Dear Ibu Allies,
My name is Anyieth D'Awol and I am the founder of the ROOTS Project in South Sudan. I graduated with a Masters in Human Rights Law in the UK and in 2005 returned home to South Sudan to live and work. It was a dream come true. My job at the United Nations provided an amazing opportunity to get acquainted with my homeland and its people. I traveled to many corners of the country and learned about numerous common concerns. The South Sudanese are confident and proud, and at the same time face very challenging issues. While focusing on human rights, I learned about endurance and life circumstances that drive behavior.
Many of those I met were adorned with traditional attire and beads, yet when I asked them where I could buy beads, there were none for sale. Whenever I did find them, I bought raw beads and collected about 30 pounds. I left the UN in 2009 with a law degree, a huge collection of beads, and an idea I hoped could turn into a real plan. I wondered… could I empower the women I met with access to work, shelter, education, and healthcare through existing skills like traditional beadwork?
Traveling to different communities, I talked with women who did not have work but had beadwork knowledge and distributed the beads. At first, they asked for money. I assured them I would pay immediately after they produced the traditional pieces. This was an exercise in trust and took several weeks, as the negotiations for money up front continued. One day, a Mundari woman made a beautiful coiled Mundari belt. I had never seen such a piece and paid her for it on the spot. The next week, all the women from the community made something. Over time, more women from different communities contributed and our collection of exquisite and diverse traditional beadwork grew.
The ROOTS Project was founded in 2009 and directly supports over 90 women and their families from 22 different tribes. Our first sale in early 2010 was a huge success—completely selling out. Over the past 12 years, approximately 300 women have become members of the project, which has continued to provide support during a brutal civil war. The unstable times have decimated the social fabric and divided families and communities. However, despite food insecurity, economic collapse, and a global pandemic, the women of the ROOTS Project continue to depend on each other, the opportunities of the organization, and partners like Ibu.
We have realized that it’s not just income that is important, but access to education, healthcare, and most importantly, community. One example is that of a young member, Ifon Philip, who at 19 years of age lost her 11 month old baby to something so preventable—diarrhea and vomiting. She withdrew into herself and didn’t come to work. After several weeks, the women went to encourage her to return. They acknowledged her pain, sharing their personal losses, their triumphs, and joys. Their empathy empowered Ifon to feel hope for the future, and she rejoined the women in beading.
The ROOTS Project now takes a proactive approach. When women are absent, we follow up. Often domestic violence keeps them home. Their role as primary caregivers is another reason. Personal illness, whether physically or financially they cannot access care, also impacts their ability to work. In our supportive community, the staff and the women check in with each other; our responsibilities for one another, across tribes, is always shared.
Despite these challenging life experiences, the women create beautiful handmade beadwork and are custodians of their South Sudanese traditions. Organizations like Ibu support our work in many ways. By partnering in design, Ibu recognizes and appreciates age-old beadwork traditions and expands the women’s work. When they are able to earn a living wage, the artisans have better opportunities to affect change in their own and their children’s lives. The Ibu Foundation helps pay for training, supplies, and recently, Covid relief. Through sharing our stories, Ibu gives others insight into the lives of women halfway across the world, promoting understanding and healing.
Founder, The ROOTS Project of South Sudan