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Shanga Christmas Decorations Transform Tanzanians' Lives

Shanga Christmas Decorations Transform Tanzanians' Lives
Shanga now employs 34 deaf and blind people to make Christmas decorations.
Photograph: Adam Woodhams

THE GUARDIAN [14/12/2010]

Festive decorations don't have to come from Chinese factories via high street shops. A project called Shanga gives work to profoundly disabled adults in Africa – and from just £4 you can buy their creations.

 It started with a Christmas fair four years ago in the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha. Saskia Rechsteiner, the well-to-do wife of a local landowner, had a passion for jewellery, and made some Masai-style necklaces out of her children's old marbles and beads and some local fabrics. When they sold out almost immediately and local traders asked for more, Saskia realised she had a potential business on her hands. But what transformed Shanga from an arts and crafts sideline into a rather more noble enterprise came the day Saskia employed her first assistant.

Niwaeli is profoundly deaf and mute. "I sat with her at the back of the house and started making necklaces. She couldn't read or write. She had never had any education, and no ability in sign language. She was a fabulous girl and a fabulous worker. And, through her, I started to become aware of how the disabled were being treated.

"Virtually no one who is deaf receives an education in Tanzania. Disability is regarded as a curse on a family and they are kept wholly indoors. You never see a disabled person on the street here. Families feel embarrassed and humiliated to have someone who is disabled – they're unloved, and there are no facilities for them. To be honest, it was something I never expected to feel so strongly about."

Rechsteiner, 39, born in Malawi to a Dutch family in the flower export business, was schooled in Holland and studied in Paris and London before returning to Africa, but has since devoted herself to working with the deaf and blind in Tanzania.

Within a few months of the Christmas fair orders for Shanga's necklaces started coming in from as far away as Kenya and Zanzibar, with many sold by safari companies to tourists. Saskia decided to take on eight more deaf female workers.

"I began to realise how much you could transform people's lives," she says. "I came across an abandoned building next to a coffee estate that a safari company used to keep its vehicles in. It was full of muck and oil, and was about to be demolished, but I got it rent-free. Working with Mussa, a local Masai, we began clearing it and turning into a full-scale workshop. We called it the River House."

She opened a small restaurant, and convinced tour companies taking visitors to the Serengeti and climbers to Kilimanjaro to stop by for lunch. She took visitors around the workshops, introducing them to the workers and encouraged them to buy items from the shop. But she never asked for donations. Saskia has been determined to run Shanga on commercial lines, employing as many deaf people as possible by building a business rather than relying on charitable support.

"I've never had a business plan or worked out cash flows. I just try to keep it as simple as possible – helping deaf people by teaching them skills and enabling them to earn a decent income. Hopefully we'll be able to offer more jobs to physically challenged people whose life would otherwise be one of total hardship."

All the profits, she says, go back into expanding the company. Shanga now employs 34 deaf and blind people, although the waiting list for jobs, Saskia says, is endless. It was Mussa who designed the Christmas stars. William, both deaf and physically challenged, has become Shanga's chief designer. He works with Mussa and Maria making the glass stars and Christmas trees.

Shanga is selling them in 15 different colours (to order from the website at shanga.org), at £4 for two, which compares rather well with Marks & Spencer's £3.50 metal Christmas tree decorations and John Lewis's £4 star-shaped felt ones. Orders go through theafricahouse.co.uk, a British website which can securely handle payments.

"We're not an NGO, and we're not a charity," Saskia says. "I can't bear the idea some people have, that the only thing we can do in Africa is hold out our hands for money. What we want to do is make a good-quality product that people want to buy, and which helps so many deaf people earn a salary who otherwise would have nothing."

Not that Saskia is averse to persuading anyone who can help develop the project. Over the past year she has focused on using recycled materials in everything Shanga produces. Two years ago she was using imported beads. Now they are all made from local bottles melted down in the workshops, although Shanga is particularly short of red glass. Might anyone, she asks, have some waste red glass they'd like to send her?

Saskia acknowledges that at times things have been tough, including some months when she wouldn't have been able to pay salaries without help – particularly from her parents. She's especially thankful to a British photographer, Adam Woodhams, who has worked "tirelessly and unpaid" and helped set up Shanga's website.

And Niwaeli? When Saskia first met her she was a very unhappy girl who had a hard time integrating with other people. But she learned to sew, and then went on not just to learn sign language but to teach it too, with free classes available to anyone in the Arusha community.

Niwaeli has also become the head of the Shanga necklace department – processing export orders and in charge of quality control. "She is a happy, smiley, fantastic girl who is going to go very far at Shanga. She lives in a nice house with Basley, who will be Tanzania's first glass blower. They are completely independent of their families now and are highly respected in and outside of Shanga," says Saskia.

This Christmas will be Shanga's fourth anniversary. When Guardian Money contacted the project this week we wondered if it might be able to cope with a surge in orders. By the next day it had already begun boxing up packages ready to send. So if you want to make your festive tree a bit closer to the original message of Christmas, take a look at shanga.org. Oh, and the stuff is genuinely good value, too.

Visit site: http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/nov/13/shanga-christmas-decorations#start-of-comments