There are times that you have to see yourself and your future differently than everyone else. You have to dream of a life that seems unlikely or maybe even impossible.
It seemed as if the whole world thought they were nothing. Unclean, untouchable, undeserving outcasts. Forever damned by the HIV virus that had invaded their livelihood and claimed genocide on their CD4 T cells. Even their alleged soul mates had disserted them, abandoned like road kill on the Nairobi highway. These widows were told they had no future, no place in society, no reason to dream.
Fortunately, an NGO called HEART (Health Education African Resource Team) saw them differently: as women, as mothers, as dreamers. In 2005, the NGO established a program called WEEP (Women's Empowerment Equality Program), committed to restoring their health, teaching them a trade and providing temporary employment that would exercise their newly acquired skills, ultimately empowering the women so that they can exit the program and pursue the dreams that society told them to erase.
When I visited my first WEEP center in 2006, the program had just launched its pilot center of about a dozen women in Ngong (a community on the border of Nairobi). Three years later, they have 5 primary centers with almost 4o women, all of which are receiving medical access, technical training and temporary employment. The program is nearly ready to graduate their first group of women, however, the coordinators have realized that -- although these women have developed technical expertise -- they need to further develop their business acumen if they are to pursue their dreams of starting their own enterprises.
When I sat down with HEART's executive director (Vickie Winkler) to discuss an 0ver-the-weekends type project that I could support, her first suggestion was the WEEP women, and the need to explore new sales channels for their products while simultaneously providing the women with business training and experience. We both agreed that the notorious Maasai Market would be a perfect platform for them to do so, and that we would need to conduct a comprehensive training in order to prepare them.
After an unexpected amount of planning and preparation, the 10 women punctually entered into the dimly light and dehydratingly hot Gospel Victory Center, to take tedious notes, ask targeted questions, and engage in role-playing exercises facilitated by the 7 speakers, 4 WEEP coordinators and myself.
Of the many lessons and takeways from the two days, I will never forget the exercise we began with on Saturday. The day before, the chairman of the Maasai Market Empowerment Trust had shared with us the importance of dreaming, specifically to dream big, because entrepreneurs are first dreamers. Imagine the impact that this had on the women, a group who society would say there is no point in dreaming, because they are HIV positive and won't live long enough to see those dreams realized.
So we began Saturday morning with each of the women sharing their dreams and visions for their life. One by one they re-crafted dreams that would inspire even the likes of Joseph or Dr. King, dreams of clothing and jewelry shops in Kibera, of school uniform stalls in Mathare, of returning to their home villages and establishing tailoring services, of employing other disadvantaged women, of empowering their children with business skills.
During the last session, a speaker (called Susan) from Jamii Bora (the largest microfinance institution in Kenya) talked about how she nearly died from HIV/AIDS, how she vomited through the ARV treatments, and how she was cut and beaten by the stigmatisms forced upon her -- all struggles the WEEP women had endured. But then Susan proudly boasted about how she never stopped dreaming, how she used the loans and the Jamii Bora community support to found her own business and fund her kids through school, and how she transformed herself from nothing to something.
As the women stared, laughed, cheered, and even finished Susan's sentences for her, I couldn't help becoming restless in my seat, thinking about the women's upcoming debut at the Maasai Market, their eventual exit from the program, their dreams to materialize their various visions, and the unimaginable accomplishments they had already achieved just by being alive and physically (and mentally healthy. As they started universally clapping at Susan's from nothing to something proclamation, I thought of an entrepreneur from Ghana -- I thought about how the words he shared at a conference applied directly to the WEEP women's renewed dreams of a life that might seem unlikely or maybe even impossible: we the willing have been doing so much with so little for so long, we can now do anything with nothing.
Stella, one of the 10 women who participated in the training, who dreams of starting her own designer-fashion clothing company (more pics to follow).