Someone once asked me how helping the women of Kasigau was really going to make any difference in their livelihoods and meet my desired goal of conserving and preserving our national heritage of wildlife. Honestly speaking, I had the same question some time back. Some of you may actually be having the same question. How can 1000 shillings influence a generation? How can buying a basket change a life from one state of negativity and despair to one of hope and a realistic future? Let me explain with their lives.
Meet Hannah Manga
For those who have used Kenya Airways in July, you may recognize the face.
She is the chairlady of the Kasigau Basket Weavers, and the chairlady of her village group. She was instrumental when I first made up my mind on how I was going to help the women in Kasigau. She has 4 kids; 3 girls and 1 boy, well, a young man. The oldest is married and has a family. She reached standard 8 and due to lack of fees, she didn’t continue and ended up getting married. The young man cleared secondary school/high school 2 years ago. The third born is in high school in Voi, the nearby town. The youngest is still in primary school. The last three kids have all been educated with money from basket weaving. Does she have a husband? She does, but he depends on casual labour, which in Kasigau is seasonal, especially in between the rainy seasons. Below are pictures of her houses; the old ones and the new one.
The grass thatched house that acted as a kitchen and granary and one of the rooms used by her son.
The “main house” that had her bedroom and the kids bedroom.
The new one has been built largely from basket money.
The new house though it is not yet complete but she moved in with her family.
As a woman, she will be diligent about saving and using the little she has to educate her children and help build the house. The women end up bearing the same, if not a larger burden as the men. She has come to me more than once asking me to bail her out with money for fees. I do what I can by chipping an order for her that was meant for another group. Basketry has most definitely improved her life.
Meet Christine Makenga.
Christine in 2011 when I first came to her group.
She is the secretary of the Bungule Mwamko Basket Weavers Group. Her group was the first to benefit from basket sales through orders from clients, most specifically Bee Friedmann and Amy Fleuriot’s From Afar Crafts and Hiro + Wolf in London, England. I have been working with her group to experiment new concepts of business and designs for the baskets. Her group wasn’t getting a lot of sales since they are far from the main town centre, Rukanga, and hence, would only get sales once in a while. Another reason I chose to work with her group was because her village gets a lot of elephant raids. That side of the hill borders the Rukinga Ranch, which is a migratory corridor for elephants as they move between both Tsavos and towards Mkomanzi reserve in Tanzania. She has 4 kids, the oldest being a 17 year old girl. The youngest boy is just over a year. Her husband works in Mombasa, so doesn’t really spend his whole time with his family. They have been able to educate the oldest through to a technical institute to become a tailor. When I asked her how the baskets have helped improve her life, this is what she had to say. “Without the baskets, I doubt I would have progressed as fast as I did. My husband was helping to pay the fees of my daughter, but if I had small needs in the family, I would either borrow my neighbour or do some other work. Casual labour was not enough. Now, however, I have been able to buy good clothes for my children, and if their shoes are worn out, I don’t have to wait for my husband to buy new sandals. I do it myself. I have even been able to buy some goats with the extra money.” On the part of new clothes, I can attest that when I began working with her group, the kids in primary school had tattered clothes, but now I rarely see tattered uniforms. She has bettered herself. Compare the images of 2011 and 2013.
Christine last month
Physically, she seems to be “eating well”. Traditionally, a well-fed wife meant that the husband is taking good care of her.
Meet Christine Nyange.
Christine explaining to me when she’ll be done with the handles for this particular basket.
She is the Chairlady of the other basket weaving group in Bungule village. I began working with her group recently. I went to visit her to learn more about her life and her family.
Christine’s old house
Her new unfinished house
She lives in a grass thatched house, but she intends to build her own house with corrugated iron sheets, which is an on-going project that she has been doing for the last year. She and her husband are both farmers and depend on their crops. The farm is sizeable and in a good year, they have a successful harvest and can sell the extra. In other times, let’s just say they have to make sure that they feed their kids first and have money to meet their day-to-day needs. As I was talking with her, she revealed that she and her husband were really burning charcoal to make a living, especially during those years the rainfall was poor or their farm had been invaded by elephants. She says she knew she was destroying the environment, but what was she to do if her daughter had been sent home to collect fees and she had nothing and there were trees around. She says she wasn’t earning much from charcoal burning, but it was better than nothing. She has a tree nursery from where she is hoping to sell the seedlings to Wildlife Works -Wildlife Works has a program of buying tree seedlings from the local community-. She has, however, been planting some of the seedlings on her own farm. I encouraged her with her replanting efforts.
Her tree seedlings and nursery
I have bought baskets from her on short notice when I have friends asking, and my goodness, is she fast. Her basket quality is very good for someone who weaves that quickly. I have bought her baskets 3 times in as many weeks, and the income she has received from the baskets always brightens her up. She is diligent with her work and will make sure that I get what I need and what the client wants. She hopes the weaving business will give her enough income to educate her daughter, who is in high school, and enough for the siblings, who are in primary school.
In the same village of Bungule, where both Christines come from, a group of women formed their own basket weaving group. 2 weeks ago they invited me to visit and know them. I asked them why they formed the group and the reason was, they saw that baskets have money and they can make a living out of them. I was somehow happy and apprehensive at the same time. Happy because my efforts are slowly bearing fruit and apprehensive because I know the supply is outweighing the demand.
The money that comes from baskets goes mostly to school fees and other school-related requirements like uniforms and stationery. The money also helps by meeting the day-to-day needs of their lives. When I asked the groups what they’d want to do if they made enough income from the basket work, most said that the income would go to pay and offset school fees and then better their lives. To them, education is the key to getting out of their poverty/predicament. To be honest, there are a number of bursaries (Wildlife Works Carbon, Constituency Development Fund, Rotary Club, individuals) that go round in the schools, mostly the high school. These bursaries are mostly merit-based and in reality, even with that criterion, not everyone benefits. The bursaries do not cater to school supplies or primary level education. This is where I want us to meet that shortfall. In reality, being able to proceed to high school through college and get the various bursaries on offer, the children have to perform well in primary level. Children need to be in a conducive and encouraging environment, where they don’t have to be sent home to bring lunch money -used by the school to make lunch for the children and they don’t have to go home. The fees help especially during the seasons where the rains have failed-, PTA fees -money used to hire teachers from within the community, since there aren’t enough government teachers- or to buy the basic and necessary learning materials. These all affect the quality of education and the impact of learning on students. By working with the mothers, I have a greater chance of aiding the families, helping the communities, and influencing a generation.
There is a story from the Bible about a man who was robbed and beaten and only one person came to his aid. The said helper was not from his community/people, and he even paid for the injured man’s recovery. The origin of this story was a question to Jesus; “Who is my neighbour?” The answer; anyone in need. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but I have been privileged with a university education. I have the choice of getting those fancy jobs not related to my college education and making a good salary. I also have the choice of helping these women better themselves, helping the community to improve their lives and conserving our national heritage of wildlife. I have the choice of being a good neighbour to the women, to the coming generation, to our wildlife, and most notably, the elephant. We all have the choice to be a good neighbour.