Though Mozambique is thousands of miles away from Petaluma, Elisabetta Colabianchi found a way to create a thriving bond with women in the African community that remains strong despite the distance.
The 29-year-old Petaluman has traveled the globe, but found herself drawn to the southeast African country where she was stationed for three years with the Peace Corps. In the small village of Guijá, she served as a community health volunteer working with HIV-positive pregnant women to educate them about how to prevent the transmission of the virus to their children and encourage them to keep on track with treatments.
Despite their desperate need for care, she found that many women didn’t return to the hospital on a regular basis because they couldn’t afford transportation. HIV and AIDS pose a major public health concern to the country, with an estimated 1.5 million of the more than 25.83 million population living with HIV, according to 2014 data from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS.
Working with Percina Miocha, a 27-year-old Mozambique native and community activist who Colabianchi kindled a friendship with, she tried to scheme up a sustainable way to help the women, most of whom also had no education or financial independence.
Colabianchi, who spent parts of her childhood in Petaluma before studying biology, language and peace and justice studies at the University of California, San Diego and global affairs at New York University and working with various nonprofits, said she always valued giving back, and found herself compelled to empower the women she’d grown to know personally.
“I’ve always liked volunteering and I’ve always felt good about doing it,” Colabianchi said. “When I was in the Peace Corps, I loved it. I felt like it was a good fit. Before, I wanted to work for the United Nations and change the world, but then I thought ‘what if I focus on one group or village and really help them?’”
They decided to create a sewing collective, and after interviewing community members and seeking grant funding, they selected a dozen dedicated women to participate in the collective, housed in a workshop they built from sticks and mud. The effort gave the women a chance to generate an income by selling goods locally while learning about marketing, managing finances and health literacy.
After laying the groundwork, such as training and securing donations of bicycles for the women to get to work, Colabianchi launched “Kurandza,” a social enterprise with an online marketplace to showcase the women’s creations, after returning to Petaluma in 2014. Speaking in her native language with Colabianchi translating, Miocha said that “kurandza” which means “to love” in Changana, the local language, encompasses the essence of the mission.
“The organization is intended to encompass a harmony and union and love, and we needed to show these values,” Miocha said during her inaugural visit to the U.S., an effort funded through an online campaign to give her an opportunity to learn English and promote the organization by sharing her story and organizing trunk shows while traveling across the country.
Kurandza showcases accessories made from “capulana” fabric, a cloth closely woven into Mozambique’s culture, with the proceeds channeled into paying the women a sustainable salary. Through the business, the women have not only been able to get to the hospital for routine treatment, but have also earned enough to improve their homes and send their children to school, Colabianchi said.