As we prepare for the final month in the year and our second Christmas in South Africa, I can’t help but feel a sincere sense of gratitude for all that God has done for and shown us this year. He’s seen us through surgeries, and travel abroad, and kept us healthy and fed, and provided all the other things we generally take for granted until their acute and unexpected absence is felt.
Yesterday I was reflecting on some of the skills we’ve collectively acquired as a result of living outside of the US. The kids have become strong(er) swimmers, Aya and Stone have learned to write in cursive (a skill that is dying thanks to the data/tech push in the West) and we’re all learning how to be a bit more still. Stillness is not something that easy to adjust to when you’ve been brought up or lived in a fast paced community like Atlanta, GA. For my part, part of that stillness has been learning to sew, a prospect and a task that has terrified me for many years.
I learned everything I know about sewing from a 10-minute tutorial with the lady who sold me my machine in Cape Town and YouTube University. As a result, I’ve become pretty adept at making tote bags and was able to fill in for the supplier of our local deli while she was away on vacation in Asia. When she returned, she saw my work in the shop and asked me to join her at lunch to discuss the totes. I was pretty excited going into the conversation because while though I know that the chances of me becoming of billionaire off of the labor of making and selling totes are slim, it would be nice to generate some sort of income from my newfound skill.
The lady and I formed an instant connection, both genuinely fascinated with one another. She was amazed that I could juggle four kids, and I was impressed that she’d stuck to her convictions about never having at all. (She’s now in her 50s.) We talked about plastic waste, Jim Crow and apartheid and the differences in the pace of life in South Africa and the US. I discovered that she’d gone to fashion school in New York in the 80’s. However, she dressed like a woman for whom the nuances of fashion were a bother, and I liked that about her. Finally, we got to the point of the meeting: She wanted me to join her in making the totes as part of her campaign to rid our town of what she calls the Blight of Plastic. I leaned in and smiled eagerly as she began talking numbers.
“I offer R15 per bag,” she began. “I was offering more, initially, because the straps were such a beast to construct…but now that I’ve seen what you were able to do with the alternative by eliminating that portion of the labor…”
“Yes,” I finished. “Using the luggage strapping does take out a considerable portion of the time spent making the bags.”
Essentially, she was saying that my innovation (using luggage strapping) had increased the value of the bag, but decreased what she was willing to pay for the labor. My smile turned tepid as I contemplated her offer.
At today’s market rate, R15 is $1.09. It takes me approximately one hour to make a bag. Sure, I’m not expecting to become a billionaire off of tote making, but I had hoped at least to make enough money to contribute towards school fees, which are increasing next year. I’d have to sew 10,000 bags to make a dent towards that goal. I giggled at the absurdity of it all.
And then I told her I’d be happy to join her when the time came. She breathed a sigh of relief, admitting that she’s already burned out several seamstresses during this campaign.
“The orders are just too large for one person to fulfill,” she said. “One of my friends gave up after I requested 75 bags.”
I advised her to assemble a team and spread the labor.
You may be asking yourself why I would even consider taking on this task, given the minuscule returns. I pondered the same thing. $1.09 is about what seamstresses working in sweatshop conditions earn. I had to look at the opportunity from a different perspective. While I have learned a lot about sewing from YouTube, it cannot give me the same practical instruction as someone who has graduated from fashion school. She already pointed out that while my bags are sturdy, the handles are a weak point because of the stitching I used. She would be willing to show me how to improve that area. In effect, I wouldn’t be losing an hour of my day per bag…I would be EARNING $1.09 to learn a new skill. Essentially, she will pay me to study.
Like you, I’ve had other moments like this in my life – scenarios where I’ve slapped away the hand of God for presenting an opportunity or gift that didn’t look like God. We often look for God in the big things. The evidence of His power lies in whether we have a big house, or a big car, or a big paycheck, or big (important) followers on social media. However, I am reminded of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 that says:
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
Be encouraged, my family, and remember to look for God in the small things. 🙂