During the spring 2023 semester, Ella Fontaine (Clark University, ‘25) was placed in an internship with HISA – Hope Initiative of Southern Africa- through her study abroad program in Namibia. HISA’s mission is “the empowerment of children and communities through the use of education, food and nourishment, and capacity building. HISA aims to break the cycle of poverty and build resilience.” In Windhoek, they have a preschool for children, skills classes for adults, and many more programs to support the local community.
While looking for a project to work on during her time with HISA, Ella witnessed a local mother remove her child’s disposable diaper, ring it out, and put it back on. Without jumping to conclusions about why the mother was doing this, Ella held a meeting with local mothers to assess the diaper needs in this community. What was proposed as a meeting with 10 mothers, turned into a lively discussion where 34 women helped Ella understand the complexity of the diaper issue. Ella says, “I asked the mother’s how many diapers they have currently and more than 50 percent said less than two, and a few of them said they are using the diaper currently on the kid until they can afford more, which might be days.”
This sparked the idea of something practical that Ella hoped could help the local families and mothers struggling with the affordability of basic children’s necessities. Diapers are an issue financially, hygienically, and environmentally. In Namibia, diapers are taxed at a luxury rate of 15 percent and are the second highest threat to rural water sources because they take 500 years to decompose.
Ella, in conjunction with HISA and the local mothers brainstormed how to address this need and landed on an idea of a reusable diaper library. Ella’s job was to find a way to get hundreds of reusable diapers to mothers in need, and through various networks she did just that. Ella got 144 diapers and 324 liners donated on facebook marketplace and had them shipped from Boston to Windhoek with the help of many hands from all over New England.
This diaper library provides families with a bundle of reusable diapers and liners for when they can not afford disposable ones. Ella also understands that while these reusable diapers may help mothers in one department, it also puts an inequitable burden on the mothers that often do the laundry, which is what these cloth diapers require to stay clean.
“Interning in Namibia taught me the complexities of poverty and that working directly with the community is the only way to effectively address an issue, because an outsider will never know the whole story.” – Ella
In addition to beginning the diaper loan program, Ella notes that “To ensure this project makes a significant impact and is sustainable, our intentions are to teach mothers how to make cloth diapers and sell them to generate income.” The goal of this being to address the gender wealth gap by giving mothers a tool to have autonomy over their finances. While Ella has since returned home, the project has only continued to grow. Shange, a friend of Ella’s, offered to take over the program and is currently working on collecting materials to provide mothers a chance to make these cloth diapers. Shange also plans to bring this workshop to eight different regions throughout Namibia.
Watch: Instagram Reel of the diaper donations arriving! Photos, courtesy of Ella: