Generation E: Sylvie Ofstie and naSuma/Inua
by Sarah Tang
Growing up in Oregon, Sylvie Ofstie had a passion for social justice and a flare for fashion. As an adult, she volunteered as a teacher in the Tanzanian town of Bagamoyo, and it was here that the 31-year-old combined her interests into two initiatives: naSuma, a socially conscious fashion line; and Inua, a women's empowerment project.
In 2013, while volunteering at a nursery school, Ofstie met the director's wife, Pili Mtonga, who is a tailor. Attracted to the vibrant patterned fabric unique to East Africa, Ofstie sketched some designs and asked Mtonga to make her a dress. That first dress turned into a series of designs, and soon friends were placing orders.
"The demand for the dresses we were designing picked up in a very unexpected way," said Ofstie (shown wearing one of her designs, on right).
As interest grew, Mtonga and Ofstie's work morphed into a fundraiser for the nursery school. "Pili then came to me with the idea of forming a fund or workshop for women with the proceeds," said Ofstie, who was immediately taken with the idea of women empowering women through training, education, and the sale of socially conscious clothing.
Inua means "lift up" in Swahili, and naSuma means "with Suma." Suma is a little boy Ofstie met in 2011 while volunteering at a children's home in Lushoto, Tanzania. Ofstie is in the process of adopting Suma.
"The idea is to lift up women," Ofstie explained, "and to ensure children have the care they need. It's cyclical, really, as women are usually the ones who make sure children are not left behind and are afforded a chance for proper nutrition and education."
Groups of women receive four months of training in basic tailoring, fabric dyeing, and design, as well as jewelry design, English, and computer. Under the direction of Art Promoters Foundation, the project is thriving through naSuma's sales on Etsy and Facebook and is on its way to a sustainable model.
"I love living in Tanzania. It's a beautiful place, and its vibrancy, traditional designs, colors, and music all inspire me creatively. Tanzanian women inspire me with their hard work and commitment to family. I am honored to partner with them and work toward further education and self-empowerment for women."
naSuma designs are available at Facebook.com/DesignsfromBagamoyo.
Sarah Tang is a communication arts and sociology student at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.