Something from Home: Adele Ngoy brings International Women’s Day to Portland by Emily Ambrose

Adele Ngoy pauses while hemming a pair of slacks in the workroom of her boutique, Fladel Couture in Portland, Maine, and considers what it means to be a woman. She is dressed for the fashion business, in black slacks and tasteful gold jewelry, wearing a blouse which adorned a shop mannequin a week earlier. Adele speaks in measured English, the fifth of a five language fluency, her words heavily accented by her Congolese heritage. "For me... I am happy to be a woman, and I love it. Because, there [is] something special in being a woman. Being a mother. Caring for people, for your children, and [having] that... féminité. I like to be a woman, I’m happy to be a woman... caring, giving."
Womanhood and femininity figured prominently in Adele’s life for over a month as she worked to organize an International Women’s Day celebration for March 8th. Balancing her roles as a fashion designer and business owner, home health aid, and mother to three children, Adele, with her co-organizer Otrude Moyo, arranged a fashion show, booked speakers, and secured a venue. Constantly busy, she laments, laughing after her cell phone rings a handful of times within an hour, "I raise my kids on the phone."
Having left a career as an illustrious fashion designer in the Democratic Republic of Congo to immigrate to the United States, Adele is not living the American dream. The sevenyears she spent working at David’s Bridal as a seamstress, after taking English classes, were drastically different from her life in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. There she taught fashion design at a university, and presided over thirty seamstresses at her own design firm. "I used to have very, very nice life in Africa... I was like a boss for my own company... every week I have to design [new] stuff for myself, because that’s how I [was] selling myself... when I come [to America] I left everything, all my clothes, my jewelry, my shoes. I didn’t bring nothing. It was so hard to adapt myself to that new life, wearing jean[s]. It was so frustrating for me." Despite these frustrations, it was her decision to move that saved Adele and her family from joining the over one million internally displaced people -- refugees in their own country -- who populate the DRC today.
Adele is straightforward about her motivation to immigrate. "I decided to move here because of the war... we had an ethnic war in my country, and we have to move ... just for our security... I didn’t know any English when we come here... it took me a few years to learn English." She chose Portland to live because, "I want[ed] to live in a small city where it’s safe to raise kids... for my job, it’s not good, but for my kids, to raise them, I’m just happy to be here with them... in my country I was very well-known... but this is my new land. I have to live here and live a better life here." By celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD), she is able to bring some of her old life into the new.
Two weeks before the event, Adele relaxes in her modest but pristine boutique after completing a night shift as a health aid, and explains, "I been involved in [IWD] when I... was in Africa... and it’s a huge thing for women over there... Since I came here ten years ago I look around I never see anything [happening] for that day. And it was... something in my heart I wanna do... I wanted that thing to happen the same way it happen in Africa... All those immigrant[s], they feel like they’re left out ‘cause sometime their lack of English, lack of education, they are not part of anything. This is a good way to bring them together."
The Tuesday before IWD, Adele sits for a moment, considering her workload, a to-do list obviously reeling through her head. No catering has been arranged, so she and Otrude shoulder the responsibility. Because, as Adele asserted, "When you have [a] party you need music, food, and drink... you can’t have [a] party without food." Advance ticket sales are not high, and Adele is not even certain of how many models will present in the fashion show. Much remains to be done in preparation for the big night, but Adele, Otrude, and their assistants remain hopeful that it will be a triumph.
On the evening of March 8th, a large wooden door to the Irish Heritage Center stood propped open. Guests filtered into the spacious Gray street hall. A day ago the room, smelling of disinfectant, held a handful of people lining up chairs in orderly rows. The night of the celebration African, Caucasian, Asian, and Middle Eastern faces mingle. Naoko Jaskulksi is originally from Japan. She modeled a traditional Japanese kimono in the fashion show and communicates in stilted English that the kimono is hard to wear, and "I wish more people to study how to wear it." Marwa and Mariata, from Sudan, were clad in a gitangi and jalabela, respectively. The night had become truly international. But other aspects of the event took a turn for the worse.
Early in the evening the media system failed, preventing the display of a DVD about women’s issues. Adele was quiet and poised, but her stiff posture and distracted demeanor revealed her anxiety. She refused to be diverted from her mission of keeping the event running as smoothly as possible. During a brief moment in which she is able to sit, Otrude whispered, "we have to improvise because everything is not working out!" The crowd was unperturbed, entertaining themselves with conversation when the movie fails to cue. Waiting for the fashion show, a little girl in rainbow-hued ceremonial Afghan dress, pigtails askew atop of her head, cavorted on the raw wood of the runway. Yet, when Otrude and her daughter began to recite a poem they have composed, the opening lines "we are standing on the shoulders of women giants" resonated across the broad room, and technical difficulties were forgotten.
The fashion show was the highlight of the evening, featuring twenty-five models representing eighteen different countries, and a selection of Adele’s designs. The colors were vibrant: Cambodian women in tight, ruffled evening gowns in shell pink and deep gold. A little girl in traditional Peruvian dress followed her Alpaca-wool clad mother. Malika, tall, slender and full of confidence displayed her dress made of atlas, a traditional Uzbek fabric. Reaching the end of the runway, she twined her hands gracefully, shaking the coins sewn to her clothing. Adele also walked the stage, showing off her self-designed dress, sewn out of a vibrant blue and yellow fabric her cousin had sent from Africa. Each woman walked the runway with a smile on her face, the enthusiastic applause of the audience as her soundtrack.
Participants were plentiful and enthusiastic, but Adele does not deem the night successful. "I expected [it to] be better than what it was, but to hear what people are telling me... they say [it] was successful. But... I want more better than that. [There were] a lot of technical problem which I wish can be taken care of next time," she explains. Nonetheless, Adele feels she accomplished her goal. "That was my dream since I came here, [to celebrate International Women’s Day]... I feel like... I’m bringing something from my home. It was close to my vision… I’m a really big perfectionist. I like everything to be... classy... it was like a dream coming true, but not yet."
Emily Ambrose is currently a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and Wells College in Aurora, New York, as well as working as a part-time childcare provider.