Earlier this year, international news reported the collapse of buildings in an obscure Nairobi slum called Huruma. Ironically, “Huruma” means “mercy” in Swahili. At least seven people died and 121 people were injured, buried in shoddily constructed dwellings that rose much higher than should ever have been allowed. There was no mercy for these impoverished victims of corruption.
Huruma is a place I know well. My first journey through its muddy labyrinth scarred my heart forever. Buried in its depths was a treasure of immeasurable worth. The son we adopted from the Mother Teresa Home for Abandoned Children. Looking into his brown eyes ensures I will never forget this little corner of the world.
John’s brilliant smile shoves back at the bleakness of Huruma. Debbie and I follow him to a nondescript cement facade less than a mile from the orphanage. We duck through a gate and pass through a narrow corridor into a courtyard. Laundry stretches for rays of light from a stingy gray sky.
We cross over to a door, yawning miraculously into an artist’s studio. John lives, works, creates, and operates his business from this one-room space. At the moment, lively creations pile on a three tier bunk bed. Others clamor over one another, all the way to the ceiling. Somehow, buried here in the struggles of Huruma, lies nestled a fanciful wonderland.
John tells us his story. Many years ago, his mother, Emelda, fled Idi Amin’s horrific regime in Uganda carrying little more in her arms than John, then two years old. She escaped to Nairobi, where relatives worked. Like many refugees, Emelda and John were absorbed into a slum. Then Emelda met a western missionary who gathered refugees from Uganda to discuss the Bible and teach them how to sew. John went along to classes, tied to his mother’s back in traditional African-style. After Emelda trained for several years, the missionary left Kenya; but first, she introduced her students to the Kenyan Masai Market so they could sell their hand-crafted items independently.
As they grew, John and his younger brother helped their mother. John demonstrated special talent. When he was still quite young, he trained and supervised younger cousins. Meanwhile, his mother, through sheer determination and with the help of government assistance for refugees, ensured that he graduated secondary school. Although he yearned to pursue higher education, John began working full-time to help support his three younger siblings.
Demand for Emelda’s and John’s hand-crafted products grew. They now employ John’s cousins, Jumai, age 19, and Kasim, age 22.
John, age 34, supports his wife and two young children through the business. However, terrorist incidents in recent years, such as the horror of the Westgate Mall attacks, chew away at local markets. (You can read my personal reflections on two of these incidents by clicking here: Westgate Mall attack and Garissa attack.)
Just last year, John almost lost his younger sister to what seems to be a human trafficking solicitation. A man convinced John’s sister to pay him $500, promising her a job in Dubai airports. Debbie heard the story as it unfolded and warned John. She urged him to tell the man she would check on John’s sister when she passed through Dubai on lay-overs. The man disappeared. My skin crawls with fear for what might have been.
We talk about product development for Pamba Toto. John possesses a rare ability to simply see an idea and create it. Improvising, he sews a whistle into a stuffed giraffe to create a gentle baby rattle. He holds a pattern book for Christmas stockings, puzzled by this completely unfamiliar item, but willing to create them. We load bags of John’s amazing creations to take back to the US with us.
We leave John, smiling and waving. His small group of artisans called Mwangaza (Swahili for “bright light”),huddles with him: radiating talent, perseverance and courage – made all the more beautiful by the harshness surrounding them.
As we drive away, my bewilderment from a decade of experiences in Huruma fades for a moment, replaced with hope that there might be a chance for mercy.
Pamba Toto proudly carries Mwangaza’s unique and quality products, like the sampling of children’s items below, available on our website: www.pambatoto.com