Dignity by design

Don’t buy products from differently-able people out of pity, says Susie Hart, a social entrepreneur who founded Neema Crafts in Tanzania and who now leads Craft Aid International

“Are you the elephant dung lady?” is a question I used to get asked regularly.

These days I’m known more for directing Craft Aid International, a Christ-centred charity that enables and empowers people with disabilities through social enterprise and therapeutic craft activities in the UK and in the developing world. But yes, it all began with elephant dung.

You couldn’t have a more inauspicious beginning: a young Church Mission Society mission partner and three young deaf men working in a small rented room in Iringa, Tanzania, with nothing but a sack of elephant dung (which I taught them to make into paper) and a start-up budget of £400.

Due to the huge stigma attached to having a disability in Tanzania, all the local people felt it would come to nothing: “Why is she working with deaf people? They won’t be able to do anything. She’ll take her photos and go home.”

But fortunately it wasn’t my project; it wasn’t even my idea. I knew it was the Lord’s and he blessed and grew it time and again, so that by the time I left we were employing over 120 people with a huge range of disabilities.

Susie Hart with elephant dung
The early years: Susie holds elephant dung, which she and three young deaf men turned into stationery…and Neema Crafts was born

Every single one of those people was lifted out of extreme poverty and degradation to a position of dignity, able to support themselves and their families through the work of their highly-skilled hands. Most importantly, they’ve dramatically changed attitudes towards people with disabilities in their community, across Tanzania and even globally, since their stories are told all over the world. Neema Crafts is now self-sustaining. We’ve got a model that works and we want to help churches all over the developing world to set up similar enterprises, tailored to their specific needs and environment.

That’s why, after returning to the UK in 2012, I set up Craft Aid International: first, to provide weekly therapeutic craft workshops for people with disabilities living in Leeds, Ripon and Harrogate (where I’m now based) and second, to start planting social enterprises like Neema Crafts with partnering churches in other developing countries where differently-able people still live in abject poverty.

We’re passionate about design, about quality, about providing the customer with a truly desirable, well-made product and we’re passionate about lifting differently-able people out of poverty by teaching them the skills needed to make such a product. Note that we are not interested in selling mediocre crafts to people based on their sympathy for the person who made it. Quite the opposite. We want customers to love the product first, then discover the story behind it and love that too – and hopefully have their eyes opened and their hearts changed in the process.

It’s not just the developing world where there’s stigma attached to disability; speaking as a disabled-born person myself and a mother of a disabled child, I can vouch for this personally. Transforming attitudes towards people with disabilities is as important to us as creating employment for them because, realistically, no project we help plant will ever be able to employ all the differently-able people in that community. But if we can change local attitudes then other employers may consider employing them too. This is something we have seen firsthand in Tanzania, which would have been unthinkable before Neema Crafts was established.

In essence, we are helping to restore the image of God in people who have been written off by their society as less than fully made in his image.

Artisan at Neema Crafts


Jane making a pencil case at Neema Crafts, one of more than 100 differently-able employees

Some people will be uncomfortable with the idea that a disabled person is made in God’s image. What does that phrase mean though? Does God have a physical body, with arms and legs, hands and feet? No. As I understand it, being made in the image of God means that we reflect his characteristics: the ability to create, to love, to forgive…this applies to a differently-able person just as much as to anyone else. Getting their communities and sometimes even their own families to recognise this is something we strive for in everything we do.

You may wonder how the artisans feel about having their stories told. They’re delighted. When I first started meeting differently-able people in Tanzania they described themselves as “forgotten people”. Excluded from opportunities available to their able-bodied peers educationally, socially, emotionally, economically, even spiritually; laughed at and spat on or at best ignored, they were among the poorest of the poor in body, mind and spirit, the most vulnerable and the most marginalised in their societies.

We’re currently working with a small church in Peru to establish a new social enterprise in the city of Arequipa and I was struck when I talked to differently-able people there – they describe themselves in exactly the same way: as forgotten people. To have their stories told, their successes celebrated, their talents and abilities recognised, is the stuff of dreams for many of them. (To find out more about our new social enterprise in Peru, see our three-minute film at www.craftaidinternational.org.)

As for me, what keeps me going? What motivates me? Well, I guess first, the call that I believe God put on my heart 16 years ago: to use my skills as an artist and craftsperson to serve people with disabilities in the developing world. Next, I understand what it is like to be different and to be unable to do the things that your peers can; I understand the frustration and the injustice of people’s negative attitudes and I have a desire to be a voice and a springboard for people with similar challenges. I was born with no ball and socket in my left hip and had 22 major operations by the time I was 19 years old to give me the mobility that I have today.

But don’t feel sorry for me – or anyone else in a similar position. Being born different can become a superpower.

Craft Aid project in Peru


Artisan working at the Craft Aid International project in Peru

I had thousands of hours in hospital that I used to hone my skills as an artist that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I also have determination by the bucket-load, something common to many people who’ve had similar challenges. You’ll meet blind people who can tell the dimensions of a room just by the echoes their footsteps make and deaf people who can feel the rhythm of music in a way a hearing person never could and dance you off the dance floor. “Disability” is such a misnomer.

Above all, what keeps me going is love. Specifically, the kind of radical, counter-cultural love that Jesus modelled for us in the way he sought out and served people on the margins, the kind of love that compels us to spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry, to bind up the brokenhearted and to preach good news to the poor in word and deed.

And finally, a deep belief that we were never intended just to be beneficiaries of the kingdom of God, but its agents. Jesus didn’t go to a cross just so we could go to heaven when we die, but so that we would be the means through which he would bring the kingdom of heaven to earth while we live. Putting my skills and abilities at his disposal to serve the needs of differently-able people in the developing world is my particular way of living that out. It’s a way that I believe he has called me to, and a road that it is my daily privilege to walk with him.

The Call in Action: PRAY

  • For Neema Crafts, which is now led by Ben and Katy Ray of Church Mission Society, that it will continue to flourish and provide differently-able people with meaningful employment
  • For Craft Aid International that it will be able to work with churches to set up similar enterprises throughout the world
  • For differently-able people throughout the world to experience dignity, respect and empowerment
Published 25 August 2016
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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