Residents of Manyatta, like residents of any other slum in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, have many challenges, such as the lack of clean drinking water, dysfunctional sewerage systems, insecurity and the lack of such essential commodities as food and clothing. Some of these challenges have led many girls and women in Manyatta’s Kondele area to turn to prostitution. Kondele is known for two things: its high rate of violence during election periods in Kenya, and its late-night, risque business activities, such as prostitution, gambling and discotheques.
As a volunteer Community Health Worker trained by AVFP, and a mobilizer and activist involved in many Manyatta programs, Ms. Jennifer has worked tirelessly to see that the women and girls in her neighborhood area are able to avoid the risks that come with growing up here and that they don’t miss out on learning important life skills.
At 20, in 1984, Ms. Jennifer married a teacher with whom she had 10 children. During the early years of her marriage, which she describes as the most trying times of her life, numerous myths tied to the community’s cultural beliefs slowed her progress. This Luo community, led for generations by elders never challenged on these received notions, held that women are not supposed to work for a salary, are obliged to give birth to boys, for the purposes of societal continuity and are meant to be stay-at-home mothers while their husbands work or spend leisure time with friends.
In her first decade of marriage, though, Ms. Jennifer wasn’t able to live up to these cultural standards. She gave birth to girl after girl, straining her relationship and earning her a lasting stigma within the community. Her husband felt she had failed him by not giving birth to a son; her relatives agreed: to them, she clearly wasn’t capable of giving birth to a boy who could then inherit his father’s land and property. This stigma prompted Ms. Jennifer to try to have a child every year, with the hope that one day she would finally give birth to a boy.
Finally, Ms. Jennifer began to have one boy after another, which gave her a glimpse of hope. Yet despite having birthed three boys of her 10 children, the stigma remained; more tragically, over the course of the next decade, Ms. Jennifer lost four of her children, two boys and two girls.
This loss was the greatest pain Ms. Jennifer had ever suffered and brought her to the lowest point in her life. She did not know where to turn to for psychosocial help. Unable to relieve her stress and depression by sharing her story with a professional who would understand, she even avoided speaking to the women in her community, who, instead of empathizing with her, understanding that this was a grieving woman in pain, began to view her with suspicion. They imagined other reasons for the deaths of her children – that witchcraft had caused them to die, for instance, for having failed her husband’s homestead and their entire community.
“I did not understand why God would give me 10 children and take away four from me. The fact that two boys died was so disheartening,” she continued; “I did not know if I was welcome at my marital home, knowing that I only had one boy [remaining],” she told AVFP.
The terrible loss of child after child sparked a great passion in Ms. Jennifer to help children, especially girls. Today, Ms. Jennifer talks to women going through the same challenges she underwent and has become a pillar of hope to those who have given birth only to girls and are stigmatized. She speaks with such confidence that many women look up to her when they have trouble in their own marriages.
Asked whether she regrets having so many girls, she gives a hearty laugh and says that having girls has become a blessing in her life. She dearly misses the children who passed away, as any mother would, but maintains that she is better off leaving the past where it belongs. She is thrilled that her two grown girls have acquired important life skills and have done so well: her oldest works as a nurse at a government hospital in Imbo, a small town near the shores of Lake Victoria where many fishermen live, and her second girl is a teacher in the same town. These two young women have become Ms. Jennifer’s pride and joy. Looking at their lives has confirmed for her that a woman or a girl can become highly successful, irrespective of her background. Ms. Jennifer credits her own recent success over the last few years to the knowledge she has gained through the programs run in her neighborhood by Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP).
Since the inception of the Mothers’ Club at Magadi Primary School, of which Ms. Jennifer was a member, she has become involved in the Group Savings and Loan (GS&L) program there, which taught her methods and strategies for budgeting and saving. She says she is happy to be gaining life skills so that she can be a leader in her community, and that she appreciates AVFP’s holistic approach, which has helped her and her community gain knowledge of the basic GS&L skills, urban farming techniques and more about women’s empowerment in general. Most importantly, she has ensured that her own girls are not left out of this important acquisition of life skills. To ensure their continued development, she introduced them to AVFP’s Girls’ and Teens’ Clubs.
Meet two lovely sisters, Tracy (15) and Peggy (13). These girls have two things in common: they are both Ms. Jennifer’s children, and they are both in the Clubs run by AVFP.
Tracy is now away at high school. But during school breaks, she attends the Teens’ Club, to gain life skills and listen to women leaders, teachers and other role models give empowerment talks. These two girls have undergone a tremendous amount of emotional stress in the course of their short lives; being able to see their mother happy after such a long time has been a wonderful motivator for them. Moreover, their mother’s happiness suggests that she is now able to live a full life and to address the girls’ needs without a great deal of financial strain.
When Peggy came to the Girls’ Club, she was not a strong public speaker. She was shy, she hated standing in front of large crowds, and her English wasn’t very good. Today, though, Peggy is the best public speaker in her school and one of the top five academic performers in her grade.
Tracy and Peggy have both seen life’s struggles through the eyes of their mother. They understand how women and girls can be stigmatized for no good reason. In the future, Peggy wants to be a lawyer, so that she can be vocal in the fight against social injustice. From having once been a quiet, shy and timid girl, Peggy has grown into a rising star in her school, with many of the girls looking up to her because of her sparkle and confidence. As for Tracy, she is now a sophomore in high school – already a rare accomplishment for girls from Manyatta — and aspires to be a journalist. She is a beautiful young lady with a tremendous passion for reading and storytelling. During our Teens’ Club meetings, Tracy stands out because of her thoughtful contributions to discussions and her ability to express herself so eloquently.
Ms. Jennifer, Tracy, Peggy and their two older sisters have already defied the age-old cultural constraints on women that for generations have crippled the prospects and outcomes for so many girls, not only in Manyatta or in Luo culture, but in countless places across the globe. Ms. Jennifer’s younger daughters and son, and countless women, girls, boys and men can take courage from these five – all brave, empowered women who, with just a little help, have defied the odds to take charge of their future and are leading fulfilled, healthful and successful lives.