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