Two women, two remarkably different lives. Both connected by WE.
By Shelley Page
A punishing, inescapable quest for water dominates Jane Noonguta’s life; first as a baby strapped to her mother’s back; then as a little girl trudging to a distant river, polluted and brown, to fill a small plastic jerry can.
Later, when Jane was a mother of six thirsty children, she walked for hours without finding any water at all. That was during the drought. Her children couldn’t go to school because there was no water to drink, no water to cook their corn flour porridge, no water to wash their clothes, no water to bathe in. When a borehole was drilled—still far away—Jane hauled water again.
I once asked her how many hours a day she’d spend balancing a jug on her head and back.
“I leave at 7 a.m., and I come home at noon,” she said. “Five hours. Every day.”
For how many years?
“Almost 39. Because I am 39 years old.”
We met on a late August day in a rural Maasai community in Kenya, under a grizzled, flat top acacia tree that partially shielded us from the unforgiving sun. The earth was dry and hard. Beyond the contents of my portable plastic bottle, there was no water in sight.
Staring into Jane’s weary eyes, it felt as though I was meeting a prisoner: someone who is trapped by circumstance, accident of birth. Maasai tradition dictates that men are warriors—the guardians of the community—while women tend livestock, look after the children and find water. Most certainly, her plight is not for me to judge, but hopefully improve understanding by sharing her story beyond a community of women that follows her path daily, until their legs are too weak to walk.
All I could think to say was, “I would be dead if I had to do what you had to do.” She nodded.
It is easy to rack up the differences between Jane and I. She can’t read or write. That’s how I make my living. She lives in a hut. I have a Prius and a Jacuzzi. She asked me where I keep my cattle, and I explained my meat comes precut and wrapped in plastic. The list would be long and jarring, but we share commonalities, beyond motherhood.
After decades of hauling water, she now earns a life-changing income from ME to WE, a social enterprise that donates half its profits to its sister charity, the Toronto-based WE Charity. Together, they make up WE. When we met, I’d recently taken a job with WE, after two decades as a journalist. Five years on, I am now WE’s Head of Content. I’m likely reaching for a link between what we both share, but the change in her circumstances is huge—as is mine. I’ve had an unexpected mid-career change that has set me on a new course that makes me believe in new beginnings, even in middle age. The same is true for Jane.
The day we met, a blanket was spread across Jane’s folded knees and multi-coloured beads danced on the taut fabric. Her fingers expertly threaded a thin cord with beads, as she made one Rafiki—Swahili for friend—chain after another. She can make 40 in a day for ME to WE Artisans. With her first pay packet several years ago, she headed to the local market to buy a donkey to transport the water from the borehole to her home. With the next, she bought a water tank to collect rainwater. Now, she can afford to pay someone to haul water. She has enough money to pay her children’s high school fees.
After 22 years in newspaper, I thought I was a lifer. My love of writing, of telling peoples’ stories, as well as the urgency and excitement of journalism, kept me tethered to a newsroom. But after significant health setbacks and much contemplation, I left to apply my skills in other ways. I met Jane in Kenya—one of the nine developing countries WE works in—in my current role. I brought my then 14-year-old daughter, who had just started high school, along as amateur photographer and eager school and medical clinic builder for the volunteer portion of the trip. I’ve subsequently brought my younger daughter on a ME to WE Trip to India, where she also worked on a development project side-by-side local builders.
That trip to Kenya was a strange mix of celebrity and squalor, of girls rising and girls already on top.
Together in the remote Maasai Mara, a five-hour drive and world away from Nairobi, we met children so eager to learn they walked six hours a day back and forth to the nearest elementary school, built by WE Charity. We talked with Grade 8 students who couldn’t afford to go to high school. Their mothers formed a group, with the guidance and know-how of WE, to pool their money to help the most impoverished families send their children to school. The money is given to one family in need every few weeks. The family that gets it then uses the money to buy dairy cows or chickens or land, so then they can sell milk, eggs, beans or corn, for example—all so their children can pay high school fees. We came across a former Maasai warrior, with 24 children and four wives, planting spinach and cabbage in a community garden that was started by WE. He told us that true bravery is coming home with a “first position” in class, not the tail of a slain lion—once a sign of courage in his culture.
Our trip also happened to correspond with several visits from celebrity ambassadors. At ME to WE’s Bogani Cottages and Tented Camp, where we stayed, we saw platinum-selling songstress Demi Lovato wander past our tent, after learning to chuck a spear under the tutelage of a Maasai warrior. We tried to appear indifferent, but it was very cool.
I was first in the Maasai Mara 14 years ago, sent by the Ottawa Citizen to write about three Canadians and WE founders—Craig Kielburger, his older brother Marc and Roxanne Joyal —who were already building schools in the area and wanted to erect an education centre where North American and Kenyan children would work together to help the community. Their plans sparked a heated battle between the Maasai and some—mostly white—safari owners. I wrote about how their plans led to road blockages, concerns about their safety and the Maasai threatening to burn down five-star safari camps in the area. Area Safari camp owners complained that if the Maasai were educated, they might start demanding more pay and opportunities for themselves.
In the face of conflict, WE’s founders pushed ahead. After protracted negotiations and legal wrangling, they opened a camp outside the Maasai Mara in a forested area donated by a local Maasai chief. When I was last there, their centre had just opened, consisting of a large main building and six permanent tents to accommodate young people. Now, Bogani is a site to behold, able to host more than 90 people at one time. And since I first visited, the organization has moved far beyond building schools to address the barriers to education, by providing clean water, health care, agriculture and food security programs, as well as alternative income initiatives.
My daughter and I saw girls and women everywhere growing beyond traditional roles that mired them in poverty. For many of them, it was their employment as artisans for ME to WE that had profoundly changed their lives in ways never imagined.
When I spoke with Jane, she told me, “I have always wondered if our lives would ever change? Or if the constant searching was all I would know.”
Through a translator, she said: “Then I heard about ME to WE Artisans. They were looking for beaders to make Rafiki bracelets. I never imagined that a skill I took for granted could give me so much. I sit with the women in my beading circle, and my fingers work away. It’s so much better than walking.”
When a woman has a voice in how her family spends money, she invests in her family, which can transform entire communities. Children can only attend school if their parents have the financial means and time to invest in their education and basic health. With the knowledge, tools and skills to earn a living, women provide for their children and send them to school, help their families access proper health care and act as a role model to the next generation.
These days at WE, I work with a team of talented writers and videographers who travel to our WE Villages to tell incredible stories of transformation. Jane was one of the first Maasai women I met and the one I cannot forget. New beginnings come in all shapes. Jane’s legs used to do all the work. Now, it’s her fingers. She transformed her life and the lives of her children. That’s a story worth sharing.