After months of communication and preparation we finally arrived in Kenya. Colleen Demers and I flew to Nairobi to get the sewing project under way.
We met with Jane Otai at the Jhpeigo office and set off from there. The drive seemed long, maybe an hour, and it gave me a good perspective on the surroundings which lead up the Kariobangi slum where we were heading.
The taxi stopped outside a dilapidated six-storey building, just outside the slum. All around broken down buildings, garbage strewn everywhere, street vendors yelling for business, school kids in dishevelled uniforms waiting to go inside a room that they call school, security guards standing around, smoke billowing from piles of burning garbage, mothers hanging clothes on a line right outside their shanties. Smells of cooking food intermingled with smoke and urine. The heat and humidity seems to always magnify these odours.
We walked up five flights of narrow stairs until we reached the floor where Jane, Colleen and I were welcomed by a dozen shy, young women and a few of their children. I’m sure they were just as curious as we were. It was time to get acquainted and ease into the training program that lay ahead.
Although it was a very small space with limitations, as it was shared on different days for different purposes, we managed to work around the conditions and turn it into a sewing room of sorts.
Each sewing machine needed to be set up to work properly, the functions explained and each person given instructions on how to use the machine efficiently. The moms were ready to try a power machine for the first time and were excited and happy!
I could see how eager they were to learn new techniques and Colleen was such a good teacher. Highly qualified, with years of sewing experience and expertise, Colleen was living her dream to work with young women to help them to establish a level of creativity and a standard of quality in their sewing. I could see that they were quick learners.
Our goal was to teach the women how to create menstrual pads and a carry special carry bag, both for themselves and to sell on to others, while helping them understand hygiene issues and overcome embarrassment in dealing with periods. Inside each bag is room for a fresh, clean pad as well as space for the soiled one to be transported home for washing later. When the young women shared how they didn’t like the idea of washing and hanging out the pads to dry, Colleen found a mesh fabric in which to store the drying pad away from prying eyes.
Most people don’t realize the shame and frustration that comes with girls getting their period. So many of them are dropping out of school because of it. Girls are not given proper hygienic feminine products to ensure they will not get infections during their periods.
We spent time sourcing out fabrics that were not only absorbent and comfortable but also cost effective, ensuring a sustainable solution. I wanted a creative, organic look to the carry bag. A look that would reflect the African culture, so we agreed to beige burlap and the insert would be the African cement bag and a pendant that was created and handmade by the young moms. We hoped that these packages would sell well in the western market. The inserts are waterproof and adequate for the girls in the slum.
The looks of joy and accomplishment were overwhelming as the young women learned each new technique! Making their own patterns, learning how to use a snap machine, using a cutting board rather than scissors, and exploring the possibilities with their sergers was exciting!
Meanwhile, Colleen and I realized that their work space was in desperate need of organization. I purchased several containers, drawers and bags to manage the clutter and help clean up the mess, and we showcased their clothing and jewellery in a glass cabinet. Everyone was overjoyed!
Colleen bonded with the group in a way that will be memorable for years to come. She asked to carry the baby on her back so she could experience a little bit of their daily life.
Besides the training, we spent time singing and dancing, laughing and crying, sharing food, worship and prayer, but the greatest of all was our exchange of love and friendship, the meaning of respect.
These young, single moms were imparted with encouragement and hope. Whether they had suffered hardship and discrimination, making ends meet or dealing with HIV aids, there was now potential for change. In one small way, we made an impact through education to help these individuals turn around their future, perhaps reach out and teach others and, above all, help their children to make better choices for the next generation.
I am encouraged by organizations such as Jhpiego, World Vision and Better by Half, for all the work they do to help empower women and girls to make “the world twice as good”.