If you were to travel halfway around the planet to our little corner of the world, you would see a group of women whose hands are working and whose eyes are sharing joy as they chat and stitch and laugh together. This is Mama Vao Vao: a community of local artisans creating beautiful handmade goods in Nosy Be, Madagascar.
Surrounded by the darkness of exploitation, prostitution, and poverty, this bright group of women provides a place full of life, where women can make an honest wage working with their hands, creating vivid and excellent things. Their motto is “every stitch tells a story.”
This is the story of Mama Vao Vao’s beginning. It’s the story of two women from opposite sides of the world who shared a home, a friendship, and the experience of motherhood—and how God wove their stories together to give birth to this transformational ministry.
Rebe, or Mama Camden as she’s known in the village, is an a-typical missionary wife who only recently traded in her dreadlocks for choppy bleached hair. She’s the kind of woman who makes things happen, solves problems, and rarely runs out of energy. But when she first moved to Africa with her family, she had no agenda and no idea what the Lord intended to do through her.
Missionaries often dream of starting some glorious enterprise that brings joy to their community, but few actually get that chance. Rebe’s story is borne out of years of deep reliance—an example of how God’s faithfulness, not our own heroic efforts, brings about glimpses of the kingdom on earth.
“We came to Africa in 2004 on a mission trip and it wasn’t until 2016 that I finally fell in line with what God had planned for the future,” she says. “Apparently he wanted to do a whole lot of other things with me before I got to this precious thing that I love, that he’s absolutely been the head of and wanted to happen for years, but he was just bringing it all together in the right timing.”
Unbeknownst to her, that ‘precious thing’ began to take shape during their very first week in Madagascar. Her family of five moved to the island of Nosy Be in 2013 after several years in South Africa. They came to live and work with the Sakalava people, an ethnic minority group on the island. In order to learn the local way of life, they moved in with Mama Jan’s family for a week. “We lived in her house, did laundry together, cooked together, went on walks together, gathered fruits, and worked a little bit in the rice field,” says Rebe.
Despite only being able to communicate through charades, Mama Jan says it was during that week that “they became a part of my fiavanagna—my family.” Mama Jan, whose first name is Cynthia, has an incredible kindness in her quiet smile. While she isn’t a woman of many words, her eyes tell you that you are welcome. And her hands never stop moving. She is a mother of four who works a rice field, cooks meals for tourists, and sews.
Mama Jan began learning the traditional Sakalava stitches when she was 19, after the birth of her first two sons. When I asked her who taught her to sew, she replied simply, “When others were working, I watched.” Not long after she picked up the art, a group from the capital city of Antananarivo came to teach lessons in the village. They then invited her to the capital to continue studying her craft.
She had been sewing the traditional tablecloths and curtains and selling them in a tourist village for several years before Rebe moved to her village. And as they worked and lived together during that first week, Rebe watched Mama Jan at work—deftly running her small, even stitches around intricate patterns.
Their friendship deepened the following year, when they shared an even more meaningful experience. As an American, Rebe was very open when she discovered she was pregnant—everyone in the village soon knew. But among Malagasy women, pregnancy is usually kept private. It wasn’t until a few months in that Rebe realized her dear friend was also expecting. Sitting together in the center of the village, Rebe noticed Mama Jan looked a little different. “I was telling her about how she knew that I was pregnant, and then she got this smirk on her face. But there was never like an ‘I’m pregnant yay throw your hands in the air!’ it was just a smirk—an affirmation that, yes, we’re both expecting little ones.”
It was the same knowing smile that played across Mama Jan’s face as she recalled the story. “There weren’t a lot of words,” she says. “We were both happy and we both knew we had children. God knew and he had a plan.”
For the following months they shared that well-known miracle, going on walks and painting each other’s nails. Rebe recalls their favorite pastime: “I had someone who brought me a machine where you could hear the heartbeat of the baby. Mama Jan would come over to the hut and and she would say, ‘Can you get your heartbeat machine now? Let’s listen to the heartbeat.’ We’d find the heartbeat of Miriandra in her and then the heartbeat of Hudson in my belly. We would just sit there and smile about and pray for our little babies.”
“As they worked and lived together during that first week, Rebe watched Mama Jan at work—deftly running her small, even stitches around intricate patterns.”
On February 18, 2015, Rebe gave birth to Hudson, and just four days later, Mama Jan had Miriandra—a name which literally translates to “the same day.” Not long after Hudsy and Miri were born, it was time for the McReynolds to return home on furlough. “When Rebe was leaving she said, ‘When I come back, let’s sew together,’” Mama Jan remembers. And Mama Jan made sure that they did.
Rebe and her family returned to Nosy Be in 2016, but she struggled to reintegrate. Her grandmother had just passed away, leaving Rebe grieving and far from family support. She and her husband Bryan came up with a way for her to thrive: an upstairs art studio. After homeschooling her three kids, she would climb upstairs to paint. “It was during that time that the Lord really began to heal some places in my own heart… in just being alone and doing something I loved and creating things there was healing. It gave me space for healing.”
Ironically enough, it was being alone with the Lord that prepared her to truly join her community—because Rebe’s friends weren’t going to let her stay upstairs forever. “In this culture it’s unusual to have quiet time. If you’re going to have time, even quietly, you’re going to be with people.” So neighbors would come by and call through her front door, “Are you sick?” “Come down!” ‘Is everything ok?” And of course, Mama Jan would come up to visit and see what Rebe was working on.
“During that time apart, the Lord began to give me thoughts about what the ladies around me are doing with their hands that they love to do—and so I began to think about Mama Jan and her love of sewing.”
So Rebe’s painting time became sewing time, as Mama Jan taught her the different stitches used by Sakalava women. And then Mama Jan’s sewing became art, as Rebe approached her about new hand-drawn designs. They admired artists on Instagram and dreamed up ways to create textile art using Sakalava stitching.
One day, Rebe drew a pattern for Mama Jan: “the Madagascar malachite Kingfisher bird that I see fly in and out of the mangroves here off our porch.” Mama Jan’s colorful threads brought Rebe’s sketch to life on the fabric. And that’s when they began then to talk about forming a community of women that could sew new designs, and stretch them onto a wooden frame as a work of art.
Mama Jan knew from the beginning that this was a good enterprise. “I believed in it, because it was a really good idea. And I trusted Rebe.” She immediately began helping with the designs and encouraging others to join.
Rebe remembers how in the first week she was encouraged by Mama Jan’s enthusiasm. “She drew these two flowers and then stitched another color of fabric on top of those flowers… I remember her being excited about it and beginning to think in her own mind, ‘Okay how can I put things down on canvas and present these like works of art?’”
Mama Jan recalls how they started with just a few of her friends, but then “others would come by and ask if they could join, and I would say, ‘Yes, we have work, come!’ and so it grew quickly, which was good because we wanted to provide a way for women in the village to make money.”
Rebe knew that, while the women were uncertain about whether the art would actually sell, they were not afraid to approach it because “this was something that they love to do and were really good at… They had the skills they needed to be confident.” It wasn’t long before they had several designs stitched and stretched on wooden frames, ready to sell to tourists who came through the village.
They quickly grew to a group of 20 women, and decided to name the business “Mama Vao Vao,” which means “the mother of something new.” The name was appropriate, seeing as each woman is known by her children—Rebe’s oldest child is Camden, so she is Mama Camden. Likewise, Mama Jan is rarely called by her first name, Cynthia, but rather by her third son’s name: Jan. Each woman signs their art with their “mama” name instead of their first name, which shows the interconnectedness of the village. As Rebe puts it, the village itself is “like a family, like a work of art.” And just as the village is woven together by family, this new group of women sought to weave together a new community.
Today, only two years later, Mama Vao Vao employs over 40 women and creates uniquely embroidered art, bags, pillow covers, table runners, tea towels and more—they are coming out with new designs and products all the time, with a creative freedom that can only exist in a sincere, trusting community.
The business’s impact on the lives of the women involved has been profound; Mama Jan and Rebe have countless examples between them. “Mama Stefan built a house. Mama Rosia also built her house, and takes care of seven girls who all have enough to go to school,” says Mama Jan.
Rebe continues, “One of the first teenagers in the company was living in the house of her grandmother and had always been sleeping on the floor. I didn’t even realize the reality of her situation until after a year into Mama Vao Vao, [when] she had a healthy savings of like 400,000 Ariary ($110) and she proposed to take that money out and go buy her first bed.” Mama Vao Vao also provides stability, as Mama Jan explains: “A lot of women can have savings and when the rainy season comes they don’t have to worry.”
Rebe continues, “There are impacts like that that are on the surface but I think the greatest impact are the ones that are going much deeper into the heart, that will affect not just the women in the company now but generations of women into the future.” Rebe describes how making excellent work renewed the life of one woman from the inside out: “She’s never been given much value in her own life because she’s been so deeply abused in her family. Why would she value her own children? Why would she value her house? …She did not think she was important enough to even wake up in the morning and sweep the dirt off her front stoop and take care of her child.”
But thanks to her involvement in Mama Vao Vao, this mother now has savings and can afford basic necessities for her children, like a cup of coconut beans for lunch. “But she’s also beginning to see the beauty not just in what she’s able to sew but in her own small home,” says Rebe. “Because she’s caring well for each piece that she stitches, and she knows that I care deeply about the quality of each piece coming out, she’s beginning to care more for the things in her life that she knows have value.”
They tell more stories: of how Mama Vao Vao has helped women reconcile feuds, brought new believers into the church, and transformed families. “The women have been impacted mostly by seeing that they have the ability to do something really good, clean, beautiful, and excellent out of that excellency which God also bestows upon them. They’re able to output that into their children’s lives and into creation in the world around them. I think I don’t understand completely how much that is rooting into their hearts and into their lives just yet.”
As the Holy Spirit continues to touch the hearts of the women in this community, more and more of them are coming to Christ. Many were wary of Rebe and her husband’s Gospel message at first; they didn’t trust “foreigners.” But Mama Jan helped break down the barriers and welcome others into the church. The core members of Mama Vao Vao are now all believers, and they are leading the way for others. In the past year, three more women have joined the small church plant in the village—and more are visiting all the time.
“The women have been impacted mostly by seeing that they have the ability to do something really good, clean, beautiful, and excellent out of that excellency which God also bestows upon them.”
If you stop by the shop on any given morning, you’ll be greeted by two beautiful faces—a boisterous smile and a “good morning!” from Rebe, and an empathetic grin from Mama Jan, whose eyes almost always say more than her words. You’ll walk among colorful artwork and tablecloths and bags. Behind the fluttering curtains, you might catch a glimpse of women laughing and sewing while their children play together. For just a moment, you’ll be a part of something transformative—a true work of God, born out of a friendship between two women in a tiny village halfway around the world.
Photos by Caleb Wiley.