As an artist, I am passionate about other creative people, especially those buried in situations where they struggle to have a voice. My involvement with Pamba Toto (my friend and I founded the business in 2006) beats at the core of my heart… For these artisans buried in Nairobi slums to realize how incredibly talented they are and how much their voice matters, as well as being empowered to provide for the children they love and the orphans of Sanctuary of Hope. This past June, my family and I stayed a few extra days after a Hope’s Promise mission trip to meet with artisans. I count it one of my life’s greatest privileges to stand with these beautiful people.
From their hands…
Joyce, founder of the Tuungane Pamoja (Swahili for “Let us join together”) artisan groups in Kawangware and Kibera slums, survived her own nightmare of desperate poverty. She understands the agonies of abuse and abandonment. She knows the desperate feeling of sending her children to bed hungry. She also recognizes from personal experience the sliver of hope and dignity that breaks through when a woman learns skills and becomes empowered to earn money for her family. Joyce is passionate about rescuing widows and orphans still caught in slum subsistence. She founded her first artisan cluster in the Kawangware slum (click this link to learn more: Tuungane Pamoja Kawangware), and expanded last year into Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera.
I stand on the rooftop, looking out over Kibera, largest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. I scan a jungle of rusty corrugated metal structures piled haphazardly on one another, linked by jagged wires: the urban jungle is a tumble of harsh red and gray edges, stretching as far as I can see.
Such a contrast below, as we duck into Joyce’s shop. Small with white-washed cement walls and limited light, it bursts with color and pattern. And warmth. Two women work steadily along the wall, with shy smiles as we are introduced.
We settle on small wooden stools. The cacophony of a street just outside the door causes us to lean in to hear every word. These are stories we want to hear. They will haunt our thoughts and prayers in the days to come.
Grace’s mother passed away in Uganda when she was only ten years old. She was sent to serve her uncle’s family in Kenya as a house-girl. Sometimes she received food, but never enough. And school was not an option. Four years later, her uncle died; and she was sent away. She survived on the streets until she met her husband at age seventeen. He was a good man who introduced her to Christ, and they were married twenty-one years before he passed away suddenly in 2017. Joyce, she testifies, entered her life at the point when she lost all hope. .She proclaims with tears in her eyes, “God has seen me through many trials.” Now, at Tuungane Pamoja, she is welcomed and valued; and she is learning new skills. Her biggest dream, after earning school fees for her children who were not able to attend school at the time when I met her due to lack of funds, is to one day learn to read and write herself. She wants to write a book and share her life story with the world.
Maria’s parents and brothers all died in the genocide in Rwanda. In here mid-twenties at the time, she fled with her four sisters, sleeping in the forest at night and walking by day all the way to Tanzania. There, she met her husband, also a refugee. Then the Rwandan government tried to reach them in Tanzania, and they fled again, this time with their two month old. They traveled on foot at night, drinking dirty water and staying with animals. Somehow they made it to Kenya, but neither spoke Swahili. They had nothing and slept on floors, searching for work. Her husband eked out money for the family by re-selling shoes until he died suddenly about five years ago. Alone, left to support three children, she became so depressed she drew close to death. Then she met Joyce, who befriended her and reminded her persistently of God’s love. “God glorified Himself through me and brought healing,” Maria says. Today, she deeply appreciates the fellowship and support of Grace (who sheds tears as she listens to Maria’s story) and Joyce as they pray together, share the Word of God, and learn and practice sewing skills.
Joyce longs for the women of Tuungane Pamoja to be to keep their children in school. She dreams of the day they will be able to move out of the slums. Most of all, she wants them to know they are in this together.
Special thanks to my dear friends, Brittin and Jenny, for modeling. Visit www.pambatoto.com to see many beautiful products, straight from their hands to yours.