Meet the champion who celebrates every community milestone, like access to clean water, as a personal triumph.
By Zeddy Kosgei
Jane Kikwai moved to Irkaat, a community located in the Maasai Mara, Kenya at 16. She was a new bride and was headed to her matrimonial home, a grass thatched house on a small piece of land owned by her husband. “I was married young, at the time it was normal for girls to be married off at that age,” she explains in Swahili. She dropped out of Grade 7 because her parents, small-land farmers, couldn’t afford it. Soon after, she was married to a young man her family knew, also a farmer.
Jane fell in love with Irkaat. It was the rainy season when she moved there; the grass and trees were green and lush, and the water-laden leaves were constantly dripping. This was the opposite of where she grew up, a dusty town located close to the main road, where walkways turned to mud when the rain hit. Her parents farmed a small plot of land close to the town. Travelling to her new home, a couple hours away by public transit, she passed tall corn fields framing the road on either side. This, Jane remembers thinking, will be a good place to farm.
Upon meeting her neighbours—whose kindness put her young self immediately at ease—she was determined to make Irkaat into her home.
Idyllic though it first seemed, Jane later found out that during the dry season Irkaat was a place of extremes. “Sometimes it floods when it rains and when it ceases, it gives way to the dry season, which is just as brutal. The ground turns so hard, nothing grows.”
Despite the environmental challenges, Jane’s instant connection to her new community continued to grow. Over the past 24 years she’s been just as committed to developing her own home as she’s been to seeing Irkaat develop as a community; she knows the two are interconnected. And, nothing is as a deeply intertwined to this passion as the need for clean water.
When Jane moved to Irkaat she would spend up to three hours, one way, going to the river to fetch water for her family, several times a week. The water wasn’t clean. Every time she and her family drank it, they were risking their health. But there was no other option. As she started raising her family (she’s now a mother of seven), she constantly worried about the health of her children.
Then it happened; her eldest son Bernard became ill with typhoid. He spent three days in the hospital and was pulled from school until he fully recovered. So, when WE launched a solar-powered, clean water project at Irkaat Primary School in 2016, Jane was front and centre. She knew how important this water would be for the students, as well as for herself. The location of the kiosk would reduce the distance walked by community members to fetch water from the river and bring clean, running water to the school year-round.
The Irkaat community has come to expect Jane’s effervescence at the launch of any new project. This opening was no exception. Jane was all song and dance, celebrating the significance of having clean water close to both her home and that of more than 250 neighbours. She gathered the other mamas together and walked them the short distance from a classroom to the water tap, hitting empty water containers together as drums and leading the melodious chorus of community voices.
Now 40, this mother has seen Irkaat grow with her children—evolving from a tiny village to a thriving community. She’s seen more people buy land and settle. She’s witnessed the primary school expand in partnership with WE. And she’s observed as businesses continue to sprout up. In every instance Jane celebrated development. “I love this place,” she gushes. “When progress happens, I am excited.”
On a personal level, progress for Jane is linked to her children’s education. With the time she saves no longer walking to the river, Jane has opened a business selling fresh kale, mangoes, avocados, and oranges. She and her husband still farm maize, but they’ve been able to buy more land, increasing production and savings.
With the extra income, she’s been able to send all her kids to school. Three of her children have already graduated from high school (one’s in university), while the rest attend Irkaat Primary School. As for her eldest Bernard, where she once feared for his wellbeing, she now basks in his vigor and the successful career he’s found as a mechanic.
The fear that once clung to every sip of water her children took is now gone. Every morning, as Jane makes her way to the water kiosk just 15-minutes from her home, she hums quietly to herself. She is as grateful today for the water project as she was the first time it was launched. And, she is as a committed as ever to continuing to see Irkaat develop.