Kate Taylor “” making hearts from Gay Head to Southern Sudan

The Heart Women, as Ms. Taylor came to know them, working their way through the painstaking process of making a Swarovski crystal Puffy Heart. — Photo by Kate Taylor

The following is excerpted from Ms. Taylor’s account of her trip to Sudan last month. The full narrative can be found at www.katetaylor.com.

When I was asked by my lifelong friend, Ellen Ratner, to go with her, and a handful of others, to Southern Sudan, where she wanted me to show some women in a village there how to make a particular beaded item that she could market for them, I was struck with several dilemmas.

Dip my toes into a war zone? I didn’t know. Go to the ends of the earth to teach a technique I did not yet know? I didn’t know. Go to Africa, a land I’d always wanted to visit? Yes. Learn a new skill and teach it to some women who could really use the income it could generate? Yes. Go outside my comfort zone, leaving granddaughter, family and friends behind? Hmmmm…

After years of Ellen’s generous friendship, finally she asks a favor of me. How could I say no?

So I went with great trepidation to the travel clinic at Mass General and got the six shots. Except for a tetanus shot some time in there, I hadn’t had an immunization since third grade. Once that was over I was curiously elated.

I went down to the local bead shop, Beadniks, and picked up some beads to try to learn the technique for making this item, the Swarovski crystal Puffy Heart. Do not try this at home alone. I spent two weeks with my online tutorial, cursing the darkness. Ahhhrrrrrgh! Finally Ellen sent up a very talented beader from Long Island, Brenda Levy, who sat with me and got me over the rough spots.

I ordered the supplies I’d need to teach between 20 and 40 people and leave them with enough supplies to keep them busy till June when Ellen is going back again.

We flew from JFK to Zurich and another eight hours to Nairobi, Kenya, a teeming city with millions of people in one place and then an expansive savannah right next door that spreads out till sunset.

We hopped on two small planes in Nairobi to fly and fly and fly over sandy desert. And fly some more until you don’t think it’s possible to go any farther. And touch down on a dusty , unpaved, hot runway — to refuel. And fly and fly and fly some more, and then, we’re there. Aweil, South Sudan.

South Sudan, which has just been through years of civil war with it’s northern half. South Sudan, which has just now voted to become what is the world’s newest independent state.

Our planes’ wheels touch down onto Sudan’s sand and our little pod of people spills out into 100-degree air. The sunhats come out, the extra dose of sunscreen gets slapped on. Terra firma! How nice to be here! It’s like we’re at the beach and there’s no ocean.

We climb into Land Rovers and start out on what is to be a week of bumpy roads. We’re kicking up clouds of dust. There is a half-mile stretch of pavement somewhere there, and we went down it once. There is also a short stretch of electric line poles. Where the electricity comes from or is going, I don’t know.

I am overcome with a feeling of the honor of being here, given a glimpse of a real life, breathing diorama like I’ve seen behind glass at the Museum of Natural History. Grass-thatch-roofed circular mud huts, woven grass fences, goats, chickens, children running and mothers moving slowly down well-worn paths. How do the women stand that straight? How do they balance those containers of water on their gorgeous heads? How do they wrap those brightly colored cloths around themselves?

You immediately feel the trusting nature and the purity of these people. Dinka!

It’s 8:00 in the morning. The Heart Women have walked to Dr. Luka’s compound, where we are camping. It takes up to two hours for some of them. These are all women that — some just freshly returned, some within the last year or two — have come back to their home turf after years enslaved by their Northern Sudanese fellow countrymen. Ellen has started a breathing/meditation group with them. They have been coming to Dr. Luka’s to gather, talk, laugh, heal. They probably haven’t heard the term “post-traumatic stress,” but they’ve surely got it as they have been beaten, raped, and have seen loved ones murdered.

They have spirits that have seen the dark side of human kind, but choose to look for goodness. I can see that they are great with their hands. They make meticulous baskets out of the grasses. Ellen has asked me to come to this place to show them how to make a beaded heart that she can market for them. She is calling it “Have a Heart for Sudan.”

The first group is about 15 women. We gather in the shade of a tree and they sit on cloths spread on the ground. They are looking at me with innocent and expectant eyes.

Someone suggests that I start with a song, Charlie and Inez Fox’s “Mockingbird”! I dive into it, a cappella. The women’s faces light up. They smile, clap, and cheer. They have this really cool way of applauding after a song, where they all clap in unison.

The Dinka word for “hello” sounds something like “shebop,” which inspires me to sing to them “Shebop, shebop, shebop, my baby.” And they join in. It becomes our theme song for the next three days of beading sessions.

I have an interpreter, and I ask him to tell them that I have just learned this technique myself, it took me a long time to learn it, and I haven’t had a chance to try teaching it to anyone. I ask them for patience. They nod. They clap! I am loving my Heart Women already.

Okay, here’s what the finished product will look like, I tell them. I hold up some samples of the hearts — 73 beads, one step after the other, and there’s no room for a misstep. Don’t be afraid to cut the work apart and start again.

Step one, step two, step three. Put one bead on the left hand string, two beads on the right, and cross the left string through it. One bead, one bead.

This beading technique, the right angle weave, is not for the faint of heart. These gals have lots of dexterity and smarts, and are nowhere near faint of heart. After each move I check their work. We move along through the steps, and we’re at it for a little over a couple of hours.

It’s going slowly only because it takes a while to check every one’s steps and correct where necessary. It feels like we’ve just about had it for the day, and we take a break.

I start up with the next group of 15 to 20. We start from the top. These women are like the last — cheerful, game, and quick. But, it is still taking time, and we stop at the same place we’ve stopped with the first group. I will be seeing them tomorrow.

One bead, one bead. This becomes another mantra, along with “shebop, shebop, shebop, my baby.” I ask the interpreter to translate “my baby” into Dinka. I can’t remember what it was, but they think this is really funny.

The next day there are fewer of them: those who are there will pass the technique on to others.

We go on like this, laughing and singing and going in and out of frustrated as we work through the technique.

By the third day of work sessions, we’ve whittled the group down to eight or so, and they finish their first hearts.

The final morning we are there, I gather with a few of the Heart Women and they watch while I string up one heart so they can see it done without the stops and starts we’ve had to go through together. I go through the supplies with an elder and one of the younger wome, and I have the interpreter read through my written instructions.

I give them the photo album I have made of each step. One bead, one bead. Shebop, shebop.

Kate Taylor, a musician, lives in Gay Head.