By Kim Barto Meeks
Martinsville native Tenzi Chacha is using her love of fashion to empower African women.
Chacha’s TENZI brand features clothing and accessories made out of authentic East African fabric and sewn by women from remote villages in Tanzania. The project provides vocational training to the women as well as much-needed income to support their families, she said.
Her designs of colorful dresses, blouses, scarves, purses, and bow ties will be showcased and sold at an upcoming fundraiser for the City of Hope. The Festival of Hope will be held 4-6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19 at the Walker Theater on the campus of Patrick Henry Community College.
In addition to the fashion show, the event will include African dancing, singing, and storytelling. Students from the City of Hope orphanage in Ntagatcha, Tanzania who now attend school in Virginia will perform a drama telling the story of the center and how it changed their lives.
Tenzi is the daughter of City of Hope founders Dr. John and Regina Chacha. The center began in John Chacha’s home village of Ntagatcha in 2007 with a home for 110 orphaned children. The complex has since expanded with a primary school in 2009, a medical clinic in 2012, and, most recently, a secondary school.
The inspiration for TENZI Design came during the year Tenzi Chacha spent living abroad after graduating from Martinsville High School.
“My parents made each of us kids spend a gap year between high school and college volunteering at the City of Hope,” she said.
Her mother interjected. “Did we really ‘make you’?” Regina Chacha asked.
“Yes,” Tenzi said, laughing, “but it all worked out in the end. It was that time that helped me formulate this idea.”
After graduating from Liberty University in 2015 with a degree in business marketing and a minor in fashion, Tenzi spent time looking for work before finding her purpose.
“I finally heard God tell me, you should move to City of Hope,” she said. She still wanted to work in fashion, but decided, “I want to help people with my gift, not just affect the way you look.”
In January 2017, Tenzi moved back to Tanzania and began holding sewing classes five days a week for local women. At first, with no electricity at the complex, they had to use old-fashioned treadle sewing machines and a charcoal iron. Another challenge was teaching in a foreign language — the women did not speak English, and “my Swahili is really bad,” she said.
City of Hope was connected to the electrical grid at the end of 2017, so they were able to start using electric machines and a serger that “helps finish things more nicely,” Tenzi said.
Once students build up their sewing skills, they have the opportunity to work as employees for TENZI Designs and earn money for their families. There are currently six paid employees. “It’s a good way they can do something of value regardless of their education status,” she said.
Sewing is a useful skill even if the students do not end up working for TENZI Designs, she said. The women can start a business on the side or save money by tailoring their kids’ school uniforms.
“I love what I do,” Tenzi said. “We have a really good community. It’s a good, safe place where women can be encouraged and try again until they succeed. We laugh a lot.”
Currently, TENZI products are sold at City of Hope events and online at www.tenzidesign.com, but Tenzi Chacha hopes to expand further.
“I’m really working on training up some of my students to be teachers,” she said. “I would love to spend more time on the marketing and promotion of the brand and get into some shops in the U.S.”
Sewing is not the only job opportunity for women at the City of Hope. “We are one of the few places in the country that employs women for construction work,” which resulted in a commendation from the Tanzanian government, Regina Chacha said.
Females in rural Tanzania face many challenges that males do not, according to the City of Hope website. Families often prioritize the education of boys over girls, leaving women dependent upon their husbands for financial support. Harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation remain widespread in that area of the country, in spite of being illegal. In addition, lack of healthcare leaves women at particular risk of dying during childbirth or from preventable diseases.
The organization addresses these issues in a number of ways, and equal access to education is a key component. Traditionally, schools in Tanzania have charged fees for students to attend. In the past few years, government schools have begun offering a no-cost option, but they tend to lack basic supplies and teachers, and are not as high quality, Regina Chacha said.
The City of Hope’s two schools offer a free, quality education to the children who live at the orphanage. Day scholars from the surrounding villages also attend; some pay a fee, but because the population does not have much money, the fee is lower than in many other places, she said. The other group of students are boarders from outside the area who pay to attend.
Thanks to these fees, “we are self-sustaining at the primary school level and almost self-sustaining at the secondary level,” she said.
Her husband, John Chacha, had dreamed of opening the secondary school but sadly did not live to see it happen. On April 16, 2015, he was killed unexpectedly in a car accident while traveling in Kenya. Since then, Regina Chacha has led the organization as its international executive director. The Dr. John Chacha Secondary School and Institute of Leadership opened in January 2017 with state-of-the-art science and computer labs, as well as vocational training.
While the school building itself is complete, the organization is in the process of building more student dorms and teacher housing that will enable the school to become self-sufficient. However, all of this growth comes at a cost.
“Funding is needed for our capital projects, and we have a sponsor-a-child program for the orphans,” Regina Chacha said.
In addition, the medical center needs more staff and equipment to reach full capacity. It was originally built to have up to 30 employees but currently has six, and they are “definitely overworked,” she said. The City of Hope thought the government would help staff the center, but that did not happen.
Malaria remains common, as are water-borne illnesses due to a lack of safe drinking water, Regina Chacha said. The clinic offers vaccines, care for pregnant women and newborns, dental and other basic medical services. They would like to add sonogram and x-ray equipment, and to one day open a nursing school that will address the shortage of medical care in the region.
Funding will also be needed to help 33 City of Hope students attend college in the next few years. These high school-age students attend Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Va. and will be performing at the Festival of Hope fundraiser on Oct. 19.
Mountain Mission School was originally founded to teach the orphans of coal miners, but as this need lessened, they opened up to more international students, Regina Chacha said. The Tanzanian students came to the school thanks to an unprecedented offer.
“On my husband’s last trip to America, we were visiting Mountain Mission School, and they told us we could bring 23 children on a full scholarship. We just had to get them here,” she said. “For them to do that with a group like ours is truly amazing. I praise God for that opportunity.”
That was in 2015. The next year, Mountain Mission School allowed 10 more City of Hope students to attend at no cost. The first graduates of this group will be heading to college, hopefully in the U.S., starting in August 2020.
“We really see this as an amazing opportunity: To have an international mindset and education, and then to go back and be leaders in Tanzania,” Regina Chacha said.
City of Hope is “definitely a Christian organization in everything we do,” she said. “To me, the humanitarian side of it is never enough on its own. When people’s minds are truly transformed by the power of the Gospel, this is when true change occurs. We’ve really seen God change the lives of the staff and children.”
For more information on the Festival of Hope, visit http://festivalofhope.info. Tickets may be purchased in advance or at the door for $15 per person, with no charge for kids under age 8. A family pack of five tickets is available online for $70.
More information on the City of Hope is available at www.teamworkcityofhope.com or by calling 276.632.8477.