Part of my packing list included yarn. Lots of yarn. I'm a so-so knitter, and always have a project going while I'm at home, so it made sense to me that I wouldn't want "idle hands" while traveling either. All that time on airplanes, and free time in the evenings at Project Mercy, with no TV, no martinis, sometimes even no electricity. I knew I'd need something to occupy myself with. I had a big idea just before we left, to make felted bags and sell them on my website, keeping enough money for more yarn, and donating the rest to Project Mercy. It was sort a vague, morphing idea, but I went to the beautiful Taos Sunflower yarn shop in Arroyo Seco, and stocked up on Lamb's Pride wool yarns in all sorts of colors. I packed as much of it as I could, around other heavier items, and had a bag already in progress in my carry-on.
I knitted all the way across the Atlantic, and from Rome to Addis Ababa. I'm not a fast knitter, so I was still working on the bag as I wandered around the compound a few days later. I had stopped on my way to the Bead Room to chat with Kaitlyn, one of the American volunteers who is there for nine months with another young one, Abbey. They're both just out of high school, and are there teaching English in the school before they go off to college. Great girls. Kaityln was sitting on the ground with a lot of kids and adults, sorting beans that had been harvested the day before. There had been some late rains, which was not good, and ruined some of the crops. Every last bean had to be sorted from the rotted ones. Every bean is important in that part of the world.
I stooped down to see what they were up to, and one of the kids held up her arm, showing me the pink yarn "bracelet" I had tied on her wrist the day before. I knew I was in trouble the instant I did that, and sure enough, within seconds, there was a line of kids holding out their wrists for me to tie a bit of twisted pink yarn on. I got to tying, sitting there on the dirt, in the sun, surrounded by beans and kids. Adults started to get interested too, and one pink string at a time, I decorated fifty or sixty smiling people. Boys too. There are no gender biased color hang-ups. Bright pink was good for everyone.
At some point in all this, someone noticed the half finished knitted bag I was carrying around in my yarn bag. I pulled it out, along with the pattern, and explained what I was doing. It was becoming pretty huge, which is what you have to do with felted wool things, so they can shrink and fuzz up nicely after you're done knitting them. Alameetoo (spelled kind of phonetically), the new House Mom, took the bag from me, and started knitting on it while I continued to tie pink yarn on wrists. She's a terrific knitter, and even though she has no English at all, she took one look at the picture on the pattern, and knew just what I was up to.
When Marta saw the bag, she also took it from my hands and started knitting. Suddenly we had a group project going. It was understood that anyone who could knit would work on the bag with me. It was wonderful. And when I told Marta my plan for making and selling the bags for Project Mercy, the wheels in her head immediately started whirling. She thought it would be great to teach people to knit within the compound, and have them all making bags, which they could then send to me to sell. Even more suddenly than I'd started a cheery little one-bag group project, it seemed I'd started a new business for Project Mercy.
Serendipitously, there were other knitters in the big Cunningham Foundation group, and they were busy teaching kids to knit with fat yarn and jumbo needles. Everywhere I went, there were little groups of people sitting around with sticks and string. Even the Bead Room became a knitting room, with Julia dropping in to visit, some of the girls working on my bag (and later, another bag), and even Alex picking up where he'd left off as a kid, when his mom had taught him to knit. Knitting is not just for girls. It was once considered a very manly sport. In fact, it's believed that knitting actually started with men. So no teasing Alex. He's just cooler than most of the guys you know.
When my bag was finally the size of a pillow case, it was time to felt it.
At home, I would just throw it into the washing machine, set it on a long, hot wash cycle, and wander off to do something else. But in Ethiopia, it had to be done by hand. I had a couple of the Bead Girls round up a wash tub for me. We filled it with hot water, and a little Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap, sat in the shade with it and started scrubbing. Abera joined Alfya, Hana, and me, and we splashed and scrubbed and talked for about an hour. It wasn't speedy and efficient, like we're used to here, but it was a lot more fun.
The final step was to shape the now thick and fuzzy felted bag into its final form. I borrowed a dinner plate from the dining room, stuffed it in the round bottom of the bag, and balanced it on a clothesline post to dry in the sun.
And finally, many days, many hands, and many miles from where I'd started it, the bag was finished. I showed it off at dinner the next night, as we huddled around a little indoor "heater", filled with hot coals.
Back at home, I decorated this bag with beads and an old, worn Ethiopian Orthodox cross I bought for its intricacy and beauty, not for its religious symbolism. This bag is mine. But I think there will be more, made by me, or by the many hands at Project Mercy. It will be fun to see where this Bag Project goes from here. Once I figure out some logistical details with Marta, I'll start the search for great yarn at a great price. All you knitters out there, keep your eyes and ears open. I might need some help with this!