The story of Totonga Bomoi starts with a woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
And with a woman from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Katie Hile grew up here. She graduated from Lincoln Pius X in 2002 and went on to UNL and then to Seton Hall for an advanced degree in diplomacy and international relations.
And eventually she ended up in the middle of Africa.
A place she’d dreamed of visiting since she was a girl.
It’s where she met Marie Aroyo. The Congolese woman taught sewing at the all-girls high school in Aru, a town of 25,000.
Hile lived near the school. She was a volunteer for a Catholic organization that followed the teachings of St. Magdalene of Canossa — to live in solidarity with their communities and the poor they serve.
She did that.
Teaching English and art and music at a village preschool. Working at an internet cafe and a bakery. Giving her time and forging connections.
Putting into action what she’d learned in classrooms.
She became friends with the skilled seamstress, and she went to her when she wanted to have a new skirt or dress made. The clothes were beautiful, sewn with a cotton fabric called pagne, dyed in rich colors with geometric patterns.
Then, a week before Hile’s year of service ended, her friend asked a favor.
She needed $1,000 to build a house.
Homes are simple in the Congo. Mud and bricks and concrete, a tin roof, one room, maybe two.
Aroyo was married and had three children and struggled with her health. Hile knew she’d faced a lot of suffering in her life.
She knew the seamstress was poor, like most of her neighbors in a country where lives are buffeted by political corruption and greed, illiteracy and disease.
She knew asking her for money was a hard thing for Aroyo to do and she wanted to help. But Hile asked a big favor in return: Could she sew 25 purses?
Aroyo sewed them and Hile brought those first simple bags back to Lincoln.
She sold them to friends and family and sent the money — Aroyo’s money — back to her.
It was 2011.
And Hile had started dreaming on the long flight back to the United States.
“I was spinning all of these ideas of working together and starting a business.”
She kept spinning ideas while she settled back in Lincoln and a job at Catholic Social Services. The next year, four more women joined Aroyo in her handbag sewing and they shipped 100 bags to Lincoln.
The next year, 100 more.
Hile sold them all at church and community craft fairs.
She had an ulterior motive when she’d asked her friend to sew those first bags.
“My experience in the Congo was so full of beauty and so full of joy, I didn’t want to come home and answer questions about poverty and conflict and AIDS and Ebola.”
She wanted to share something deeper and more human instead.
“The friendship and community I found there. That’s what I wanted to capture.”
Build Our Future. That’s what Totonga Bomoi means in Congolese.
And that’s what the nonprofit is doing now.
It’s not so much about the purses (and now bow ties, and head wraps) as it is about empowerment.
It’s about a sustainable model of entrepreneurship, said Kelly Ross, a Totonga intern.
“The lessons those ladies have learned from Katie are lifelong. They can pass them down to their children.”
Ross met Hile last year when they both taught citizenship classes at local nonprofits. She was awed by the work of Totonga Bomoi.
And by Hile.
“I was blown away. I basically wanted to pick her brain about life.”
She loved the way Hile came alongside people as an equal.
She loves the work the women — now approaching 75 — are doing in their country. For themselves and for their families.
“They have the tools to succeed and it’s all from Katie planting those seeds.”
Randy Bretz knows Hile, too. He serves on her board. He shared her story on a podcast he hosts with Marilyn Moore.
When he heard her story — her year serving in the village, her deep friendships with the locals, the way she found tools and stepped aside — he kept saying: Is she real?
It’s been five years since Hile sat down with 10 women in the village of Aru to create the first artisan cooperative in northwest Congo, a country three times bigger than Texas.
Four years since she partnered with an international nonprofit to offer a business-training workshop to the co-op members.
Three years since the group expanded to 18 and began teaching young village women without a secondary education how to sew.
Two years since the women launched a business training program, spreading what they had learned to poor women in two villages five hours away.
Then last year, another dream. Totonga Bomoi incorporated as a nonprofit.
Hile is excited to share that story Sunday at the inaugural Totonga Bomoi Celebratory & Educational Event at Turbine Flats.
There will be African hor d'oeuvres and traditional Congolese music and examples of the colorful craftsmanship of the women entrepreneurs.
Visitors will be able to sample the business training curriculum that Totonga Bomoi offers.
They will be able to hear from its founder. And listen to the businesswomen of the Congo share their stories via video.
The story is not about her, Hile says. “It’s how can I best serve the women?”
Growing up, her parents taught her to reach high, Hile says. That with hard work and commitment she could accomplish anything.
Then she tells me the rest of Marie Aroyo’s story.
She built her house.
And she kept sewing, armed with her business skills and the support of a collective of women sharing resources through Totonga Bomoi.
“Now her house has a kitchen and a bathroom and a living area,” Hile says. “She was able to dream bigger.”