Refugees from Africa piece together American culture as they quilt
April 14, 2010 8:00 AM
Burundian refugee Anna Mbakeshimana, in yellow, jokes with Janice Parks, far left, and Agnes Sloan. In the background are refugees, front to back: Masiaghbeh Donso from Liberia and Patricia Minani, Virginia Niyizigama and Matilda Ntahondarusanga from Burundi.
Burundian refugees Patricia Minani, left, Anna Mbakeshimana and Virginia Niyizigama observe as Agnes Sloan demonstrates a machine sewing technique for quilting. In the background is Matilda Ntahondarusanga.
By Bette McDevitt
An extraordinary quilting bee takes place Saturday mornings at the Young Men and Women's African Heritage Association on the North Side. In a sunlit room, women from Burundi who came here as refugees seeking asylum are learning the craft of African-American quilt-making.
The women from the East African nation came to quilting through a local nonprofit organization called AJAPO, for Acculturation, Justice, Access and Peace Outreach. Its purpose is to help refugees from Africa and the Caribbean make their way through a new culture.
With local quilters, the Burundi women intend to create a cottage industry making quilts to sell. As they quilt and talk, they will get to what Janice Parks, director of the heritage association, calls the heart of the issue.
"We, as African-Americans, are the end of a long line," Ms. Parks said.
"Irish people, for example, were met by people from their homeland, and when African people come here, they are met by systems, not by people who reflect them," she said.
On a recent morning, the women held strips of brightly colored cloth that they had sewn together. Ms. Parks talked about the next step: "A quilt is like a peanut butter sandwich. It has a top, middle and a bottom."
She paused while Dismas Dizimana of AJAPO translated her words into Rundi, the language of Burundi. Agnes Sloan and Anna Redman, members of the Nia Quilters Guild, circulated among the Burundi women, scrutinizing the stitching of the beginners.
"We call this 'mama stitching,' " Ms. Redman said. "That means you have to tear it out if it isn't good enough."
The Nia Quilters Guild formed seven years ago when the center received a donation of 100 disaster blankets for the foster children who receive services there. Ruth Ward, a master quilter, taught some volunteers how to quilt duvets to cover the blankets; they have been quilting together and teaching others ever since. In Swahili, nia means "reason for being," and for many, quilting in the community has become that.
Ms. Parks unfolded a large quilt pieced by her great-grandmother more than 100 years ago. She explained its Log Cabin pattern -- a block in the middle with longer strips surrounding it -- and showed them photos of cabins in the South, where the slaves had lived. The Burundi women related to the cabin as a "house where cows lived."
"That works," Ms. Parks said, "because we weren't treated as well as cows."
Ms. Parks explained how quilts helped people escape slavery. "The Underground Railroad had no trains but was a series of hiding places for slaves running away to freedom. One way they would know the next safe house was through a series of signs, sometimes a lamp in the window or the way rocks were stacked on the road, and sometimes a quilt hanging on the clothesline."
She later acknowledged that there is no consensus on the markers that signified safe houses.
"We argue about it all the time in the quilting community," she said. "Remember, there was not a lot of literacy here, no signs saying 'Eat at Joe's.' There had to be other signs, bent twigs, stones on the path, and why couldn't quilts hanging on a line have been a part of it?"
A few years ago, Ms. Parks packed up the Log Cabin quilt, made from shirt, skirt and flour sack scraps, and carried it with her to Gee's Bend, Ala., where she and others from the local group spend a month each summer.
Gee's Bend quilters have a distinctive quilting style based on traditional American and African-American quilts, with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art. Pittsburghers have a special bond with the quilters of Gee's Bend, who come here, as they will in October, to conduct workshops.
The connection with Gee's Bend came about through a Pittsburgh woman, Annie Pettway, whose relatives live there. When Ms. Parks went to Gee's Bend with Ms. Pettway five years ago, Ms. Parks made a bold request.
"In the adult Sunday school class, I stood up and asked if some of us from Pittsburgh could come back. I told them what we wanted to do, just be there and live among them. Some folks were not happy about this. They were tired of giving themselves away, with their art not being valued.
"I told them the truth, that we didn't have any money, and we didn't want anything, other than to be there among them. So now we go every summer, rent a farmhouse and quilt with them."
The story of Ms. Parks' old family quilt raised questions among the women from Burundi. Why was it not made of "tree skins or animal skins," the materials that their ancestors used? Ms. Parks told them about the use of cotton and wool in the 19th century in this country.
"Our ancestors made clothes for their masters and kept scraps for themselves. Our people owned no clothes, no food and didn't even own themselves.
"Other people owned us," she said. Here, she came to the heart of the issue.
"Yet, 350 years later, I stand here, based on the strength that came from you all."
She named every woman at the table. "And, because of 350 years in the country, I come from people [with a variety of heritages]. I would look very different if I only came from you. We have to tell the whole story, not only half the story. African-Americans are no longer all African."
When Beulline Ndikumana, one of the Burundi women, asked, "Who owns this country?" Ms. Parks was ready.
"We do, and when you take your citizenship test, the country will belong to you, too."