At the heart of Laikipia North, a group of women sit inside a secluded spot donated by Lewaso Lodge.
The women, who are sewing face masks to help combat the spread of Coronavirus, are survivors of early marriages, obstetric fistula and ejection from their homes for bearing children with disabilities.
Their self-help group, Chui Mama, which was founded two years ago, has given them shelter in a community where their voices were muted and opportunities for gainful living suppressed.
Wildlife photographer Ambrose Letoluai started the group together with Ellie Modester, a local keen on empowering women to find alternative sources of income other than charcoal burning and brewing chang’aa, an illicit liqour.
Now, the 355 women are sewing and selling face masks at Sh50 a piece to the local community dominated by the Samburu and Ndorobo — the sub-groups of the expansive Maa speaking community.
“The women kicked off the face masks project as soon as the government announced that it is mandatory to wear one in public places,” said Dorothy Masinde Mwango, a Board of Trustees member at Chui Mama.
Before Covid-19 reared its ugly head, the women were known for their beadwork which they sold to tourists who visited Laikipia’s top lodges, large ranches owned by white settlers and wildlife conservancies.
The pandemic has adversely affected travel and tourism industry worldwide, grounding airlines and leading to closure of hotels. Nearly all countries have imposed strict travel restrictions.
The once robust ranches, lodges and conservancies of Laikipia are now shells of their old selves. The pandemic has literally grabbed food from the mouth of these women.
The face mask project has handed them the much needed lifeline and they have made it their duty to create awareness about the pandemic in the community. So outstanding is their work that the Australian government gave them a Sh621,271 (AUD 8,500) grant to fund their activities.
Australian High Commissioner Alison Chatres said the grant is a deliberate effort to alleviate the plight of women, girls and people with disabilities. “When we saw the proposal by Chui Mama it brought a pragmatic way of how to respond to Covid-19 prevention needs and behaviour change in communities,” she said during the flagging off of hand washing machines for Chui Mama.
The fabricated hand washing stations which can dispense water and soap while limiting physical contact are products of the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA).
Chui Mama will place the ten hand washing machines at strategic locations in efforts to ensure hygiene is not compromised during hand-washing in public places.
The Australian High Commission funding is through the Kenya Australian Alumni Association (KAAA), an association launched in 2013, and brings together Kenyans who studied in Australia.
“There was this announcement that the Australian High Commission was keen on funding Covid-19 related projects that an alumni is engaged in. So we did our proposal and it was successful,” said Ms Mwango, a member of KAAA having studied in Australia.
KAAA chairman Reuben Ndegwa said partnering with Chui Mama was informed by the objective of partnering with organisations where KAAA’s members are involved and oversee the activities.
The funding will also go towards purchase of fabric for making face masks, liquid soap, paying the women for labour offered and for public address speakers to educate people on Covid-19 and how to protect themselves.
The women who are clustered in groups of 10 to 15 for ease of co-ordination are also engaged in farming, bee keeping and soap making projects.
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