Liberia: Praise, Joanne, Grace and Gifty share their stories of courage and determination
Praise and Blessing
The two names are intertwined, as are the fates of these two Liberians – one a 43-year-old seamstress, the mother of three children, and the other a little four-year-old Ebola orphan whom Praise adopted when she was barely a year old and refused to give up when people told her she would die.
"If she dies, I will die too," was her reply. Widowed in 2016, the stress and anguish of those years are nowhere to be seen in Praise's huge smile and booming voice as she sits at her sewing machine or buys cloth in Monrovia's kaleidoscopic market.
The contrast between the optimism of this larger-than-life woman, who speaks of her training at the Women Training and Integration project (WIN) with pride – and wore her faded WIN tee shirt during our interview – and the depths that she must have hit being forced to beg food for her orphan daughter during the dark days of her past, is stark. And the photos, instead of focusing on that struggle, portray the resilience and determination of this huge-hearted woman who has done everything possible to make a future for herself and the adopted daughter who has blessed her life.
As yet unmarried, but shyly acknowledging she has a boyfriend, Gifty is nevertheless clear that having a profession and being mistress of her own fate helps to stop men "bluffing me around".
Her tiny beauty salon 'Magic Hands' – all mirrors and hanging hair pieces – stands on a busy main road in Logan town, a suburb of Monrovia, and next door to a liquor store where men lounge throughout the day drinking beer.
Thanks to her WIN training the business is thriving, and luckily so, as Gifty is the major breadwinner for her extended family – mother, four brothers and their children. After her father died, the family fell into poverty and has pulled through thanks to Gifty's 'Magic Hands'.
Every morning, before opening the shop, Gifty goes to the community well to fetch water. Clients come and go throughout the day, some of them regular customers, like Fifi, who wants grey plaits that 'look natural'. Others, including people coming in off the street, make up Gifty's passing trade.
In all, she gains enough money to get by and even manages to put a little aside each month after paying the rent on the shop. "In the future, I want to travel," she confides. "Maybe to Nigeria or Sierra Leone, where I can buy products more cheaply. I see braiding hair as my career, and I want to succeed."
Twenty-one-year-old Grace fell pregnant as a teenager whilst in school in Ghana and was abandoned both by the father of her child and the woman whom she was living with after her grandmother died.
Back with her parents in Monrovia, her efforts to support her baby, whom she named Success, came to naught when her small business selling juice collapsed.
"I sat at home doing nothing, just looking after my father and baby daughter," Grace remembers with despair.
It was when she joined WIN that Grace discovered a passion for sewing that helped turn her life around.
"You can't be a seamstress if you don't have a passion for it," she says emphatically.
Grace is still a student at WIN, whilst also working as an apprentice in a cluttered tailoring shop in the centre of Monrovia, making women's clothes.
Joanne, a 36-year-old mother of four, learned cooking and business skills through WIN, and today runs a colourful café-bar in the heart of Monrovia's thriving market area.
To see passersby step inside for a word of greeting is to appreciate how well established she has become. Together with a handful of helpers, Joanne bends over a smoky brazier in her back yard preparing rice, fish, chicken and spaghetti for her clients, confident and in control.
It is hard to imagine her previous life, without work or a husband and with no hope of getting money to feed her four children. Rather than dwelling on the long hours she spent at home, brooding during that time, Joanne prefers to speak about how she now has a profession and a skill.
"It means that I can send my children to private school," she says more than once. "And I want to do more. Seeing so many children on the street and knowing, too, that there are so many parents in difficulties and facing troubles out there, I want to help them."
Since its creation in 2009, the WIN project run by the Liberian Red Cross has trained over 1,200 vulnerable women and girls from Monrovia's slum communities in tailoring, catering and cosmetology.
Many of them are women still suffering the effects of Liberia's civil war; others are former drug addicts, school dropouts or commercial sex workers. Thanks to their year-long training, most of these vulnerable women and girls start are now running small business ventures enabling them to support themselves and their families. WIN trains over 100 women and girls each year.