I first saw Nelly-Joy as we danced under a star-lit sky to a Cuban beat, her face emitting enough light for the whole crowd to find their way to joy. We briefly twirled and laughed in the goodness of the moment and moved on, strangers to one another. Only a year or so later did I hear her lilting French accent, did I learn that she is a Tutsi from Rwanda, a survivor of genocide. That she trained in massage therapy in the US and returned to African refugee camps with her healing touch. That her mother and sister are still refugees exiled in Nairobi, that she knows more than anyone the brutality of which humans are capable.
But that smile. Those sparkling eyes. Those outstretched arms, dancing limbs. How does she hold so much light? I wanted to find out.
I stopped by the inn she was managing in New Mexico, and saw her hold a room full of guests under the spell of her magnetic charms. Her large paintings on the wall drew the interest of everyone there. Then she grabbed my hand and led me to the porch, where we began to unravel the thread of her story.
Her story is long and difficult, but the story ends as does her name, in Joy. While serving as a French translator, Nelly-Joy met a Madagascar woman leading a cooperative in making ingenious artisanal products. Being a world traveler, being raised in one of the poorest countries in the world, and being a war survivor, I know how life in countries like Madagascar isn't that easy, especially for women, Nelly-Joy later wrote. Deeply inspired, she wanted to give back to the women of Africa.
She sponsored Marie Rasoantenaina to come to the United States and exhibit, and has taken this artisan group under her wide wing, along with other women’s cooperatives, as her full-time passion. To represent the women of Africa finding power and income with their hands.
Come to Charleston, I said, and I knew she would. So clear is her vision, her intent, her will to be of use. I chose a selection of products that I knew you would love- all hand woven from vetiver, an amazing fiber that smells beautiful. The women of Madagascar have been working hard on them - table runners, placemats, baskets - lots of perfect gift items that won’t break the bank.
Nelly-Joy is embodying a life of thanks, born out of a life of terror, and giving her whole being to what is good and beautiful. May your life also be rich with thanks, even when darkness circles.