by Guest Contributor Brent A. Birkhoff
It’s a story I will never forget. I had met Mary Ogwel a couple of years before and purchased some fabrics and authentic hand painted African art pieces for quilting. I spent a lot of money that day and then used those fabrics and art pieces to create some incredible quilts. It was then that I fell in love with African fabrics. My passion for sewing African quilts grew and grew.
I ran out of Mary’s fabrics quickly and searched 100 square miles worth of quilt stores to find African animal prints and designs. I made more and more African quilts of every style and design. So, you can imagine my delight when Tina and I decided to walk to the end of an aisle at the International Quilt Show near Chicago. There, at the very end of the aisle, was Mary, though I didn’t know her name until ten minutes later. We instantly recognized her and her fabrics.
Mary was as jovial and delightful as ever. I shared all my pictures of two years worth of quilt making, showing her how her fabrics and art pieces came to life. I instantly fell in love with this very dear woman. For Mary, it all started years ago after Mary’s mother had a minor stroke. Living in Africa, she had $40 to her name and began to walk the long distance to the doctor. On her way, Mary’s mom encountered two young boys, around 7 years and 1 year old. The boys were wandering aimlessly, causing Mary’s mom grave concern. She asked where their mother was and the answer changed her life and Mary’s.
The oldest boy, dirty and hungry, looked up at her and said that their mother was asleep and they could not wake her up. She offered to help. As she walked into the house and encountered the boys’ mother, she quickly realized that she was dead. The boys were all alone with no one to care for them. Mary’s mother instantly decided to forgo the visit to the doctor and spent her last $40 to bury the boys’ mom near their house.
Following the burial, she turned to Mary and told her, “This cannot happen again.” She instructed Mary to put up a sign in the village to gather all the women once every month. “What were the women going to do when they got together?” Mary asked. The answer was simple but profound. “Anything they want,” her mother replied. “They can weave baskets, knit, sew, or just talk but they need to be together.”
With a stick, a sign, and a lot of doubt, Mary put up her first sign. But God was with her. On the day the women were to gather, several women showed up. The next month several more and more and more and more. The women gathered and began to take care of each other. And, Mary’s mother? She unfortunately had a major stroke a couple of months later and passed away due to the lack of medical care but her dream and her love lives on.
Today, there are 114 villages through Africa where the women gather and take care of each other. And, Mary? Mary takes care of them. Mary returns from America to Africa for three months at a time visiting as many villages she can, buying fabrics and hand-painted art, bringing it back for quilters throughout America. There is no website. There is just Mary, her fabrics, and the love of her family that extends across the globe.
I love Mary. I love her fabrics and I love the African women she takes care of regardless of which continent she is on. And her mother’s spirit lives on and is still changing lives on a number of continents. One vision, one stick, and one sign. Mary’s doubt became a love and a mission to help support women and every dollar brought back ensures that no woman will ever die alone in 114 villages and growing.