There are people you meet in life that you’ll never forget.
For me, the chance to meet, or even just see, celebrities and other famous people in person is exciting. I saw Queen Elizabeth once from a roof top at the Calgary Stampede. Hardly a close encounter! I got a little closer to former U.S. President George W. Bush at a dinner in Nashville, but I didn’t get the chance to shake his hand. While in the video store I once owned, movie star Gene Hackman came by to rent a video! He was in the area shooting the movie “Unforgiven.” One of the ladies who worked for me then was so flustered by his appearance that she asked him if he had a membership in the store! Needless to say, the answer was “no!”
Aside from some close, and some not so close, encounters with celebrities, there are few people who have made an indelible mark on my life when I met them. But recently, a group of ladies left a significant impression. They weren’t beautiful, by the world’s standards. They weren’t particularly funny or very clever or extremely eloquent. I met them in, of all places, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. But their memory will stay with me forever.
They were a group of ladies, between the ages of 58 and 90 who call themselves the “Unity Self Help group.” They’ve met every Tuesday and Thursday for the past seven years to weave products, mostly out of waste paper and plastics and other recycled materials. Essentially, this group of widows is making beautiful table cloths, purses, bags and jewelry out of someone else’s garbage!
However, they get together for much more than simply to produce their products for sale. Consolata Warngui, the group’s spokesperson, says the main purpose for meeting together is to support one another through their many trials.
For this group of women in Kuwinda slum, trials are a way of life.
The members have spent most of their lives living in abject poverty within the Kuwinda slum, one of many slums that can be found in and around Nairobi. Between them, the group members take care of 60 children whose parents have died, mostly of HIV / AIDS. At a time of life when these ladies should be spending their “golden” years getting together to knit and sip tea, they’re caring for orphan children and wondering where their next meal will come from.
The streets of Kuwinda slum in Nairobi
Despite the hardships they face, I found real joy and a palpable spirit among them. They haven’t given up on life, but, in fact, are doing whatever they can to improve their lot. On top of the income generated by their weaving, the ladies also meet to study God’s word, for HIV awareness and education, emotional counselling, and awareness on human rights. But the main reason they get together twice a week, is for friendship and fellowship and as a way to cut down on the social stigma that they have faced each day.
Grace Wanjiku is a long time member of the group. She says they’ve become her life line and a great source of support. Not only is she able to have a little money from the “merry-go-round” system that the widows use to support themselves and pay for the materials they need to produce their goods, which greatly benefits her family, but the level of ostracism and loneliness she once felt has been greatly eased by the fellowship the group shares each time it meets.
Consolata says the group has a dream, to reach out to the youth of the slum, to have them become involved, and let them benefit from the counselling, the awareness of HIV / AIDS, and the study of God’s word and the grace shown by his only Son. She says not only older ladies can take advantage of those benefits that the group shares. They’re also hoping for help to reach a better market place than the slum can offer. One where tourists can purchase their unique, one of a kind products.
I said before that the ladies weren’t especially beautiful by the world’s standards, but, after spending a while getting to know them, seeing their great love for God and for each other, and hearing their inspiring stories of how they’re helping each other to survive in the harsh world of the slum, I can look at them and see beauty that the world overlooks.
Queen Elizabeth, George Bush, Gene Hackman…..each one unique and special in their own way. But, when it comes to memorable people I’ve come across in my life, I’ll put the ladies from the Kuwinda Unity Self Help group at the top of my list.