Making broken pieces beautiful

Nicole James | North Africa

Tiles sparkle everywhere in North Africa. Bits of ancient mosaics glint under centuries of dust; bathrooms, corridors, kitchens and outdoor alleys boast bold patterns and bright colours; decorative arches, vases and plates gleam under their ceramic overlays.

When they’re whole, the patterns are pristine, but sometimes pieces break.

For long-term worker Sally*, moving to North Africa felt a bit like breaking tiles. She recalled rubbing against rough edges of cultural differences—both the North African nuances discovered in daily life and the international mind-sets encountered in team dynamics. Her seamless communication abilities faltered under the pressure of a trio of new languages: the local dialect, standard Arabic and French. Busyness chipped away slowly, and loneliness spread thin lines across her weakening façade.

Two years into her stay, she wondered whether it was time to leave. As she thought about the hard things on the field, she realised “maybe struggling points are not the main key, the main reason to leave this country or not. Struggling points show me some lesson.”

Space to create

Sally decided to delve deeper into what God was teaching her and how he was using her in North Africa. One thing God revealed was her creative attitude. Whenever there’s an obstacle, “I try to find some creative way…how to overcome [it],” she mentioned. “God gave me…patience through prayer.”

Sally’s creativity touched many aspects of her life. While in language school her first year in-country, she’d found herself with extra free time. So she taught herself how to sew a fabric bag. Her team encouraged her to teach local women.

Taking their advice, she partnered with a centre run by other Christian workers. Almost 70 women attended her first class. From there, Sally decided to streamline the process. She printed pictures of other handmade bags and asked the women to make one at home. The task was a test, she said. If they completed the bag by themselves, they could join Sally’s class again.

For the second project, Sally dressed a stuffed toy bear in a jalaba, traditional regional clothing—the toy pattern adapted from something she found online, the dress outline carefully traced from an authentic baby-sized outfit lent to her by a friend. In total, Sally’s class sewed more than 30 bears, which they sold at a holiday bazaar.

Although the sewing projects were successful, Sally had to tailor her teaching methods to the women in her class, who spanned several social classes. Patterns needed to be traced, rather than replicated according to scale, as some women were illiterate and couldn’t read numbers.

After finishing the bears, Sally saw a friend’s artwork, which included broken tiles. “Wow, this is very useful!” she thought. One day, she and a friend walked around the neighbourhood, collecting ceramic scraps off the street. She went home, washed and dried the broken bits of tile, and introduced the new project to her class: artfully arranged tiles surrounding a mirror.

With this project, more than the first two, the women at the centre had freedom to express themselves, making the broken pieces beautiful. The idea went over so well, in fact, that Sally started another similar project soon after—tile art photo frames.

Instead of combing the streets for broken tile, this time she visited local shop owners, who gave her tiles for free. She focused on incorporating more vibrantly coloured pieces into the second round of tile art, the rainbow hues representing hope. “It’s the new model,” she explained.

Sally’s class not only taught the women new skills, it also allowed them to raise money to support the centre, which provides free care for handicapped children in the community. The women, whether mothers or neighbours, are warm-hearted and compassionate, Sally described. “They are healthy, so they want to help the handicapped people.”

Providing a creative space for others helped Sally express her own personality as well. “I have a talent to share good things with others. So when I get some experience, automatically or naturally, I’d like to share it with others. Like with the Gospel also, I’d like to share. I’d like to be a great blessing to others.”

Space to share

Although most of the class’ proceeds fund the centre, Sally once offered to help the women sell a side project—key chains made from local fabric—for profit. After Sally had sold the key chains, she visited Aisha*, one of the crafters, at home to deliver her earnings. Aisha then invited Sally in for a meal.

At her house, Sally asked Aisha if she would help her read Arabic. She agreed, so the women sat down together and read a portion of the Gospel story. The other women in the family, also present, sat down to listen. “It’s not like the Qur’an,” they noted. “No,” Sally agreed, taking the chance to share the truth of God’s Word with the whole family.

Another woman at the centre asked Sally to help her with English. After some hesitation, Sally agreed, basing her curriculum on Bible stories—the prophets, Ruth, Judges and, eventually, Jesus. “We had a class with the Bible and read the Bible for two years,” Sally said. The woman’s father was an Islamic teacher, so she often brought up teachings from the mosque. “She knows a lot now,” Sally mentioned. “She understands very excellently, but she compares [the Bible] with the Qur’an, and she cannot believe.”

Through relationships forged in class, Sally hopes to continue to introduce the Gospel to women without pressure. “Creative work really touches people’s hearts,” she shared. “I have confidence that this centre and this creative work opens relationships.”

Pray for Sally to be filled with God’s power as she talks to her local friends. Pray for her to continually develop her language ability, so she can share truth more effectively. Pray for the women in her class to develop skills that can change their lives, and pray for them to encounter the One who can change hearts.

*Name changed

Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.

Published: Tuesday, 20 December 2016
Credit: Nicole James
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