If you find yourself overwhelmed by all the problems around you, it might be hard to believe that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. In her book How to Make an African Quilt: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Segou, Mali (Nighthawk Press), Bonnie Lee Black shows us that the desire to help other women, combined with vision and taking action can change lives.
Bonnie went to Gabon, Central Africa, through the Peace Corps, in 1996, at the age of 51, to teach health and nutrition to women. After her two years of service, she realized she loved Africa so much that she wanted to stay longer. So she traveled to Segou, Mali, and continued to look for ways of being of service. When a group of Malian seamstresses visiting Bonnie’s house saw a wall quilt that she made and one of the women asked her what it was, Bonnie replied, “Patchwork.” The seamstress said, “We must learn how to do that,” and Bonnie’s next project, The Patchwork Project of Segou, Mali, was born. For her remaining nearly three years in Mali, she taught Malian seamstresses how to do patchwork quilting, in the hopes that one day their work could be sold over the Internet.
In the book, Bonnie describes her feeling of being at home in Africa. She says, “For reasons even I didn’t fully understand, I felt I must stay.” As she taught groups of women how to quilt, she was accepted and embraced as a sister by the women of the Patchwork Project. The women who learned to quilt saw the way that the project could make a difference in their lives. One of Bonnie’s students, Fatou Sogoba, said:
“The Patchwork Project is a good project of development. It is a project that can succeed here because Malian textiles are very rich. It will also permit women to have money, which will make them economically independent.”
At a recent book release event in Taos, New Mexico, Bonnie shared more about the reasons that quilting was a natural craft for the women of Mali. The area has a long history of growing cotton and using it for textiles. Bonnie said, “The people of Mali are proud of their traditions, and their love of cotton runs deep.” She said that all the steps in producing cotton goods are performed in Mali, from growing cotton to weaving fabric to celebrating the creation of beautiful clothing and wall hangings. Because it is so hot in Mali year-round, the idea of using a quilt to keep warm at night was a foreign one. But the women of Segou immediately saw how scraps of fabric could be used, rather than wasted, to produce a beautiful cloth blanket for people in colder climates. The women attended Bonnie’s classes to learn how to quilt with the intent that they would continue to teach other women. The classes also undertook commissions, such as a large quilt to be given as a wedding present to Bonnie’s nephew and his new bride.
When Bonnie said that she felt at home in Africa, some of the women commented that Bonnie had surely been African in a former life. In contemplating this possibility, Bonnie began to envision herself as a young girl born in Mali, but stolen by slave traders. Bonnie’s vision of herself in a former life, as a woman named Jeneba, becomes yet another square stitched into the many stories in her new book that create a patchwork pattern.
The fictional character of Jeneba was a slave on a plantation in South Carolina. She eventually bears children, fathered by the plantation owner. Jeneba is also a quilt maker who uses her designs to help show the way to escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. By the end of the book, Jeneba’s story comes together with the quilters of Mali, showing how lives that have been unraveled can be made whole again.
For more on Bonnie and her work with the Peace Corps and in Mali, read our profile here or visit Bonnie’s website.