Becoming a mom was the catalyst—her daughters would not relive her upbringing. This is Judy’s journey to becoming a ME to WE Artisan.
By Zeddy Kosgei
Photographs by Wanda O’Brien
Judy Cheborkei savours her Monday morning ritual. She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. She milks her cow. She wakes her two daughters, both on the cusp of teenage-hood at 13 and 10, gives them sweet, milky tea and gets them ready for school.
Then, she gets ready for work.
It’s this last shift in routine—the promise of steady income—that’s changed dramatically in the past eight years. In 2010, Judy became a ME to WE Artisan. After her girls leave for Enelerai Primary School, Judy will follow in their footsteps when she heads to work at the Women’s Empowerment Centre—it’s located on the school grounds.
Set in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, the Women’s Empowerment Centre was built by WE to bring women together as they make a sustainable wage by celebrating a traditional pastime of the region—beading.
Judy, a Kipsigis woman without any previous beading experience, never thought this would be how she would finance her daughters’ educations. In fact, eight years ago, the security of her kids’ schooling was in jeopardy. Judy’s work ethic and determination are the reason this everyday routine exists.
The children, still sleepy, drag their feet to the sitting area to sip their morning cup of tea. Over the tea, she confirms with the girls that they’ve completed their homework. Faith doesn’t usually have a lot of homework (she’s still in Grade 5), but Daisy, the eldest, does. She started Grade 7 in 2018. Judy smiles every time she thinks about it—it’s the same grade she got to before dropping out of school.
Judy grew up in the Mulot, a small village bordering Bomet and Narok counties along the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. Her parents were farmers who earned a small amount of money from their crops, but it was not enough to pay for all five of their children’s school fees. Often, they had to choose between feeding Judy and her siblings and sending them to school. “They didn’t have the money, but they also didn’t see the value in education,” reflects Judy, speaking in Swahili.
No longer in school, Judy spent her teen years helping care for her siblings and working the family farm. When a young man asked for her hand in marriage, she agreed along with her parents, believing she was trading in her impoverished life for a better one.
Her husband was from Enelerai, a small community farther from the main road, and about an hour from where she grew up. She moved with an eager optimism, ready to start her new life.
But marriage wasn’t the ticket out of poverty she had thought it would be. She says her matrimonial home was a small grass-thatched mud house. Though a hardworking man, her husband didn’t have much to his name. “I was young and I wanted someone to take care of me,” she explains. He didn’t have the means to do so. “He’s a good husband, but he’s a small-scale farmer, growing maize on his own piece of land.” Some days the two of them barely had enough food in the house.
When Judy became a mom, first with Daisy and then three years later with Faith, she realized she needed to take action if she didn’t want to repeat her own upbringing—being forced to choose between food, clothing and education.
“The family was growing and so were our needs,” she says. As demanding as her duties had been while staying at home to look after the homestead and her children, she knew more needed to be done if her daughters were to have the life she wanted for them. Judy was determined to find outside work and earn an income.
She started by selling charcoal and firewood. She would walk five hours to buy the goods and then walk back to her village to sell it. “What I earned did not reflect the effort and time I was putting in,” Judy notes. She would strap her youngest to her back for the journey or leave her kids in the care of a neighbour. But walking such a long distance, sometimes at the break of dawn, took a toll on her health. She developed chest and back problems. She was forced to quit and started to look for something else.
During this time a new income opportunity with WE presented itself. By 2010, WE Charity was well-established in the region, implementing its holistic, sustainable development model. Most well known in communities for building quality schools and water kiosks, WE rebuilt Enelerai Primary School, located a stone’s throw from Judy’s house and where her girls would go.
From working in the area, WE Charity knew one of the core challenges for families trying to break the cycle of poverty was limited ways for parents to earn an income. Most parents were not formally employed and depended on small farms to support their families. WE Charity partnered with community groups to help identify income and saving opportunities. One of the core components of WE Charity’s Opportunity Pillar is looking at what is working well and is common in the area, and how that can be a means of support. Maasai jewellery was very popular, but women didn’t have a place to sell their goods. ME to WE, a social enterprise and WE Charity’s sister organization, started an artisan program to enable women to sell their beadwork—and learn to bead, if it wasn’t something they had done before.
“There was a meeting with women at a local school and [WE] told us about an opportunity to earn an income through beading,” Judy explains. “I was unsure at first, when I heard it was beading, because I had never done it before.” But upon learning there would be training, Judy decided to give it a try.
In three months she was a master. And beading brought Judy a joy and satisfaction she had never experienced: “They were employing us! I didn’t finish primary school, so I never thought I’d have a job,” she shares candidly.
In 2014, WE opened an Empowerment Centre on the same grounds as Enelerai Primary School. The new space gave women a new 9–5, a place to come together and build comradery and friendship along with each Rafiki strand.
Outside of the centre, women’s shoes are neatly piled, so as not to track mud into their place of work. Inside, long clean tables are filled with tiny pops of colour, and there is a constant rustle of beads and hum of voices. Judy sits at one of these tables, by the window. She can see across the schoolyard, where her daughters are in class, knowing they can walk home together at the end of the day. Whether beading at the centre or home, more than 1,500 women are earning an income through ME to WE Artisans.
Over the past eight years, Judy has transformed her family’s circumstance. She managed to buy a cow and a goat, and built a household toilet. In 2016, she and 13 other women from the Empowerment Centre formed a savings group. Over time, with her savings, Judy has doubled her family’s plot of land. She and her husband have planted more maize and now have extra to sell. Judy also recently purchased new roofing sheets; she plans on building the dream home she’s always wanted.
For Judy, the biggest difference—and her greatest achievement—is educating her daughters.
On weekends, the family’s routines vary. When the girls are not outdoors playing, they help around the house cleaning and fetching firewood, sitting down to read and doing their homework. This is the part of the weekend Judy likes best. She’ll take out her beading and nestle beside them on the couch. Occasionally, she’ll let them make a strand, but her focus is on their schooling. Judy is a proud mom, a role model who wants to see how far her daughters can go.