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DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas (KXAN) — About 30 miles outside of Austin, in a quaint Dripping Springs neighborhood, a transformative project is taking place that is changing the lives of women in Kenya.
It’s happening in Anne Drane’s home. She’s the co-founder and CEO of non-profit Sawa Sawa.
“It’s one of those things you say all the time in Swahili. It means ‘it’s going to be OK’ or ‘equal equal’ — Sawa Sawa,” Drane said.
The organization’s mission is to empower artisan women in Kenya to make a sustainable living by harnessing ancient craftmanship in weaving, beading and art.
Sawa Sawa started as a hobby in 2014, when Drane moved to Texas from her native Kenya.
“I wanted a few things from home, so I told my mom to go to the villages and get me the authentic Kenyan stuff,” Drane explained.
She said the women, from poor, remote villages in Kenya, would walk for miles to sell those items — like purses and jewelry — to her mom.
“They have such beautiful things that they make, and the skills have been honed for generations and generations,” Drane said. “It makes no sense that they should be poor. There should be an outlet for their work.”
Drane created that outlet through Sawa Sawa. Her organization helps the women perfect their beading and weaving skills and empowers them to sell their products across the world. Her home in Dripping Springs has become a warehouse for their products. She said the profits have been life-changing for the women in Kenya.
“When we started, they didn’t have enough food to feed their own families, so it’s so beautiful to see the women you are working with are thriving and their children are going to school,” Drane said.
Drane’s friend and board member, Angelica Reyes Johnson, has watched the change unfold from the moment Drane formalized Sawa Sawa into an official 501(c)(3) non-profit.
“If you are able to provide a sustainable income to a female weaver, you’re helping the entire village,” Johnson said.
To get a full understanding of just how this organization works, KXAN asked Drane to document her most recent trip to Kenya in February. The videos and photos she provided offer an inside look at the process behind the creations.
“Every process is done by hand. They harvest the agave, they strip it by hitting it on a tree until the fiber comes out of it, they roll it on their thighs until it makes string and then they dye it with onions or soot from the ceiling,” Drane explained. “They turn that soot into the brown that makes the bag, and they weave everything by hand. It takes three weeks to make one bag.”
Every color displayed on the bags has a special meaning and tells a story.
“The orange is friendship and generosity. The blue is from the nutrition and from the sky that gives us rain,” Drane said. “They use colors from nature to make such beautiful patterns, which is how they pass on messages and history of individual families. You can trace individual family lines with how they weave their bags.”
Drane spent most of February and part of March in Kenya helping the nearly 100 women who are part of Sawa Sawa making bags and beaded jewelry. But her mission isn’t solely focused on craftsmanship. Her non-profit brings clean water and drought relief to the remote villages, too.
On her most recent visit, she worked with a conservancy near many of the women’s villages. She explained that some of the women get involved in poaching to make extra money, which has resulted in a dwindling elephant and rhino population. Drane works to shift their focus to beading and weaving as a source of income.
“If they have money and they are busy, they will not be out there working with poachers, instead they will want to protect the environment,” Drane said.
Proceeds from Sawa Sawa also help fund reproductive health education in Kenya.
“We provide them with sanitary pads and underwear so they can have privacy, dignity and safety during their period,” Drane said.
She said she gets emotional seeing how far these women have come since becoming a part of Sawa Sawa.
“It’s about me helping them realize solutions to their own problems so they can own those solutions and work hard,” Drane said.