It all started with one.
One person working in the tiny sisal project, cutting leaves to make fiber. Then, there were three. Three people earning a decent salary making fiber out of the thick, green sisal leaves. We bought two oxen and started using them to carry sisal to our new decorticator machine, where a green slurry oozes out of one end, leaving the workers with raw sisal in their hands.
The sisal is then washed until it is white and clean, left to dry on long metal lines. There, the sun turns the beige fiber into white, ready for bundling if it is to be sold in this form or, to be brushed or twinned. Baskets, rope, purses, sandals, earrings, and so much more J’s made from this fiber, creating more jobs, widening the circle of income generation for the community.
Now, there are 29.
28 women and one man (the mechanic) have good jobs, earning money for their families. The women work three-day work weeks, allowing their bodies to rest in between work days, while giving them time to do what mothers do. As widows, their everyday burdens are heavy and this job helps balance work life with personal life. Some women work with the decorticator machines, some wash, some bundle, some twine and brush, and some make rope. All of them, every single one of them, are grateful and have been long-time employees, knowing this is an opportunity not easily found elsewhere.
As we arrive, we see activity and hear the roar of the machines. Earplugs, gloves and protective clothing are worn by the women on the decorticators, except for one, who refuses to wear gloves. I see them sitting beside her water, languishing in the sun, while she works under shade, sweating as she pushes leaves into the machine and pulls out fiber. She has the most beautiful smile and we hug for a long, long time, having not seen each other in a while. She is a bundle of muscle, her arms strong and her body tough, with her pregnant belly announcing an impending birth.
We continue to the storage unit where a group of rope makers sit in a circle, chatting and laughing easily. Mama Mary startles at seeing me and we also hug for long with her whispering a prayer in Luo into my neck, to which we both say “Amen” at the end, not wanting to let go. I go around the room, greeting each woman, shaking hands, hugging, dipping my head on each side of theirs as is the custom here, hands on each other’s shoulders.
Today, there are 29.
We tell them to bring large, clean buckets to work tomorrow because we will be fitting each of them with water filters. The ululation and clapping that follows is so beautiful. And when they hear that they will also receive solar lamps, their joy is palpable and we celebrate together on this hot, sunny day in Miwani, Kenya.