Paying it Forward with Vital Voices in Kenya

by Columnist

It was an intensive five-day workshop. Each of the 22 women we worked with manages a business that supports a village, so our impact goes well beyond 22 people.

One of the highlights of the trip was seeing my friend Rebecca, the founder of the all women Umoja village. A malaria sufferer, she created Umoja as a safehaven for women on the run. Umoja has about 50 women and 125 children. Rebecca’s traditional Massaii jewelry is beautiful, but hard to sell as wearable jewelry here.

Through the Vital Voices artisan program, she created a new product that was just shown in the Diane Von Furstenburg fall fashion show. From the Umoja village to the catwalks of New York … not bad!

Last summer we sold Rebecca’s product at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Festival where she made enough money to support her village for two years. When she got home, her husband (whom she left years ago) and son showed up at the village with guns, beat Rebecca black and blue, and demanded the money. She escaped and did not hand over the money, but the village was temporarily disbanded due to fear. The Vital Voices network has been working tirelessly to help her.

After a couple of days in the workshop, the stress had left her face: she was with other caring, supportive women and she was reinvigorated with her mission of elevating the women of her village.

There was a common attitude of “paying it forward” throughout the entire workshop.

Each of the artisans have a two fold mission: one is to have a viable business that supports the village, the second is to empower women with the dignity of work.

Every single participant has a common goal of taking whatever knowledge is gained back to the village, to share and empower those coming up behind them, so that the whole community can be elevated. It’s a sentiment that I feel we’ve lost here in America.

Mary Yerrick, one of the founders of Vital Voices, would be an exception. There she was in Nairobi, with twice my vitality, hanging out with and teaching the women she so fiercely believes in, continuing her life journey of paying it forward. In my fashion, I hope I did the same.

Next stop: Uganda

Michelle Malek Olson is a Washington Life reader who lives in McLean, VA.

A stylish handbag created in Kenya by a Vital Voices worker. (Photo Courtesy of Vital Voices)

A stylish handbag created in Kenya by a Vital Voices worker. (Photo Courtesy of Vital Voices)

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