Monday, June 26, 2017

Kenyan moms sew a better life for kids

Photos by Chelsea Dee

By Louise Kinross

In 2013, BLOOM covered a unique sewing project in Maai Mahiu, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, that was changing the lives of mothers of children with disabilities. The project—then called Malaika Mums—is still flourishing and is now called Ubuntu Made. Mothers in the program make cotton bags, reusable coffee sleeves and beaded bracelets that are sold online and through Whole Foods, Zazzle and other businesses. In addition to providing the mothers with a good wage, the income supports an onsite school with rehab services for their children. Ubuntu is an African philosophy meaning “I am because we are,” reflecting the idea that we are all connected. We got an update from Wanjiru Kanuri, a program assistant at Ubuntu Kids.

BLOOM: Why is there a need for this program?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Many Kenyan communities still associate disability with curses and bad omens. This impedes the country’s development of services for children with disabilities, prevents parents from accepting their children’s disabilities, and makes social inclusion for these children almost impossible. We provide specialized education, therapy and rehab services while trying to shift the mentality surrounding disabilities to bring 10 per cent of our population out of the shadows.

BLOOM: What is the goal of Ubuntu Made?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Ubuntu Made is a social business committed to creating lasting changes in the communities we serve. Rather than making products and sourcing materials from other parts of the world, we focus our efforts on specific Kenyan communities, creating full-time jobs, including benefits like healthcare for our makers and their families. This is unheard of in Kenya, where only 10 per cent of the [population] has health coverage. This provides our makers with stability for their lives and their families.

We source many of the materials in our products locally, stimulating the Kenyan economy as a whole. We view our supply chain—from suppliers to makers to our customers—as links providing an ultimate exchange of good from start to finish. Ubuntu Made offsets the cost of our Ubuntu Special Needs Centre. Our revenue stream is a hybrid between earned and donated.

BLOOM: What products are produced?

Wanjiru Kanuri: They include leather and canvas travel tote bags, journals, beaded portfolio bags, printed kanga bandanas, beaded Maasai bracelets and reusable coffee sleeves.

BLOOM: Is Whole Foods still the major buyer?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Yes, Whole Foods is a major buyer, but we also have a presence on Zazzle and in boutiques across the country.

BLOOM: How many women work in the Ubuntu Made factory?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Twenty-five women work full-time.

BLOOM: How does this change their lives?

Wanjiru Kanuri:
They find empowerment through full-time employment and entrepreneurial skills training. They go on to buy land, start local businesses, create savings accounts and build homes. They are able to access medical coverage for their families and send their kids to school.

BLOOM: Tell us about the Ubuntu Special Needs Centre.

Wanjiru Kanuri:
We have 50 full-time children ages two to 15. Their diagnoses include intellectual, physical and/or developmental disabilities like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, autism and epilepsy. We advocate for early intervention and have children less than a year old who are already on therapy schedules.

BLOOM: When we did a story in 2013, your school was the only one available for kids with disabilities there. Has that changed?

Wanjiru Kanuri: We are still the only well-established centre for children with disabilities in this area, but we work closely with our partners, including the [government], special education professionals, the Sarakasi Trust, the Kijabe Hospital and Special Olympics Kenya.

BLOOM: How is disability viewed there?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Previously the attitude was bad and parents hid their children. But we have seen that changing, and people are having more positive attitudes towards persons with disabilities.

BLOOM: How has your program changed perceptions?

Wanjiru Kanuri:
Our inclusion events connect community leaders, the community at large and children with special needs to break through the barriers of stigma and lack of understanding. Through our advocacy and creation of awareness we have seen great gradual change.

BLOOM: When we last wrote about your program, there were many children on a wait list to get in. Is that still the case?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Yes. We have even heard of cases of people relocating here to Maai Mahiu so that they are able to access our service. We are working towards building a [larger] educational and therapy facility for children with special needs to be able to accommodate all of the children.

BLOOM: What is a typical day like for students?

Wanjiru Kanuri:
We’re open Monday to Friday. Days include basic class activities, daily living training, hand skills activities, therapy sessions, meals and play time, including nature walks and play therapy at the playground. We even have monthly excursions and other outdoor activities.

BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge of running the program?

Wanjiru Kanuri: Finances. Eighty-five per cent of our families are not always able to pay to get their children to the school. We have in-home visits to alleviate this issue. Our team has a very strong fundraising arm and, outside our enterprise programs of Ubuntu Made, Café Ubuntu and Ubuntu Water, they work to raise funds to expand programs and foster more inclusion.

Visit Ubuntu’s shop to see the products available. These photos were taken by Chelsea Dee and generously given to BLOOM.