Life-changing skills

A Kiwanis member from New Zealand trains women in Vanuatu to sew, leading many to make their own money for the first time.

In March 2015, Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated the island nation of Vanuatu — and started Caroline Mason (below, left) on a path that would change countless lives. 

When Mason heard the news of the destruction, she wanted to help Vanuatu’s population, known as Ni-Vanuatu, or Ni-Van. She started taking up a collection of quilts for families on the islands. She ended up with 750 quilts in all.

“When I was delivering some of these quilts, a woman took me into her little home and showed me how the salty, muddy river had swept through her house and destroyed the hand-driven sewing machine she had,” Mason recalls. “The image of that muddy, rusty machine stayed with me after I returned home.”

That’s when Mason got an opportunity to do something more.

She learned that New Zealand Kiwanians had been shipping containers of supplies to Vanuatu for more than 20 years — everything from schoolbooks to furniture. So she joined the Kiwanis Club of Matamata, New Zealand, in January 2016. Now those Kiwanis-shipped containers also include the sewing machines, equipment and gear that Mason collects. 

It’s all headed nearly 2,000 miles across the sea to Vanuatu, as part of a project she named Threads Across the Pacific.

“New Zealand Kiwanis members have been wonderfully generous in providing the Threads project with as much container space as we need,” Mason says. “And the Port Vila (Vanuatu) Kiwanis Club has been marvelously supportive too. They process everything through port and customs and then store the machines and boxes until we arrive for the workshops.”

Those workshops are another crucial component of the program: Once in Vanuatu, the equipment is unloaded and delivered to a school building that has been chosen for a class headed by Mason and some of her friends. Ni-Van women are seated at school desks inside, ready to learn a skill that could change everything. 

They’re here to learn to sew.

It’s a special skill in a place like Vanuatu, where many people — tourists in particular — are ready to spend cash for handmade island products. If the women can sew well enough, they’ll earn more than money. They’ll earn independence and pride.

“The main goal of our workshops,” Mason says, “is to get electric sewing machines and sewing skills into the hands of Vanuatu women and schoolgirls — so they can either sew for themselves and their families or sell to other villagers or visitors arriving in cruise ships on the island. Secondly, we want to identify women who can go a step further and become sewing tutors to other women and girls.”

Johanna Taravaky may have the loveliest sewing machine in the room. In fact, she’s one of the few women in the workshop who owns her own — a hand-cranked, black and gold Singer with a distinct sound. Johanna laughs and asks others to listen. She’ll tell you it sings. Hers is one of only two manual machines — the others are newer electric versions that Mason has helped bring from New Zealand. (Mason then reveals a surprise: Each of the Ni-Van women will take a sewing machine home to keep after the workshop.) 

Taravaky is soft-spoken, but she will speak. Along with her spot-on sewing skills, that makes her something of a spokeswoman for this group of women who are generally very shy. 

“I’m talking on behalf of many of us, and we’re very happy,” Taravaky says. “For visitors to come and make workshops for us, this is our first time ever. For local mamas and their villages, we are very fortunate. We’re going to sew things for tourists. We’ll all work together. I’m very proud and very fortunate.”

At that, classmate Lina Willie speaks up in agreement.

“I’ve been sewing a lot, but most of it was not quality work like I’ve learned here,” Willie says. “I’m so excited to maybe sew things to sell and make money. I’m so excited because I’ve learned a lot.”

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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