limbo due to the inability to plan or live a life of purpose; the feeling of being a burden to society as you have to depend on others for shelter and food; the loss of dignity. Everything is unpredictable, uncertain, unknown.”

Those emotions helped her transform. Chinchen’s organization is brimming with victims of all ages and walks of life. However, they are all women living on their own after losing family members to death or displacement due to civil wars. While most had no marketable skills these “victims” are now thriving entrepreneurs working in a cooperative, production-oriented organization.

Fleeing Burundi

Diana, 37, crafts stuffed animals at Amani. Like other women at the Kenyan center, she doesn't want to use her last name. Even in the safety of Amani, fear of tribal retaliation runs deep.

Diana's family was Hutu living in Burundi when civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into her country. Rwandan forces imprisoned her mother, a government employee. Diana, newly married and a young mother, fled with her husband and lived in the forest of the Congo. She is not sure for how long.

"I was crying every day," Diana says through tears, "I did not know where my parents were."
But she knew she needed to survive and eat for her breastfeeding infant.

"I ate so many things -- snails, snakes," says Diana.

Finally, Diana and her family found safety in Nairobi. There she learned that her parents were dead.
Diana heard about the Amani center through her church. Though Amani helps Diana generate income, she still struggles. She uses her income for her children's school fees. She bought a sewing machine for her house so she could work from home while trying to make a better life for her family.
At the Amani center, Diana is a smiling and laughing presence. She works alongside Tutsi women.
"Yes, the Tutsis are here," says Diana, "but the spiritual atmosphere that is here does not bring out the hatred that I felt."

Finding Amani

Becky Chinchen still lives in Nairobi and supports the leadership and development of Amani centers in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Liberia as well as Washington, DC and the warehouse in Chattanooga, TN. At the website, amaniafrica.org, customers can find African jewelry, bags, accessories, home decor, and baby items--handmade by African women.

What started in 1996 as a feeling of helplessness in Chinchen has become a system for offering skills training in sewing, leadership mentoring, counseling, professional and ethical business practices as well as production of quality accessories and home furnishing items. At Amani a product provides a path. More than independence, income and stability, Amani provides hope of life with meaning to those who have experienced great loss. Whether life takes the women of Amani to their homelands or a new home, they carry the peace of Amani.

Amani ya Juu is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, faith-based organization committed to holistic development. It is celebrating its new membership with the Fair Trade Federation which ensures that money from the items sold makes it back to the women.

How to help Amani ya Juu make a difference

What: Back-to-School

Where: amaniafrica.org

When: Now through August 24th

Contact: usa@amaniafrica.org

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