In 2019 Chui Mama Group in Koija, Liakipia North started out with only eight women.
Seketo Lenawala, 58, was among the first members to join the group. In under a month, the group had recruited over 60 women group. Seketo together with her group mates recently learnt a new skill: Tailoring.
“I did not go to school and yes, it was my first time to see a sewing a machine, but I can now pedal it!” She says.
As she cautiously pedals the sewing machine, it’s easy to discern her passion for this new venture. With a hired trainer, it took her slightly over two weeks before she could confidently handle the machine.
“It’s not like beadwork that we are taught as girls by our grandmothers, this one definitely needed time, before my legs could get used to the pedals,” she remarks with a laugh.
But the mother of eight has not been always like this. She holds her breath as she recalls her old ways of making income for her family. “I come from a big family, with eight children to feed and sometimes it not easy to do that.” She says.
Until 2018, she engaged in the making of illegal local brew and in charcoal burning to feed her family.
Ewaso area in Laikipia is categorized as Arid and Semi-arid Land where pastoralism is the main livelihood. For many years, the area has been dogged with reoccurring drought and conflicts over pastures and water for livestock. During such periods, women bear the brunt and even during peaceful months, men are often away looking after livestock.
In pastoralist communities, therefore, women, like Seketo, continue to be the custodians and caregivers while men are away herding livestock. With little or no formal education, these women have to overcome challenges to provide some financial support and feed their families.
But when Seketo joined Mama Chui Group, she met other women who like her, were looking for better, legal ways to improve their livelihoods.
Chui Mama has now offered a platform for the women of Ewaso to engage in organized social enterprenuership. Ellie Modesta, the co-founder of the group says that the group was formed to address the issues of vulnerable women- the widows, single mothers- and was meant “to keep them away from retrogressive environmental and cultural practises.”
The group firsts started making beadworks that they would sell to tourists who visited conservancies in the area. Beadwork remains a strong cultural craft among the Maasais but stands out as a key alternative source of livelihood.
“We sat down and thought of a venture that we could easily integrate with beadwork,” Modesta says. They came up with two: tailoring and beekeeping.
The group got support from friends who donated three sewing machines and with a trainer. With help from the hired trainer, the women practised on different designs and would repair torn clothes for their families.
The trainer also took the women through the use, maintenance and safety of the sewing machines.
In February 2020, the group received four more sewing machines and sixty beehives through World Vision’s IMARA programme to support the vulnerable women and help them upscale their plans.
“In total we’ve distributed 35 sewing machines to vulnerable groups in Laikipia and Marsabit Counties as part of IMARA’s start-up kits,” says Joseph Ethekon, a livelihood specialist with World Vision.
Mama Chui’s initial plan was to make cloth pads for girls. The communities in Koija are vulnerable and cannot afford to buy disposable sanitary pads. Girls have not been going to school especially during their menstrual cycle due to fear of ostracism and embarrassment.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the group was distributing the cloth pads to schools in the locality. “Most Saturdays, we were delivering the cloth pads to schools and talking to the girls on menstrual hygiene and education.” Modesta remarks.
With their sewing machines and newly acquired skills, the group has so far made and distributed over 700 cloth pads to different schools and homes in Ewaso.
The UN estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their menstrual cycle. The report further says that by some estimates, this equal as much as twenty per cent of a given school year.
“After I joined this group and was trained on the use of sewing machines, I am glad to have made cloth pads for my daughters,” Seketo says.
Making fabric face masks for communities
In March, the Government of Kenya released guidelines to curb the spread of the virus following the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the rules in the guidelines was the mandatory wearing of facemasks in public.
“We knew the scope of things, and our community needs protection from the virus too,” Modesta tells us. The world was experiencing the pandemic, and the group decided that it was a good time to start making some masks and sell to the community.
From April, the group has produced facemasks and has been selling them for Ksh 50 apiece, while the 60 members of the group have received the masks for free.
“We’ve received mask orders for Ksh 15,000 from clients, and we anticipate more in coming days,” Modesta says.
The group now looks at lifting itself off the ground as a strong business group that is inspiring more women and is supporting girls in Ewaso.
As for, Seketo, the 58-year-old hopes to be a competent seamstress ready to change the lives of her children. “I love what I do here, from beadwork to sewing and even our small farm that we are starting thanks to the income from our business,” She says.