The slums of Kenya flagrantly shock the senses. Rusty corrugated metal shacks line narrow, muddy walkways of open sewage. Children play barefoot in trash-clogged rivers where dead pigs float. The putrid stench of burning trash and diesel fumes permeate acres of land devoid of anything green.
Approximately 2.5 million people call the slums home in Nairobi, where 60% of the capitol’s population occupies 6% of the land. (http://www.kibera.org.uk/facts-info/)
But beneath the sensory assault lie invisible, even more sinister symptoms of people subsisting in constant deprivation.
Joyce knows all too well this agony. She understands hunger, abuse, and abandonment. She knows the heartache of a broken marriage and the desperation of trying to raise children on her own against impossible odds.
She also recognizes the sliver of hope and dignity that break through like insistent dawn when someone teaches a woman skills and empowers her to earn a living. At one of her lowest points, after moving to a Nairobi slum from her home area and soon after her marriage dissolved, Joyce met Pastor Karau. He invited her to church, and she joined a women’s support group founded and lead by his wife, Edith Karau.
I met Joyce around this time. During a long sojourn in Kenya while adopting my daughter, a friend took me to visit an economic development project for refugees and impoverished Kenyan women. I immediately thought of Mama Karau’s women’s group, and told Mama about this amazing opportunity. One day, Mama and Joyce joined me at the project; we introduced Joyce to the hiring manager, and she was granted an interview and an internship. Eventually Joyce was hired full time and cross-trained in all aspects of creating products and running a business.
But Joyce never forgot the hardships she endured. Now Joyce links arms with four other women currently living in the slums through an artisan group she founded, Tuungane Pamoja (“let us join together”). Between them, the women parent 12 children.
This past July, my Pamba Toto co-founder and dear friend, Debbie Lee, and I met with Joyce to purchase products made by the group. I had to step away for a minute, overwhelmed with awe.
You see, my 7.5 month sojourn while adopting my daughter in 2005 was unexpected, and at the time, felt like a terrible price to pay, much more than my soul could spend. So many times in life we go through hard times and we never know why. But, for whatever reason, God continues to open wide the window of eternity on that particular experience. He reveals to me myriad ways that the price was nothing compared to the fabric He was weaving into place. I saw a shimmering thread that day a few months ago, watching Joyce and Debbie discussing beautiful bags Joyce learned how to make through her internship and employment at the economic development project – bags we now sell to raise money for Sanctuary of Hope, which was also born through the labor pangs of that long sojourn.
On another day, we followed Joyce through a slum labyrinth, winding between corrugated metal walls and laundry flapping in the wind. We ducked through a narrow doorway into a small, dimly-lit room. There, in the Tuungane Pamoja workshop, we encountered more radiance than the equatorial sun outside. Sandra, one of the artisans, greeted us with a brilliant smile, emanating from somewhere deep within.
Joyce met Sandra soon after Sandra’s husband left her. Joyce passed by Sandra’s house on her way home from work and often stopped by to pray. Eventually, gaining insight into the family’s plight, Joyce asked her church for assistance so the children could attend school. Then Joyce took another step. She created a job for Sandra, training her and employing her with Tuungane Pamoja.
And so we met Sandra that day. Our visit was relatively brief; and, yet, just sitting there and soaking in the vitality of Sandra’s spirit buried deep in a place of despair, in the compassion of Joyce’s heart reaching out to rescue others from where she once suffered, we left changed. Debbie and I certainly believed in Pamba Toto before that day, but we wound our way back out of that slum awash with new urgency and new passion.
Without a doubt, we are in this together with Joyce and Sandra.
You can purchase some of the beautiful purses and bags made by Tuungane Pamoja by clicking here. Click photos, below, to view larger.