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How I created Opportunities in Lesotho, One Bow Tie at a Time

Written by Edward Wycliff

Edward Wycliff '11. Photo by Giovanni Santacroce

If you told me while I was an IC student that one day I'd be living on the side of a mountain in an African village making bow ties, I would’ve said that idea was ridiculous. But that’s the way I spend my days now, and more than 70 of my neighbors do the same.

Just last year, while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, a tiny landlocked kingdom in the eastern part of South Africa, I launched a business called Bow Shoeshoe (pronounced bo shway-shway), which employs people in nearby villages to sew bow ties from a locally made fabric, seshoeshoe (pronounced sa-shway-shway). Six months ago, I knew nothing about sewing and had only ever worn a clip-on bow tie for catering gigs. Now, I've sold bow ties to the king of Lesotho and to many other people in at least 15 countries on five different continents. But by no means has the business made it to the big time—yet.

Turning an Idea into a Reality

Bow Shoeshoe started with me, three Basotho people in Qacha’s Nek district, and an idea to use seshoeshoe in a new way. Basotho women often use the tessellated, multicolored fabric to create traditional dresses, but we wanted to use seshoeshoe for other clothing, too, and we eventually decided on bow ties. The goal was to help community members in need and to bring extra income into the region—which has a high unemployment rate—while sharing Lesotho’s unique local culture with the outside world.  

Many people have never heard of Lesotho, and often those who have heard of it know it either as the tiny country inside South Africa or as the country with the second highest HIV rate in the world. By offering an avenue in which creativity and entrepreneurial spirit could blossom—in a village without roads or electricity but where the Milky Way is bright enough on most nights to fully illuminate the mountainous landscape—we hoped to shift Lesotho’s narrative and highlight its cultural beauty. 

Bow Shoeshoe stopped being just an idea after I vacationed in Durban, South Africa, and spent about half my monthly Peace Corps stipend on a sewing machine. I brought the machine back to Lesotho and started playing around with the seshoeshoe fabric. Luckily another Peace Corps volunteer’s mother was visiting, and she showed me some sewing basics.

For two weeks, I carried that heavy machine to the local clinic every day to practice my sewing skills. Then, when I felt confident in my abilities, I began looking for ways to help the community. I approached a local group of 60- to 80-year-old women who call themselves Ea Ithateleng, which means “those who love.” The group raises money to pay for the funeral expenses of the poorest community members, such as the elderly, the infirmed, and those claimed by the HIV epidemic. Through this first connection with Ea Ithateleng, Bow Shoeshoe got its start in doing very important grassroots work.

How to Tie a Bow Shoeshoe Bow Tie

Making Real Impact

My interest in traveling to see the world for myself originated in the politics courses I took at IC. These classes encouraged me to experience the world firsthand and not just accept media depictions of places. Four months after graduating from IC with a degree in politics, I moved to Amsterdam to study conflict resolution at Universiteit van Amsterdam. IC inspired my love for studying conflict and assisting people in resolving their own conflicts.

I wanted to keep my adventure going while making a difference in people’s lives, so I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Lesotho. Now, through Bow Shoeshoe, I offer employment opportunities to people in an underserved region of a nation that is in search of new opportunities for its people.

As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I plan to continue living and working in the same Lesotho community. It's incredible to see Bow Shoeshoe’s impact in the village. In seven months, the business has helped the community accomplish so much, and we're just getting started.



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