Friday Harbor quilter brings hope to African village

Kitty Sorgen of Friday Harbor is teaching Kenyan women to quilt. She hopes the skill will lead to development of an industry.  - Jane K. Fox
Kitty Sorgen of Friday Harbor is teaching Kenyan women to quilt. She hopes the skill will lead to development of an industry.
— image credit: Jane K. Fox

This is not a story about just one woman; it is about an entire village. However, it takes one woman to tell the story, and that is exactly what Kitty Sorgen does.

On a gray day in October, the 66-year-old Friday Harbor resident stands before the Lions Club to talk about Kenya, about quilting and hope.

An unlikely combination, Sorgen nevertheless recounts how she set out to aid under-privileged Kenyan women by teaching them how to quilt. Her students were the women of Mashaka, a village in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

Heavy with the problems of poverty and lack of utilities, these woman struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children. Sorgen foresaw the quilting classes as an opportunity to contribute to the women's practical and emotional facilities. The ability to quilt would provide an income-producing craft, and the classes aided in organizational techniques. Sorgen says that these new skills coaxed a "sense of self worth" from women otherwise beaten down by oppressive conditions.

The project was run under the non-profit Oasis Africa, which was responsible for picking 24 women from a pool of 80 quilt-class applicants. Oasis Africa's primary client is the school in Mashaka, and the non-profit hopes that helping the women will have a positive effect on the children.

When Sorgen arrived after weeks of financial and logistical setbacks, she set to work teaching in a small mud building, known now as "the quilting cottage."

It was in another small building, miles away, that Sorgen was first pulled into the project.

"I was at a retreat on Orcas Island," she recounts. "I was putting the backing on a quilt, and this stranger sits down beside me and asks if I would like to go teach quilting in Africa."

For most, this would seem entirely random. However, Sorgen was already accustomed to a fabric-themed passport. "I had taught quilting in Norway," Sorgen says, describing how she had spent one month of every year for 10 years in her parent's native country. Back in the retreat room on Orcas, Sorgen had no qualms about instantly accepting.

After the Lion's Club meeting, Sorgen talks to The Journal in her quilting room. She is immaculate and well dressed, her collection of quilt patches in order.

At the project's inception, money was short for Oasis Africa and Sorgen. However, always framed as a group effort, the project received "huge donations" from the quilting community.

"We had so much support," Sorgen remembers. "The local quilters helped by making individual sewing kits for each woman and by buying scissors and thread." And the quilting material? That came as a donation from the Kaffe Fassett Collective. Rulers were donated by Marti Michell. By the time Sorgen departed, she was prepared mentally and practically for the task to come.

Accompanied by her daughter, Jill Urbach, who could only stay for three of Sorgen's nine weeks, the two women arrived in Nairobi in August. Travel to their home base of Murinya followed a week later. The day after, Sorgen's Mashaka life began.

The classes ran from 9 to 1, punctuated by morning prayer and song. Sorgen comments that she developed "great relationships" with the students — "They thought of me as a mom," she smiles. She, in turn, tells of how she learned more about patience from the women, and about bravery. "They would come in singing and thank God for their troubles. They saw them as a gift to learn from."

In her concluding thoughts, Sorgen reiterates that this project was not about an individual adventure; it was about all the Mashaka women, about cleansing them of feeling "forgotten."

She hopes that the project will continue and become more financially viable as the Mashaka quilts begin to sell, and that people will participate in the "sponsor a child" program for Mashaka's school children.

"This is only the beginning of the story," Sorgen smiles. But the project has already touched the lives of many.

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