Situated between Kindred Spirits and Atelier on Trade Street, Umoja African Crafts may have a smaller storefront than its neighbors in downtown Winston-Salem’s art district, but its socially-conscious mission reaches across the Atlantic. The store offers customers a chance to purchase handmade art pieces for a humanitarian cause, building infrastructure and elevating the status of women and children in Kenya.
Purity Ruchugo, garbed in the colorful clothing that she sells, greets every customer from behind the cash register in the center of the store. In front of her, hand-painted plates feature vibrant illustrations that depict animals and African environments. The store is lined with fair-trade crafts, fabrics, jewelry, clothing and handbags representing a variety of African cultures.
Umoja is a project of Sister2Sister, an outreach organization and ministry founded by Ruchugo. Currently, the organization is focusing its effort on Ruchugo’s native Kenya, where it helps orphaned children receive food, shelter and an education. Proceeds from craft and art sales go toward projects, as well as those that teach women skills, such as how to farm and how to speak English, according to Ruchugo. The non-profit also accepts donations in the store.
According to Ruchugo, all of the crafts in the store were handmade by her when the shop opened in April 2012. As time has passed, the Kenyan women Sister2Sister has helped have contributed their own creations, which now comprise the majority of sales.
“Most of the items sold here are made by the women we are helping to empower in Kenya,” Ruchugo said, pointing to a bowl full of colorful bracelets. “For example, Kenyan women roll each of these paper beads by hand. They use recycled magazines and calendars. They string these beads together to create the beautiful necklaces, bracelets and earring we proudly sell here.”
The store’s unique collection of crafts and beauty products is a draw for many customers. “I worked in Kenya during my time with the Peace Corps and just from looking around I see quite a few reminders of my time abroad,” said Sally Keynes, who purchased a bag of tea leaves and a pair of earring from the store. “It’s nice to see that a store like this can draw customers in Winston. I definitely plan on coming back.”
In addition to showcasing the creativity of the women of Kenya, the store offers them the ability to earn their own livelihood from their talent and grants them greater self-governance over their lives according to the ministry’s mission statement. In this way, Ruchugo said she aspires for the store to live up to its name, meaning “unity” in Swahili.
In the back of the store is a wall full of photographs of the people that have been helped by the non-profit, including its latest project, a children’s home in Ngong, Kenya, a small town outside of Nairobi. “Every child should have a place to call home. Our children’s home will provide a safe environment for the kids as they grow,” the placard encouraging donations reads. Ruchugo’s goal is to raise $50,000 for the school’s construction. Sales have not been strong enough to make this goal a reality yet, but Ruchugo said she hopes that construction will start in the first half of 2015. In the meantime, Sister2Sister has started a feeding program that allows 81 orphans to receive at least one balanced meal a day, Ruchugo said.
Ruchugo explains the mission work that is done in Kenya to every customer that enters the store. “The story about the feeding program really resonated with me,” said Haley Green, a customer. “It seems like the owner is doing some really great work here.”
Sister2Sister was founded by Ruchugo after she moved to Winston-Salem over 20 years ago. The organization has hosted multiple mission trips to Kenya, including one in the summer of 2014. Additionally, the organization hosted the “A Taste of Kenya” fundraising event at Lloyd Presbyterian Church, a downtown church located on Patterson Avenue, earlier this year. Ruchugo travels to Kenya every six months in order to oversee the organization’s current projects, as well as to collect inventory for her store.
“Every time I would go to Kenya, I would see women in need. I knew they had talent, they just needed encouragement and some help,” Ruchugo said. “They don’t expect you to just go and give to them; they work hard. I don’t believe in giving handouts.”
In the future, Ruchugo hopes the women and children she is assisting will use the skills that they have been taught in order to take greater control over their own lives. “Ten years down the line is seeing women who really had nothing at first learning skills like banking and challenging themselves to do more than what they could previously do,” Ruchugo said. “My biggest dream is to see a woman from the village say ‘I want to learn how to use a computer.’ I want to see that happen.”
Umoja is one of six shops that are members of the Downtown Arts District Association, which is also composed of several galleries and restaurants downtown. The store participates in the DADA Gallery Hop, extending its store hours until 10 p.m. the first Friday of every month. The store’s normal hours of operation are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tues. through Fri. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m on Saturdays. Umoja is closed Monday and Sunday.