It all began, back in the mist of time, in 1984. Stephen Wood reports to his brother John Wood about TFSR’s activities (Tools For Self Reliance) in Cardiff, Wales and they were inspired by this idea. So John and Thomas decided to start collecting tools door to door and building up a stock of tools in Belfast. “Any old iron”, “Bring out your dead”. Thus they had successful results. These tools were then shipped out to Ulster Cares projects in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. Initially these tools were repaired in Newington St backyard.
TFS organized over 30 work camps and the first one was in 1985 and took place Newington St (Belfast) through International Voluntary Service (IVS), Service Civil International (SCI), Quaker International Social Projects (QISP). Most of these work camps took place in Belfast although some of them have taken place in Dublin, Roscommon, Port Laoise, Derry and Berlin. People who participated in work camps helped to repair tools and make collections.
In 1986 the Belfast group joined TFSR and started to refurbish tools in a semi derelict building opposite Manny’s chip shop on the Antrim Road. The room was like a fortress with a steel door and steel shutters bolted to the window. The floor was not safe in the middle so the tools were stored around the walls. It was in this workshop that we prepared the first shipment in which we shipped tool-kits to Nicaragua. Occasionally were also organized collecting weekends in Bangor, Holywood and Derry with the help of IVS local group.
Over the years we moved about five times, always to places where we didn’t have to pay rent but on the other hand the conditions of the workshop were very basic and working there were quite risky. The group used to meet on a par-time basis but we were continually searching for permanent premises. In 1989, we use to meet every Monday evening in a derelict building owned by the Belfast Centre for Unemployed. In 1990, we where based on the top floor (attic) of IVS. After that we moved to Diarmuid’s family’s garden shed (no insulation, heating oil or water) and then to a lager home, a large garage in Salisbury Ave where we spent every Sunday afternoons fixing the leaky roof as well as tolls. At that time we also collected wood to build boxes for the shipments. Despite these difficulties and still adding the little experience that we had at repairing tools, with the dedication, persistence and help from other organizations we have started to get skilled and ‘tooled up’. We have also increased the number of tools sent and we have started to organize events around Ireland.
In 1991, a steering committee was set up to seek permanent premises and to get funds for it. We had discussions with TFSR who advise us to set up an independent organization so that we could develop Tools For Solidarity throughout Northern Ireland. Is was in this context that in June of 1992 the idea of creating Tools For Solidarity was born. We drew up a business plan, a development plan and after many discussions we choose our logo (thanks Tara!). The first idea was to open a full time project and raise funds to pay for the building and to employ 3 persons. So we started to raise funds with benefit gigs, pub quiz, jumble sales, raffles and sponsored bike rides to Stangford and back.
In the middle 1993, we had raised a quarter of the budget and we made the decision to open the project without any employed staff and to rent a building. In the same year Stephen visited the Iringa region of Tanzania and made contact with local Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO) office in order to create a partnership with this organization.
On the 27th of May 1994, the TFS workshop was officially open on the Crumlin Road as a full time project. It was also in this period that our first international long term volunteer arrived, Dunla, from Finland. Tara, Sile, Rita and Annie were also volunteers who came up from Dublin to help to prepare the workshop.Our first EIRENE volunteer, Martin, arrived in 1995 to do peace (civil) service here instead of military service in Germany. They where followed by generations bright-eyed and bushy-tailed EVS (European Voluntary Service), EIRINE and later step x step volunteers. We also started a Supported Volunteer Programme for people with special needs. At that time we have formalized our partnership with SIDO Iringa and we have started to send out tools to training centres, blacksmiths and youth and women’s groups.
In 1995 we sent 367 tools to a project in Uganda, SASO (Sustainable Agricultural Support for Orphans). In the next year the first sewing machine was refurbished and in 1997 we started a campaign to collect sewing machines firstly with an Ulster TV advert and then a joint campaign with War on Want’s network of shops. In the same year we sent sewing machines to support youth economic groups in Singida, Tanzania.
As the years passed we have been perfecting our techniques and sending sewing machines and tools for various projects in Tanzania and Uganda. In 2004 we had a big celebration of 20 years of Tools for Solidarity. Later in 2006 John went to Uganda and Mwanza to visited the projects that we had sent tools and sewing machines, most of them were directed to women and people with disabilities. Following this in 2007, the Mwanza Sewing and Training Centre (MSTC) opened and in 2012 we have started a pilot project in Uganda called the Women Rights Initiative (WORI). Since then we have worked in TFS Belfast in partnership with those two organizations in order to prepare the shipments that occur almost every year.
Tools for Solidarity always wanted to have their own premises instead of renting a building. In the previous few years potential locations have been investigated until finally in November 2013 a perfect premises was settled upon. March 19th 2014 became an important date in the organization’s history as we were handed the keys to our new home. The new workshop is an old red clay brick warehouse that has served many purposes over its lifetime. Nestled snugly behind houses on all sides in its South Belfast neighbourhood on the cheerfully named Sunnyside Street. A lot of of work has gone into renewal and transformation as volunteers have gone from refurbishing tools to refurbishing buildings! The first issue was how the space was to be used- there was a lot to consider with hundreds of knitting and sewing machines and countless hand tools as well as shipment storage, workspace, office, grinder room and kitchen at the very least. Old dusty walls of been made like new with some paint, new electrics are being put in place and the building is slowly starting to resemble a tools workshop as shutters come off the windows lighting the busy activity taking place within.
We have come along from the small group of volunteers who used to meet in garages and attics back in the 80’s. While our experience and confidence has increased we have not lost the ideals which attracted us to this practical solidarity work.