07 September, 2010

Margaret Musimbi


In Kenya when you ask a woman how many children she has she only tells you of the ones she gave birth to. But by asking the follow up question of 'How many orphans' you can get a more accurate picture of exactly how many children one mama takes care of. Margaret has 5 children and 4 orphans in her charge and brings a whole new meaning to the term 'single mother'. Her husband left her after she moved to Nairobi 10 years ago and since has been raising and supporting the 9 on her own. She is excited about the new constitution and what it means for herself as a single mother. There is a birth clause that if implemented could help many of the mama's in Kawangware and Kenya. Many of the 'boyfriends or husbands' of these women can and do walk away from the family and sneer any sort of responsibility for their children. This clause could mean that the fathers of their children would be held financially responsible for their child's well-being. It wouldn't be a huge compensation but enough to help educate the kids. Margaret has thought long and hard over this clause and is excited for its possibility. She says repeatedly that everything helps no matter how small or insignificant it could be.

Elizabeth Mmaitsi


"It used to be like a dictatorship in Kenya, but now we are seen", Elizabeth says with authority. There was more police harassment, more corruption and those at the grassroots were forgotten. Now, with the new constitution, she believes things have changed. There is a restored faith in the political leaders that peace will continue and build. Kenyans had been promised a new constitution since independence and this month they finally got what they had been longing for. I ask her what she thought of the celebration that took place on August 27th and she says it was a very happy time but that the only bad thing was that al-Bashir showed up. Omar al-Bashir is Sudan's President that has a ICC warrant out for his arrest for crimes against humanity. Elizabeth was under the impression he has already been arrested and sees this instance as a way the celebration was tainted, but as she smiles and shakes her head, she says that it's not important. Change is. The only thing is that there is a new constitution and it means things will progress positively. That's it. There's no need to say to more.

Mary Kavere


Mary's story is not unlike many of the other women in the WEMA group. She left her home in Western Kenya to come to Nairobi to find work. She came with her husband and children, only to be left alone when he passed away to find a way in which to maintain her family unit. Right now she is taking care of two orphans and three grandchildren and is unwavering in giving them an education. School fees for primary school are 2200 ksh per term, with three terms in a year (approximately $82USD per year). This may not seem like a lot to those in the States but for someone who makes less than two dollars a day, those fees can be daunting, but not for Mary. She makes sacrifices for those under her charge and sees that an education must be given at all costs. "How will they have a better life if i do not give them this", she says when discussing the financial strain of educating her family. They will have a better quality of life through education. Mary has no doubt of that.

Rukia Wambundo


Rukia wears many hats. That of WEMA group member, mother of 12 children, community worker, entrepreneur and teacher are just a few of them. She has made many crafts in the past but struggled with finding a market for them. She currently sells soap, is a seamstress and weaves baskets in addition to the paper bead making. She does not hoard the knowledge she has but is consistently going to other women's groups to share and teach income generating activities. She hopes to one day soon to go back to Mombasa, where she was born, and set up a shop on land promised through the new constitution. She knows things will change with its implementation and one thing she dreams of is that her daughter will someday be a member of parliament. "It's not that shenzi of a dream" she explains, but it has to happen to someone's daughter, so why not hers? My thoughts exactly.

Conslata Anyango


"I'm a mother" says Conslata with her head held high. That's an understatement. With 9 children and 5 orphans in her charge, Conslata is a mother times 14. She has seen Kenya through many changes and originally came to Nairobi to work in 1983. My interview with her took the longest of everyone in the WEMA group. This mama can talk and would even put my mom, a notorious chatty Cathy, to shame. We talked about the Swiss and French families she used to work for, the death of a child, her hope for her great-grandchildren, the new constitution, providing without a husband and much much more. Her hard work, dedication and resilience not only make her a force to be reckoned with but someone who speaks with authority and understanding. She believes the new constitution, when implemented, will bring more jobs so that her children can have opportunities she didn't. Conslata doesn't mind the daily struggle to sustain herself and her family but instead sees the challenge as the opportunity her children and her children's children will have that she didn't.

Absolom Kisai


Most Kenyan men do not like to share work alongside women. They see it as beneath them but Absolom, not only is used to it but sees the positives of working alongside women. As a health promoter in the community he sees the women, not the men, as accepting of their HIV status and willing to take advice on how their quality of life can improve. Not only that but women are a lot of times sole providers and are the ones that can improve the families circumstances. By having his role in the community as well as being part of the WEMA group, Absolom hopes to be an example for other men. The norm is for men to only take certain jobs that are considered 'masculine' but by modelling a good work ethic that is not based upon those roles he hopes to changes things. He doesn't mind working hard trying to provide for his family but accepts his role and the work he does. Like, many of the mamas he hopes to give his children a better quality of life than he got and will do whatever it takes to achieve that.

Nathan Lodenyo


Nathan is very quiet and finds it difficult to express himself. His soft demeanour is overpowered by the chatty mamas on a daily basis. His main job in the WEMA group is to do the varnishing of the beads. He is proud of his contribution and his role within the group. Nathan left his home and family in Western Kenya 7 years ago to come find work in Nairobi. He is the sole provider for his large family of 14 and two years ago he brought his family to join him in Kawangware. He used to do mostly manual labour as a way of generating income but finds it difficult these last few years since he is getting older. He is not ashamed of the work he does now but instead sees dignity in making the paper beads/ jewellery. "It doesn't matter how you get money to provide for your family..only thing is that you provide" he says firmly. But then even more quietly asks if its okay if he can go back to work.

Phanis Ayuma


After 30 years of living in Kawangware, Phanis, still loves it, loves Nairobi and loves Kenya. It would be normal to look at her life and see only hardship. By having to provide for 10 people on her own, having to find a way to pay school fees, daily food consumption, house rent and other daily costs it would be easy to see only the burden, but she instead affirms that life is simple. She loves Kenya and sees herself as lucky to be able to provide for those she loves and cares for. Phanis is resolved that America can learn much from Kenya, one thing being that living day to day is not a burden but an opportunity. Providing for your family is something to be proud of and something never to be taken for granted.

Josephine Khamede


"The government has heard the cries of the people and they will now look after us" Josephine says, as we begin to talk. She has lived in Kawangware long enough to know it in peace, in conflict, in famine and now after the new constitution, a hope for the better. She believes that the new constitution reflects the wishes of all Kenyans. Josephine explains that compared to two years ago when the post-election violence took place.. after the election was 'stolen' by the President...things were bad. There was little accountability and much corruption. But with the balance of having a President and Prime Minister things have changed. Kenyan politicians have been held to a higher standard. She explains the government has and will continue to become more straight forward and merciful to those impoverished. By thinking of others and not themselves it will change the country. As she shrugs her shoulders and leans back she explains that 'we should love each other...it is the key for life...without it there is nothing...love is the key.' I tend to agree with Josephine.

Gloria Awuor


When i first met Gloria back in 2008 i was instantly struck by this mama who is an older version of Whoopi Goldberg. She had style. Always dressed to the nine's and sporting her latest jewellery invention i always have to smile when i see her. As Gloria and i sit down to talk we discuss her health. For the last 3 weeks she has been battling with Malaria, a common thing to get but at her age and with the mixture of it and the ARV's, it can be deadly. She is glad to be healthy and working again and tells me that she feels idle since she has not worked in three weeks. She laughs when she explains that her husband hasn't worked in three years and still doesn't feel idle. With a sigh explains that is the difference between men and women. When Gloria first came to Kawangware in 1974, 10 years after Kenya's independence, it was mostly bush and wasn't populated but now it has just under a million residents. The streets have become unsafe and living daily is a problem for all. Regarding the constitution, she says that she cannot worry about what may or may not change. Not to misunderstand her though that she voted and will remain political, but that there are always things promised and always things not given. If Kenyans only dwelled on that and not living day to day then the country would not run. It's better to focus on what needs to be done right now and go from there. Change will come, but no one knows when or what will be changed until it happens. She sits a bit taller, moves her blouse around and then declares we are done and now she would like to discuss her earrings.

Leah Kageha


Leah would like to go home some day. She was born in Kakamega but has lived the last 30 years in Kawangware. She has seen many changes happen in Kawangware in that time but doesn't recall them with much detail. It's not a memory issue but simply a way to forget the bad in the past and have hope for the future. She knows change will come with the new constitution. There is no doubt and for someone who has lived through many things, i don't doubt her experience. Under the new constitution the issue of land has been introduced. It's likely that if implemented precisely, Leah could be returning home with land in her name. It's not only the physical land she hopes for but the peace that it promised along with it. A peace that has been disrupted by corrupt politicians and marginalisation of the impoverished. For one who has lived and experienced much of Kenya's history post British occupancy, to express that a 'very big change' is and will come,does not fall on deaf ear. This mama's hope is something to be rivalled and revered, as well as looked upon as a valuable resource that Kenya offers.

Dorcus Musimbi


Life is hard alone, Dorcus tells me, but there is something about a group that works together to boost their lives that makes life easier. Not in competition but collaboration to improve themselves and their families well-being. Dorcus, like 90% of the mamas in the WEMA group are either widows or husbands have left them. Many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children have died of AIDS and so in many ways they do feel alone. But she looks at me seriously and says 'But we are not alone. We have each other. That is important.' They know of one another's suffering, heartache, physical and emotional pain, etc. and are able to not only support but understand and share in that suffering on a daily basis. Even with her 8 children Dorcus says she sometimes feels like she is alone but once she sets foot into Kabiro (area of Kawangware), that feeling goes away and she is happy to chat about groundnuts, the Prime Minster, school fees and life in general. But the new favourite topic is how to best marry the Business Manger for Asante Sana off....

Julius Korir


Julius understands the need to care for the orphans since he himself is one. He was under 18 when both his parents passed away and instead of staying around he decided to sell the family cows and go get an education. He is always ready and quick to learn anything new as well as come up with his own ideas for how things should be. It's never done in a authoritative manner but in humility and enthusiasm. Every day when i see Julius he has a new idea for a product or new skill that he has learned. Back in Eldorett, where he was born and lived most of his life, he was constantly reminded of death and that he was alone. Julius likes living in Kawangware and says laughingly that God blesses him since he is an orphan because now he has 30 mama's looking after him and giving him advice whether he wants it or not. He currently takes care of two of his cousins that were orphaned and needs and gets much insight on how to raise them from the group. He loves these mama's and they love and respect him. He knows that he can ask them anything and they in turn give their knowledge and love freely to this young man who has chosen to work to support himself and his family

17 August, 2010

Florence Nyaboke


"I know what it is like to pray for your daily bread..." says Florence as we sit down to talk. She explains that she does not mind working for her daily bread and never expects a handout. Trying to figure out and discover how each day she will feed herself and her 9 children would make anyone anxious but she is calm. She expects to work hard for what she gets and does not take help lightly. Florence used to own a small clothing kiosk but like many small businesses in Kawangware, it closed down 8 months ago when she couldn't make the rent payments. With 11 mouths to feed besides her own, Florence looks for methods in which to provide for her family. She registers with support groups, churches and NGO's, all for different reasons. The support groups and churches are a constant support emotionally and can help each other out with small loans if absolutely necessary. The NGO's and other development organisations give her training and a method in which she can use her abilities to generate an income. Florence does not believe that sadness or despair over her circumstances helps anything, but instead says she thanks God every day that she is able to put food on the table and shelter over their heads.

Pauline Auma


Pauline's husband died leaving behind her and 6 children. She says she was lucky to remarry and find someone else as many widows do not. Her current husband does not share responsibility for providing for another man's children so the burden falls solely on her. Her children, her husband, her extended family all look to her to be their strength in times of difficulty. Pauline can't explain why it falls on her but says she prays every day for strength and is always answered. Somehow she always finds a way of being that pillar her family needs and she says often she relies upon her friends for emotional support. She recalls a few months back when she was locked out of her house because she couldn't pay rent and how discouraged she was. She came to the WEMA group to work any ways and was able to get a loan out of the money they saved together and was able to pay the landlord. Strength comes in all shapes and sizes and Pauline explains that the mama's she works with, help to give her strength so that in return she can be strong for those who need her.

Beatrice Shemi


"You'll take Chai!!". Beatrice makes me laugh. Everyday. Without fail. She is the youngest member of the group at 22 and the one who always makes the Chai (mixture of milk, tea and sugar) and the meal each day. I asked her if she liked doing that or if it was just because she was the youngest and she shrugged and said 'I make the best Chai..' then of course laughs. She moved to Nairobi right before the election and ended up losing everything. Her house burned down with all of her possessions in it. Beatrice, 20 then, had to start from scratch to start up a home again for herself and the 5 others she is responsible for. That's how she met Florence, one of the leaders of the WEMA group. Flo gave her water, clothes, and a place to sleep and there Beatrice found solace with the women in the WEMA group. She laughs and interrupts her own story and says 'Take me to America, I want to meet Obama'. We laugh together. I try to explain that i don't have a direct line to the President but she won't hear of it. We laugh again then her eyes get huge and she says "You'll take Chai!!".

Florence Andisi


On August 4th, Kenya will vote on a Referendum to it's Constitution. Many of the women in the WEMA group do not understand why they are voting the way they are but simply follow their appointed leadership. As the second youngest member in the group, at the age of 25, her and Beatrice keep a watchful eye on the progress of the Constitution and understand what it entails. She believes that Kenya's problems steam from it's leadership. Actually she says she knows it does. She had only been living in Nairobi 5 years when the post election violence happened. Florence moved here with her husband and 4 children (3 of them her sisters who passed away) to look for work. She recalls a few years ago when houses were burnt down, tear gas was constant at night, sleep never came, jobs were lost and food was scarce. She remembers and is grateful for those of her friends and family that took her and her family in and helped them. Florence was idle for over a year before her aunt, Marselina, invited her to join the group. Every day Florence says she is grateful for this group. For their support, their love, their insights on how to be a mother and wife... but the only thing is, she says laughing, is now she has 40 aunties and mamas in her business.

Wilimina Odimbo (Museve)


Wilimina does not smile often but when she does it radiates upon anyone near her. As i tell her she should smile more frequently I'm met with a lowered head and shrugged shoulders. 10 years ago she moved to Kawangware. Originally from Nyanza she married young and lived with her husbands family until she was tossed away because she was not able to bear children. She explained how she couldn't go back to her family disgraced so she moved to Nairobi to find work. She smiles again, twice in one day, (my luck abounds) and says now she has 3 children that she takes care of since her sisters passing. She runs a small scale green grocery in addition to the bead work and explains that after the post election violence things have got even more difficult. Prices went up on everything and since most in Kawangware were living in the margins already, situations got desperate. Wilimina says it is very easy to lose hope, without a job, without money for school fees, insecurity...but she still holds on to optimism for herself and her country. She says things must change and they will. Corruption must end and it will. Leaders must take responsibility and they will. She said that like when the rains come, so will change and it will wash away all that is bad and prepare the ground for something good. .

25 May, 2010

Violet Lupisia

Faithfulness - Violet Lupisia

Violet herself is not infected with HIV but is a caregiver for those in her family that are. Her face alters from a shy smile to that of seriousness as she explains the importance of faithfulness. 'It is important to be faithful.' Immediately what comes to mind is that she is referring to her family but as i ask her to further explain, she states clearly and without hesitation that for those that do not have this disease they must not get it. That was the first thing. Many people die from HIV because of a lack of faithfulness to husbands and wives going outside their commitments. In addition to that those in Kenya are suffering. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, discrimination due to tribal group, rise of HIV/AIDS and repercussions of the post election violence are only some of the reminders to her of unfaithfulness. Her face changes again and she smiles and laughs saying that the answer to these things are simple and i am old enough to know that. All of Kenya would be taken care of if we would all just remain faithful. To one another. To our families. To our government. To our faith and to what we know to be right and wrong. The answer is simple.

Mariselina Kageha

Free-spirited: Mariselina Kageha

For 38 years Mariselina has lived in Kawangware. She has seen it change politically, geographically, religiously and economically. This mama is unique. Not only is she the oldest mama in the group but she is the most outspoken. She constantly is talking, cracking jokes and trying to make everyone laugh, revolt against the government and chanting to bring back Moi or Kenyatta. But as we drink our chai, Mariselina states that she needs to tell me something. She shakes her head as she speaks of the change in Kawangware over the last few years. Before the post election violence neighbours/people were friendly to one another but now they are enemies. Kenyans used to help each other, there was grace if you couldn't pay your rent. Neighbours would pitch in and help one another but now everyone feels as if they are on their own. But this group she explains to me are sisters and are changing things back to how they were. They not only help each other emotionally and spiritually because they see each other every day but are also able to help out financially if need be. She takes care of 12 people besides herself and is proud of this accomplishment but says that she could not do any of it without the support of this group. She pauses and looks me in the eye then exclaims 'Bring back Moi!

Judith Yomba

Judith Yomba


Born in Kawangware, Judith has 5 children that she supports along with her husband. She has been HIV positive for the last 11 years now and often worries about tomorrow and what will happen to her family when she has passed away. She says 'it is life' and she is right. Most of the women in the WEMA (goodness) group are infected themselves and are the sole providers for their families. But she tells me that although she worries she is still encouraged. Her eyes crease on the corners as she smiles and takes out a letter that was written by her 9 year old daughter. The letter, written for a school project, exclaims that when she grows up she will become a doctor so that she can cure her mother. Judith says her daughter has good marks and could very well be a doctor and that she will do everything she can to keep her in school. She is determined that her little girl will live a different, healthy, more desirable life than her. There is no hesitation when she says this because there is no doubt that the outcome of her life will be favourable.

Jane Muthoni

Peacemaker: Jane Muthoni

Jane is driven to mobilise and empower those in Kawangware through the message of peace. The hope she sees for Kenya, for Kawangware and for herself lies in not getting back into the condition they were in during the post election violence. 'We are trying to put the broken pieces back together from the grassroots to the national level.' She speaks of peace not only to other women's groups but in churches as well and sees conflict as a way to keep the country in turmoil. She puts things into perspective as she describes those less privileged than herself and how she is called to help them in whatever small way she can. Jane, in our western standards, would be considered underprivileged or poor, but believes strongly that peace has to take root in her first before it reaches all of Kenya and by reaching out a helpful hand to someone in need, is one more step closer to the peace process.