During the summer of 2002, 1 lived in the Kitui district of Kenya, about 200 kilometers east of Nairobi. I worked with World Neighbors, an NGO based in the United States, which "is committed to solutions to rural poverty that make the most of locally available, renewable resources" (www.worldneighbors.org). Most of my time was spent working with women's groups in rural Kenya-places with no ruraiiiig water, electricity only if the family was rich enough to own a generator, and the most amazing people I have ever met.
I spent every Wednesday with Yike Wikwe, a women's group about 25 kilometers outside the town of Kitui. They focused on income-generating projects, and the end purpose of tlie income was to build roof catchments, large cement barrels that collected rainwater from roofs near their homes, to provide water diuing tlie long dry season. The first Wednesday I was dropped off, all the women came out of tlie house singing and dancing. Their songs were in Kikamba, the tribal language of the Kamba tribe living in tlie Kitui district, so I had to rely on the dancing and hand gestures they made to understand them. They were telling tlie story of how World Neighbors had come to their district, and how the guidance and leadership offered had changed their everyday lives, hi the 8 years that World Neighbors has been involved with Yike Wikwe, they have begun projects in beekeeping, goat raising, small-scale farming (maize and onions), small-scale businesses (selling bricks and cooking oil), and water conservation.
The first day that I spent with Yike Wikwe they gave me a Kamba name, Kasyoka, which means "the one who leaves and then returns" in Kikamba. From then on, in every group that I worked with, that was my name. "Megan" was a strange and difficult sound to pronounce, while "Kasyoka" was familiar and, more importantly, had meaning attached to it.
Every Thursday I traveled to tlie Itambya Mulango Community Based Organization (CBO), which was making sisal baskets to sell to tlie West. I learned their craft while also teaching them how to market their baskets. Wlien I first arrived, the women were making black and orange baskets with rounded bottoms. After I explained Halloween to them, we talked about different color schemes that would be more appealing to Western customers, as well as different styles including flat bottoms, beaded handles, and backpacks. Little did I guess that when I returned home to Oklahoma, the black and orange color scheme would find a niche market with Oklahoma State University fans!
I learned just how much work goes into those sisal baskets, and how skilled one really must be in order to create baskets ready for market. The women harvest the sisal themselves, usually from plants growing wild on their homestead or on the side of the road. They dean tlie fibers, then hand roll them on their thighs into thicker rope threads. These threads are hand dyed, and then woven into baskets. The entire process takes about 3 days to make one basket. I was amazed at both the speed and accuracy the women displayed in their work. I tried for 5 weeks to leam how to roll tlie fibers into rope, and while I know how to do it, I am still unable to produce a very usable end product.
The things the women taught me seemed like nothing to them, but were everything to me. These women have been weaving since they were 6 or 7 years old, and they see it as nothing really special. Teaching me how to weave was like teaching me any other basic skill: how to milk a goat, shell peas, or collect water from a dry riverbed (none of which I can do). I saw the weaving process as learning an art, and, while my baskets were decidedly substandard, they were still baskets that I had made myself.
Weaving was also a form of communication between the women and me. Not all of the women's groups I worked with were focused on weaving, but all the women certainly knew how to weave, and made baskets for their own use as well. …