The fabrics featured on Totonga Bomoi are the kind of riotous, fun collection of color and geometric prints that you rarely, if ever, find in an American mall. There’s a “Mobali neck tie” as bright yellow as a lemon rind, covered in checks with additional pattern inside. One of the totes for sale is made out of tan and gray hexagons, with a bright green design printed over them. Upon closer inspection, there are even 3-D squares with different colored patterns.
The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) buy these fabrics at their local market, and know the local and cultural significance of each cloth. They also know how to sew these fabrics into beautiful bags, ties and more. They just need someone to buy them.
Enter Katie Hile.
Denver Catholic Katie Hile is connecting these Congolese artisans with buyers here in the States.
“We believe that by honoring traditional roles of society, we can create sustainable communities capable of overcoming challenges where governments and NGOs have failed,” she said.
The DRC is located in Central Africa, a continent with a rapidly growing number of Catholics. According to a study published by Georgetown University, the number of Catholics in Africa increased by 238 percent from 1980 to 2012.
Hile was able to spend a year in Africa, ending in 2011, through a program run by the Canossian sisters. The sisters are perhaps most famous for St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave who joined their order in 1896.
Hile worked on a variety of community projects in Congo. She also lived a life of prayer and fellowship with the other volunteers and the sisters.
“Our days were shaped by service and prayer together,” Hile said. “That made the experience for me, the community aspect of what the sisters offered.”
During this time, a Congolese friend asked Hile for a $1,000 loan to build a house. Hile requested that her friend make 25 handbags in exchange for the money. The success of the exchange stayed with Hile even as she returned to the States.
“On my flight home, I imagined all the opportunities ahead, if we were to create a business,” Hile said. “In 2014, I returned to my friends in Congo and shared the many economic and social benefits that a cooperative would bring. In their resounding joy (and my own), I knew I had found my purpose.”
Hile combined her studies in Diplomacy and International Relations with the skills of women in the Congo to create a cooperative. She named it “Totonga Bomoi”, which means “build our future” in the Congolese language Lingala.
The artisans buy their cloth at their local markets. They then create bags, ties and more out of the fabric. Each product is handmade, and each product is unique. They also each come with a photo and the story of one of the artisans.
Hile helps with logistics, such as maintaining a working space for the women and making sure there are enough sewing machines and solar panels. However, she said the artisans are learning how to run businesses on their own and keep detailed budgets.
“I just ran the numbers, and in a two year period their income has more than doubled,” Hile said. “It’s definitely having an impact not just in the money they’re making, but that they’re working together and learning from each other and learning how to budget. It’s teaching them life skills that they are using not only to benefit themselves, but that they’ll teach to their children and community.”
Hile runs Totonga Bomoi from Denver, where she says she has found ample support for the project. In addition to receiving encouragement from neighboring non-profits, she has been invited to sell Totonga Bomoi products at parish fish fries and young adult gatherings. The success is allowing her to begin fundraising for a new cooperative that would employ men.
“Too often we’re presented with an image of Africa where men are lazy or driven only by conflict, but this is false. The continent is full of men who desire to work, to learn, and to serve their families. We want them to know that our social enterprise exists to serve them, too,” Hile said.
She said this also fits with Totonga Bomoi’s mission of strengthening communities by strengthening families. She said at no point has she considered making the program an opportunity for hand outs. She knows the artisans are capable of work and want to learn to provide for themselves. She just helps with logistics and connecting them with consumers.
“When I was in grad school, I studied arguments about development work vs. aid. Providing handouts isn’t going to lead to long-term success,” she said. “[Honest work] brings love and pride to the person.”
Hile said recent pontiffs have inspired her in this.
“I’m so inspired by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, just because of the amount of time they spent discussing family and human dignity. It really drives me in that sense, where I’m part of something bigger than myself,”she said.
She specifically pointed to paragraph 192 of Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel, in which the pope discusses the dignity of work.
“[I]t is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use,” Pope Francis wrote.
Hile said that based on her research, she is confident that millenials and others will be willing to buy products that they know benefits a community.
“Our customers and donors are interested in improving the livelihoods of our artisans and connecting,” she said.