For ten years, Wilter Kirui was the go-to tailor for the village of Enelerai, in Narok County, Kenya. Her specialty was school uniforms. Her neighbors were loyal clients.
“Buying school uniforms from the shops is expensive, so they buy the fabric and bring it to me to make the clothes,” she says. A troop of well-dressed students was a point of community pride.
When the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in Nairobi, the national government closed schools across the country. It was a vital safety measure, but it effectively put Wilter out of business. Now, while trying to shield her four children from the virus, she was worried about how to feed them.
Like many women in her village, Wilter has always played a lead role in times of crisis. Faced with this new threat, she quickly put her her wealth of tailoring experience toward a new purpose, making masks at WE Charity’s Women’s Empowerment Center. Wilter is just one of the mamas using new or repurposed skills to provide for their households and keep their communities safe. WE salutes their entrepreneurial spirit!
In 2018, and with the generous support of donors, WE Charity opened the Women’s Empowerment Center in rural Narok as a site of new beginnings. The cluster of red-roofed buildings was built next to Baraka Hospital and WE College in Enelerai, but the center serves women entrepreneurs from all of the organization’s partner communities. In recent months, WE Charity purchased sewing machines to train women in the art of tailoring. This new venture has become a community lifeline. Though the onset of COVID-19 put a stop to the center’s large-scale projects, one item was suddenly in high demand.
On April 27, Wilter arrived at the Women’s Empowerment Center to take up a new role as mask maker. Within a week, she was at the helm of a small team of women who are sewing protective masks, which until now have not been easily accessible to rural communities. While observing social distancing and taking preventative health measures, the women work together for a few hours every day, making an average of 50 masks each.
Wilter takes pride in the quality of masks her team makes and is pleased that she can sell them in local shops at an affordable price.
“I can feed my children and help the people of my community stay safe,” she says.
Healthy food will be harder to come by as the pandemic brings widespread loss of income and oncoming disruptions in food supply and security. In the community of Pimbiniet, Janet Molel looks to her own land to sustain her five children—all of whom are affected by COVID-19 closures, which have brought school nutrition programs to a halt.
Food has long been a pillar of WE Charity’s sustainable development programming, including supporting families so they can plant kitchen gardens on their homesteads. Training has led to an increase in agricultural outputs and accessibility to a wider variety of food, yet even with these measures in place, the pandemic will level new hardships. To help partner communities turn food supply from a vulnerability into a strength, WE Charity recently organized refresher training on agricultural techniques geared to the current crisis.
Janet weighed the risks of attending. Should she venture out to the workshop and potentially expose herself to the virus, or stay home and miss out on knowledge that might protect her family?
“I came hoping I would learn new skills about planting the kitchen garden because, right now, all my children are home due to COVID and I need to be able to provide food for them,” says Janet.
She and other participants washed their hands and received face masks before entering the training space, then settled in at a safe distance from one another.
The session opened with a discussion of nutrition as an important defense against the virus. To equip families with what they need for healthy meals, trainers also distributed seeds for vitamin-rich vegetables, including tomato, kale, spinach and butternut squash.
“I will plant them in my kitchen garden,” Janet says.
Beyond offering of guidance and seeds, the training sought to help women reclaim a sense of power over the wellbeing of their families and create a moment of solidarity in an uncertain time.
“It was great to see some of my friends from other communities,” Janet says, relieved at the robust safely precautions. “It is good that we didn’t have to worry, and important to keep moving forward.”
To learn more about WE Charity’s COVID-19 response please visit WE.org
Zeddy Kosgei is a multi-media content creator in Kenya with over three years’ experience as a broadcast journalist. She loves finding stories that matter and retelling them creatively and eloquently.