- a woman in Africa.
Maybe you've already bought a Coffee Beanies hat, maybe you're considering - or maybe you're just curious. We exist to help women like Maria Floria who live in the poorest parts of the world, and who can't earn enough to survive in the agricultural work that is their only option. The vast majority of our knitters are coffee farmers, which is why we call our hats coffee hats in English.
Sheltered from the sun in a corner of the mall, an apparently elderly woman stands bravely ready for an interview. Maria Floria, 45. And with those facts in place, all recognizability between her world and mine ceases. The face is still cut to its original fine proportions, but the freshness has long since dried up. What remains is an old person who, despite the heat of the day, is wrapped in layers of dress and Africa wax fabric. Her attire is not haphazard. I ask how her daily life is shaping up, and she replies, "I'm constantly thinking about how I'm going to get food." The layers of clothing cover a body that has never gotten what it needed. Everything comes according to that need.
I will never understand the trauma of poverty this woman must be in. When you don't have food for more than dinner and even not every day, when do all the other things we as human beings can be united in caring about begin and end. Who cares who is president of the United States at the moment. Whether the neighbours have split up or whether the road is getting broadband this year. There are questions I can't muster the temerity to ask, but right here is Maria Floria who knows the answers.
On the edge, do you think more about yourself or your children? Is there a point at which the pendulum of maternal love tips and the mathematics of biology takes over, dictating that you should eat for yourself rather than your malnourished child, so that the other children still have a mother? All of Mary's 7 survived. And the two youngest are well on their way in the big classes of primary school now. The four eldest now live in Kigali and are trying to make a living there, one of whom has become a soldier, she says proudly. The big four are not her biological children. They came in the total marriage package back in 1995, when her husband had been widowed and had sent out a messenger to scout for possible subjects to marry. The offer was passed on to Maria, 15 years younger and unmarried at 24, who was then living on her own and thus in a position not to turn down a marriage offer.
When Maria accepted and said yes to the strange man, she did not know that he was ill with a broken shoulder that would prove to leave him bedridden and unable to work. When I ask if he is a good man with a good heart the answer is a brief nod and a hmm sound which my male interpreter chooses to translate with a resounding "yes". Well, I don't know? A bedridden widower married the year after one of history's worst genocides, where no one knew who had been the executioner or the victim, and four full-grown livers to boot. A resounding "yes" would probably not have been my first guess for an honest answer. But all I can get out of Maria under the current interview framework.
The HIV centre became a huge bright spot in the family's life. Ten years ago, when the project started, Maria heard in passing that there was a place where help was available. Her youngest was small and malnourished and she immediately qualified for the programme. Every Tuesday since, she has enjoyed being in the community with women and their children in similar situations. They have shared in all the benefits the project has offered in the form of school fees, uniforms, health insurance, a share in the harvest, home visits, sewing and knitting groups and Saturday meals for several years. When the truth comes out - in reverse order. For although Mary sneaks a grateful peek as she describes the community, she is quite clear in her voice when asked what has been more significant, the help or the community? Then she promptly answers "the help". Ten years of faithful service to people on the edge. It still makes you very happy on a morning like this, in the midst of someone else's incredible reality.
Aimee and Morten got the idea for Coffee Beanies on their trip in 2017.
Aimee with knitting coach Lise before Lise's trip to Burundi in August 2021.
Coffee Beanies are inspired by projects like an HIV centre we visited while living in Rwanda and Burundi. When the centre was founded 14 years ago, there were lots of children from AIDS affected families who were losing the game of survival. A Danish couple, Hanne and Hartvig Weber-Hansen, brought 100 of the children and their families together and ensured their survival. Lise who is our knitting trainer in Coffee Beanies is the daughter of the couple. She and her husband Jep have been surrounded by the stories of Africans since their youth and have always known that one day they would probably go there again. So cool that it happened. We have high hopes that many families may gain hope by knitting their way to a better future. Read my interview with one of the women at the centre here.