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In 2006 Gladys Achieng of Kenya had an illness that left her temporarily paralyzed. It took her two months to learn to walk again. This fall the 28-year-old and nine other women from Amani ya Juu-an African organization (see WORLD, Dec. 8, 2007) that offers help and healing-traveled around the United States. They walked fashion runways to unveil Amani's new clothing line and tell their stories of suffering and hope.
Most of the women have survived extreme poverty, disease, and famine. Achieng, orphaned at 15, came to Amani five years ago and slowly became willing to talk about her past during small group prayer gatherings. She went to secretarial school, worked as an office manager at Amani-and now she's learning to be a model: Designer Lynn Windmeyer calls her "a natural beauty with lots of confidence."
Windmeyer says, "When we started working with the women in January 2007, a lot of them were so shy and I never knew how they were going to be on stage in front of people." But a fashion show in Nairobi was such a success that the designer and her associates brought the Sankofa ("look back, walk forward") fashion show to Orlando, Dallas, Charlotte, and Washington, D.C.
The 14 Sankofa costumes range from simple frocks to trendy two-piece sets to flowing evening gowns. The colors and styles reflect each of the stages along the Sankofa story: separation, transformation, and celebration. Muted reds, greens, and browns reference life as a refugee. Mismatched two-piece ensembles and hats with peacock feathers reflect the transition from brokenness to healing. Brilliant pink, orange, and yellow gowns point to the joy of transformation.
On the night of the last show of the U.S. tour this past fall, Achieng practically skipped down the runway in a flowing pastel gown. She received a standing ovation from the audience, and she wore on her left hand a new ring, from a man waiting to marry her back in Kenya.