“What can I create this afternoon?”
Sonja Parkinson’s hand moved across her shelves stacked with fabric and beads, as we stood in her office cluttered with bags of clothing, an ironing board and a sewing machine.
I repeated her question in my head– I loved its whimsicality. I don’t think it is a question I’ve ever asked of myself.
Sonja is an artist, and her art is Mitumba Art (www.mitumbaart.com). Mitumba is a Swahili word that refers to packages of used clothing.
Do you ever wonder what happens to your Salvation Army shoe and clothing donations?
Items that don’t sell in the U.S. get sorted by type and quality and are then bundled into large bales which eventually make their way to the developing world. Transported by merchants, they end up at mitumbas, which are large open air markets that provide millions of Africans with quality shoes and clothing at cheap prices.
Saturday is the big day for the mitumba market in Nanyuki, Kenya, and my friend Jennifer and I were keen to check it out. It’s boisterous and chaotic, but you soon begin to appreciate its organization. We walked through the section for fleeces, turning to find women’s sundresses and then men’s sandals. The guy standing atop a clothing pile whipping out hilarious one-liners to shoppers while modeling the young women’s clothing he was seeking to sell remains imprinted in my mind.
Mitumba Art began as a hobby for British-born entrepreneur, Sonja. A regular visitor to Kenya’s mitumba markets, she began buying cotton and linen clothes as raw material to create unique hand-painted cushion covers, table runners, and napkins. Keen on giving back to the Kenyan community she loves, Sonja began employing young, disadvantaged, talented locals in her workshop.
Ten years later, Sonja’s customers include Kenyan locals, tourists and shops overseas. Sonja now employs 16 painters, tailors and beaders. The product range has expanded to tailored clothing, soft furnishings and curtains, as well as Mitumba Art’s traditional hand-painted goods. Nothing goes to waste–one second-hand shirt can become a cushion cover and a wine bottle bag, while the sleeves can be used in making beaded cuff bracelets.
However, what Sonja is most proud of is that she can provide Kenyans with a regular income while furthering their talents, allowing them to determine their own and their children’s future. Sonja even employs interns, including a recent Daraja Academy graduate, Fatuma.
Not possessing Sonja and Fatuma’s creative talents, I will likely never ask myself the question “what should I create this afternoon?”
But I sought to contribute to this global business circle, purchasing a stack of Fatuma’s hand-painted cards and several pieces from Sonja’s team as souvenirs. May my friends and family enjoy!