Strolling through the posh areas of Lavington, the beautiful greenery all over area, silence reckons that the place is accessible to the “haves” in society who can “afford” the silence. Kawangware a stones throw away is the opposite. As I try to access this densely populated area, the difference is as night and day. The trenches that one has to pass through, the unfavourable living conditions is something to note about but sad to draw the picture. People from these two sides of a coin sleep and wake up to fend for their families regardless.

Every Saturday afternoon from 2:00 p.m, a group of about 25 women meet in Kawangare chitchatting as they share ideas on how to make their lives better as they make beautiful handicraft.Wamo women’s group was founded in February 2011 by Mary Amborgho. This is a self- help women’s group whose main purpose is to act as a beacon of hope for the women afflicted by HIV/AIDS. But it does not segregate other women as it also looks to empower the women in totality.

These women use recycled plastic paper as well as hard cover paper from old calendars to come up with beautiful merchandise that includes neckpieces, bangles, earrings, kiondo’s- woven bags – wall hangings, sweaters, woollen vitambaa’s – couch covers – among others. Even as they face an unknown tomorrow, their faces liven up as they share their experiences as Wamo and how greatly it has impacted their lives. The story of these valiant women is something to write home about. Without any form of support from the government or donors, they have also been able to set up a children’s home which has a section for the Primary school that goes up to standard 6 and also a boarding section to cater for the orphans in this area.

The Wamo women at work.

Each of these women have stories to tell.  Some have suffered in the hands of their relatives after their husbands passed on, left empty handed without nothing and no support whatsoever, but they still hope and live for a better tomorrow. A day when the orphans they take care of will be able to complete the set education system and be able to stand up and be counted as they seek to turn around their lives of paucity to bounty.

“It has been more than a year since Wamo started. My husband and I separated due to irreconcilable differences, he then passed on due to HIV/ AIDS complications. I used to work as a housekeeper but was later discontinued as one of my friends went and told my boss that I was infected with HIV. My employer gave me my last dues and released me. Jobless, fighting the disease, stigma, I stared at life blankly not knowing what my next step would be as my source of livelihood was no more,” recounts Mary.

 Wamo came to be when Mary chagrined by the state of affairs of herself and other women in her neighbourhood who had a plethora of problems and no one to turn to but themselves. They decided that rather than sit down idling and gossiping the entire day, they might as well become useful and find something to help themselves. She envisioned better lives for the widowed and others in ghastly marriages whose husbands could not fend for them as they found gratification in the bottle. The men could no longer play their roles in the house and thus the women had to come to the rescue of their families.

All she wanted to see is that the living standards of the women around her was uplifted. With the little knowledge she had, together with her friends, they taught each other how to make the handiwork and Wamo was formed. “I looked at my neighbours situations and I was diA kiondo made from recycled plastic paper.stressed as I empathised. My husband had died of HIV related illnesses but I did not know as we had been separated for a while. A few months later I fell terribly sick and when I went to the hospital I was tested and informed of my condition. I was however, lucky that my family responded positively and I did not at any instance feel stigmatised unlike other women in the group who were met with haughtiness from relatives,” she stated.

She informs me that her children are all grown up except for her last born son who is in high school “Every Saturday afternoon you will find us knitting. I am very proud that rather than these women just sit down and gossip as most of them are unemployed, they are trying to make a living for themselves,” she states. “Anyone who arrives late for the meeting, is required to pay a fine of shillings 50. I saw the need and took action,” she adds.

“I had been married as a fourth wife. We lived in Naivasha and one time I came to visit my relatives in Nairobi. I later learnt that my husband had passed on two years down the line and no one had bothered to contact me. I later decided to re-marry but the man was a drunkard who battered me from time to time. One time I started having an eerie feeling, I had rushes all over my body and I decided to go for a check-up where I got tested and I was informed that I was HIV positive. I am glad that I am part of a family that supports me at Wamo,” narrated one woman.

Caroline Ayuma says that her husband was a good man and in no instance did she think that he was cheating on her as he never neglected his family.

“He started experiencing problems with his feet. They would swell and he sometimes could not be able to walk. We took him to hospital several times but they could not ascertain the cause of the disease. He was later diagnosed with Tuberculosis and in 2011 it became worse and passed on,” narrated Caroline.

After sometime she also started experiencing some body weakness and decided to get tested and the results showed that she was infected with HIV/AIDS. At only 32 years of age, 4 children; 3 boys and a girl to look after without a proper job, life proved to be one Some of the wares that the women makedifficult ocean to swim in. But she picked herself up and lives for today.

Caroline was not lucky as she faced a myriad of problems from her in-laws. It is sad to note that even in the 21stcentury people still believe that HIV/AIDS can be as a resultof witchcraft. She recalls vividly how her mother-in-law was on the forefront speaking ill of her stating that she was responsible for her son’s death as she had bewitched him. Her in-laws still talk ill of her to date, but she has resolved to block all the negativity and live positively.

She tells me that her first born is in standard 5 while the last born is in nursery. She currently stays with her two children while the others stay with their paternal grandmother. Her immune system was not bad until November when she was informed that her CD4 count was low and that she needed to start taking the Anti-Retro-Virals (ARV’s). She takes the Septrine drugs every evening at 8:00p.m. without fail.

“Sometimes when I’m caught up with other chores and I forget the scheduled time for taking my medication, my first born who knows about my condition reminds me that time has slipped by and that I need to take my medication,” says Caroline. “I told him that is he sees that I am very weak he should know my condition. It is a big challenge since I need to eat healthy foodstuffs. Many times I get little money from the sales I make from the jewellery due to lack of market that sometimes cannot meet my family’s need,” she decries. She says that if she has not eaten properly, she feels nauseated and lacks the energy to carry out any chores; the side effects of the Septrines which are very strong.

The Wamo women showing off their wares.

“I was only able to complete my Kenya certificate of Primary Education (K.C.P.E) and that has been a great challenge as getting any form of employment has been an uphill task. I cannot get myself to think of going back to my rural home as getting any form of employment is very difficult compared to the city and there is a lot of stigma in the countryside. The only jobs you will find in the rural areas are menial jobs like digging people’s shamba’s – gardens- and that is a tough feat especially for someone in my condition,” she stated.

The women’s group started with two members and now it has over 25 women, 10 of them are living positively with HIV/AIDS.  They are led with the able secretariat members comprising of Mary Amborgho, Caroline Ayuma, Jane Mmbone, Rebeccah Oyiela, and Agnes Alama. The infected ones are able to get free ARV’s from a city council hospital.

The greatest challenge currently facing Wamo Women’s group is the lack of a proper market to sell their wares. Considering that that is their only source of livelihood, it is a difficult situation. They explain that they sometimes try to hawk their wares in the places they reside in but it’s still not earning enough to keep them going.

“It is increasingly become a task to afford the raw materials for making our wares. When others go to Kenyatta market to buy their material, I am left behind as I cannot afford as some of my handiworks are still at home with no buyers. One roll of paper costs up to shillings 300 and I may be required to use several of those to come up with a Kiondo,” stated one woman.

The women are urging organisations like OAIC and others that may be interested in their wares to help them find a market or support them to ensure that they are able to continue with their art and not just merely flogging dead horses as it is their only source of livelihood.

The members face challenges that abound daily. Most of them are widowed and they have to play the roles of both parents. For those whose husbands are alive, most complain that they do very little to show responsibility as men.

“ I got tired of the fights that followed every time I asked my drunkard husband to provide for the family. My children never used to go to school, we would just sit at home and look at each other. But since I joined this group, I try to make my wares and sell them. I am proud to note that I have been able to educate one of my children up to Secondary level though with a lot of struggles. Another one is in standard 6, another in standard 7,” narrated Nelly.

The Wamo family.

She is saddened however, by the increasing number of men who are abdicating their responsibilities and do not care about the provision of their families.

Rebeccah notes that Wamo has taught women to live well and co-exist well with each other. “Life’s issues sometimes become easy to bear when you have someone you can share with. I am happy that the group has improved my life tremendously as the women I work with have become like my second family,” she states.

The women have also been able to come up with Wamo child care centre which  currently has 150 children from the ages of 21/2 to 14 years.

The Headmaster of the school, Mathew Otieno says that they looked at the situation around and the City Council schools could not meet their needs and especially for those orphaned with HIV/AIDS and decided to start their own centre which is divided into a school section where the children learn and a boarding area where they sleep.

The children are from baby class to standard 6.  Mr. Otieno says that they get volunteer teachers from Deans Teacher’s College in Lavington who help to teach at the centre during their attachment. He is sad though that once the attachment period ends, they also leave. Thus most of the times they depend on volunteer teachers who help the school to run continuously.

“The idea to come up with the centre came about as we saw the need to help the orphans in our vicinity as they were increasing in numbers very day. There were also extremely poor families that needed assistance and the centre also looks at such cases,” he states.

The headmaster opens up a file to show me the death certificates of most of the children’s parents as he says that the centre ensures that only genuine cases are looked into. Some of the organizations that have come to their aid include the Lea

Toto organisation that helps to ensure that the orphans take their medication properly and that they also eat a balanced diet. The National Empowerment Network of People living with AIDS –NEPHAK- has also helped them. He also mentions Nakumatt Junction which once in a while donates foodstuffs to the centre.

The Wamo family tries hard to ensure that the children are well taken care of. The Moneygram agent matron says that the centre has 45 orphans and the rest come from extremely impoverished homes. They do not pay any school fees and only depend on the good will of people to support them.

“ We look for ways and means to ensure that the children are well fed. We sometimes have the  Hare Krishna people who visit us every Tuesday and bring the children some food. The rent for a Mabati structure which we have turned to a boarding for the children also requires rent and sometimes raising the money is difficult,” she states.

Mr. Otieno states that there are many orphans who have cleared the primary level but cannot be able to continue with schooling as they have nobody to pay their school fees. He shows me the report card for one Derrick Nyakuri who is a bright child as he is among the to p boys but is currently at home as he cannot be able to raise Shillings 30,000 which is the school fees for the entire year. He says that they have been able to raise a paltry Shillings 3,000  only and the school could not therefore allow him to continue staying in the  school.Sleeping area- Boarding – for the children.

“Currently I have 6 orphans who are staying at home for lack of school fees. I have tried to apply for bursary from the constituency but that has not been forthcoming. The fact that there are 9 wards in Dagoretti constituency makes it more difficult. Tribalism is also rife in the distribution of the bursaries and it has not been easy, ” laments Mathew.

“But I have at least been able to get some bursaries from the City Council which has helped them a bit. The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development recognises that we exist but it does not  support us in any way,” states the head teacher.

He says that he is happy to be part of the large Wamo family. He notes that the women need to be supported to ensure that they do not feel neglected even as they give their all towards the centre. He notes that some still take time before they finally go to the hospitals to get their medication as they fear that they may be stigmatised  and thus they prefer to suffer in silence.

As I leave, I am encouraged that despite the challenges, the valiant personalities that make up the Wamo family, are not asking for much, the little that one can support them in will go a long way ensuring that this family is smiling more than crying.

Fiona Imbali, OAIC Communications.

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