At 6' 2", wearing a purple tunic and crowned with a sky blue hat, Soumana Saley cut a dramatic figure at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's "Crafts of African Fashion" program in 2018. He was surrounded by his leatherwork — from wallets to sandals to shoulder bags with etched geometric designs reflecting the art of his homeland, Niger. He now lives in Millersburg, Penn. When we spoke, he had two sources of income: He worked in a factory and he sold his leather goods at festivals — the biggest bags going for hundreds of dollars. And he used his funds to start a school in Niger for leather crafting and tailoring (and literacy and numeracy as well). He personally pays rent and teacher salaries — and charges students $0.00 for the three-year program.
The NPR story about Soumana Saley had an unexpected result.
Kara VanderKamp, director of the American nonprofit group Remember Niger Coalition read the article and decided to provide financial help for some of the students at Saley's school, which is called DIMA (an acronym for Dispositif d'Initiatives pour les Metiers de l'Artisanat) and is in Niamey, Niger's capital city.
The group donates approximately $5,000 a year. "It's not a huge amount," she says, "but in Niger you can do so much with so little, you can really change lives. Money goes so far." That's a reflection of the economic situation in Niger, one of the world's poorest countries. Per capita income, according to the World Bank, is $420 a year.
VanderKamp, who has visited the school, says, "One of things that draws you in his dedication and passion for what he's doing. Soumana has an awesome vision, he's amazing artist. But you can't do it alone."
The world-renowned Nigerian fashion designer Sidahmed Alphadi Seidnaly is also a fan of Saley's leatherwork.
But Saley is facing a tough year because of the pandemic. Because of the risks posed by his asthma, the 48-year-old has not been able to keep his day job in a plastic pipe factory. And craft fairs have gone on hiatus. He says he's working to develop more affordably priced leather goods and sell them online.
Despite the harder times, Saley is committed to sending money to support his school — about $1,000 a month covers rent and teacher salaries, he says. He reports that there are currently 50 students from Niger along with 26 refugees from Mali, who enrolled six months ago. His first class will graduate in July 2021. One student has already opened a tailoring shop — with two apprentices.
This month, the school is launching a new program that teaches a traditional style of weaving called tera-tera to 10 students. The weavings, with vibrant colors and geometric patterns, are a popular wedding gift — but tera-tera is a vanishing art in Niger, says Saley.
The education of Saley's students, who are in their teens and early 20s, is different from his own life as a young apprentice, when he hid his leather studies from his parents. They were farmers; he thought they wouldn't see a future in leather. When they learned of his plans, they tried to talk him out of his dream.
Saley's students definitely see a career path — and often ask if they can bring friends into the school's program.
"So many of those students either never had the opportunity to go to school or weren't able to continue beyond a couple years beyond primary school," says VanderKamp of the Remember Niger Coalition. "For them getting to go to a school like this is like winning the lottery."
Saley's school doesn't follow the instructional methods he experienced from his early teachers. When his young self made mistakes and cut a hole in the hide while attempting to slice off thin layers to turn into leather goods (see Saley demonstrate the skill in the video below), he recalls, "The boss was very mad. If you make mistakes, they can beat you."
Saley's most recent visit to the school was last fall. "The thing that makes me happy is watching the students play and smile before they start classes," he says. And he refuses to be discouraged by the events of 2020: "I believe things are going to be better. I always have hope."