Editorial note: Each of the people we met amazed me and the reason that I have written more about some than others is simply due to the fact that we were able to spend significantly larger chunks of time with some people.
Janet is one of the original “famed fifty” and an integral part of the Jamii Bora team.
She is the head of the aptly named Tumaini (Swahili for new hope) Department which addresses the most desperate people through face to face outreach to street beggars. Trained as a teacher and fallen upon hard times, Janet was on the streets with her own children for many years and she knows of what she speaks. One afternoon we walked with her to an area outside of the city center where a gaggle of homeless women and their children were gathered, some trying to sell little bits of this and that. We brought them some bread and milk and Janet was pulled aside by one young mother whose eyes were glazed over from sniffing glue (a very cheap way to numb out when you feel the boot on your neck). Janet sees beyond that and knows that this is an intelligent, if desperate woman; she knows that she has real potential (a sensitive and practical assessment must be made about who to give that extra bit of attention to) and feels sure that she is very close to making a commitment to start the climb out of poverty. Janet isn’t giving up on her. Knowing this helped as we walked away and I looked back at this young woman standing slack-jawed in the middle of the sidewalk staring at us, one of her very scruffy (imagine trying to stay clean when you live on the street) kids crying and pulling at her shirt sleeve.
Janet has received the honor of an invitation by the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland (which is widely considered one of the world’s pioneers in business education with an MBA program ranked among the best in the world) to speak about women’s leadership and micro-finance at the end of this month. Remember: this is a formerly homeless woman who currently lives in a slum and who you might walk by without noticing (except that she has the face of a Kenyan Mother Teresa) beyond a quick labeling of “poor person of humble means.” Makes me think about all of the people I so easily dismiss, judge, and underestimate…
Janet gave us the quick and dirty of what her message will be. “Woman are capable of anything and they can do some things better than men can. All they need is to be given a chance to excel in business. They often only need some training, mentoring, and opportunity.” This will be Janet’s second flight and her first time out of the country.
Janet’s first flight is recounted in a story Ingrid tells with great relish that has come to be Jamii Bora’s motto over the years of many challenges and even more successes. Ingrid and Janet took a plane to attend to some Jamii Bora business in Mombasa. As the plane lifted up and up through the clouds and then up still higher beyond the clouds, Janet gasped, “Where are we?” Ingrid answered, “We are above the clouds.” Janet replied, “You always say the sky is the limit but actually even the sky is not the limit!”
Janet is the mother of 9 and grandmother of 7. She is full of vim and vigor and could both walk (not a small feat) and work the likes of me into a hole in the ground without batting an eye. During the time she spent with us she treated us with such kindness and we laughed together often.
Esther Wanjiku Kanotha
Esther is another one of the first fifty. She works and lives in Kibera. I dubbed her “the Janet Bett of Kibera” which she found accurate and funny. She is an on-the-ground mobilizer and mentor for the massive population there. She accompanied us through Kibera and it seemed like she knew every other person we passed. She stopped and talked intently to many people; encouraging, empathizing, taking care of business, and calling to the carpet when need be.
Esther lost everything in the post-election violence. She made maize flour and all of her equipment was stolen, in addition to her home being destroyed. She, like a number of other Jamii Bora staff and members, played an important role during that crisis and in the rebuilding and reconciliation process that followed.
She is a living example of this as she has forgiven the people who destroyed her home and her livelihood (some of whom she knows and sees regularly, so not just faceless concepts, actual people). She spoke with us about all of the suffering that she has witnessed and about how in order to stop the cycle of violence “we must have the heart of forgiveness. If we cannot forgive, things will not change.” Esther has the keen, kind eyes of a person who isn’t burdened by resentments.
When I asked her what she would like to see most in the world she said, “People to encourage each other, help each other, and educate their children.”
Education is hugely important to people here, especially the poor; one appreciates what is difficult to come by and hard-won. How I have daydreamed about magically plucking up a handful of the most precocious children I have met here and exchanging them with a handful of the most apathetic students that I know…it would be an education of a lifetime for all involved!
We met one of Esther’s daughters, the lovely and bright-eyed Winnie Rose (named after Winnie Mandela). She has completed several terms of college in accounting and is waiting to be able to take out a loan so that she can continue her education. Her proud momma explained to us that Winnie mainly stays inside (she hasn’t been able to find employment) because she doesn’t want to risk the dangers and temptations of her slum neighborhood. She keeps her own counsel and is hoping fervently to go back to school.
The sight of this clearly bright and highly motivated young woman sitting in a darkened dusty room, her face as full of promise as an opening flower, is an image that has continued to visit me in the dark hours of the night.