Lwala is a beautiful farming village in the western part of Kenya, Africa. It is a beautiful landscape of rolling mountains that surround lush fields of corn, sugar cane, as well as a variety of fruits and vegetables that are more exotic to my southern roots. There are fallow fields nestled among the cultivated crops that speak to my need for a bit of wildness and rest. In the midst of this Eden lays the Lwala Community Alliance. It is home to a clinic, an education program, and the Lwala sewing cooperative. I came here with my family to spend the week meeting the women who participate in the cooperative so that we could develop some new products. I have spent the days sitting with the women sewing in a 1200 square foot tin building where they operate manual sewing machines and produce school uniforms, reusable menstrual pads, and kits for Thistle Farms. Christine, who is 32 years old and the mother of seven children, is a charismatic leader who explains with ease how she moved here when she got married. She also talks about the prevalence of domestic violence among women and how earning a living frees women from that struggle because they no longer have to "ask their husbands for money for food." She and the other women heard about the job opportunity from posters hung at the clinic and schools and applied in 2009 when the cooperative began. Being paid for work not only gives them hope for their own lives she explains, but also, "It makes it possible for the children to attend school." She explains, "When I was young there were many hardships…” and without lifting her eyes from the task of sewing she says, “but I left home and went to a polytechnic school even though my family was against it and learned how to sew."
Elizabeth's story is similar in that she too could not afford an education and came here when she married. She sits and explains her story with a measuring tape draped around her neck and smiles even while she talks about the harsh reality of growing up in the grip of poverties strong hold. She talks to me while Oliva, her youngest, sits on her lap while she hems bags for Thistle Farms. Above all she wanted to make sure that I shared, "We are grateful to Thistle Farms for ordering bags. The work has changed our lives and we hope you think of more things for us to sew." She learned to sew from a cousin she stayed with while she was growing up.
Other women in the group had parents who died early and are trying to stay healthy while living with HIV. They buy utensils, clothing and food as well as pay for their children to go to school, and it is on their minds as they are trying to sew some 200 bags before I leave. There is a young sewer in the group who has one four-year-old son. She has completed high school and dreams of going to college. She says that this job allows her to save money to someday help make her dream come true. Jane, who is the mother of seven children, never went to school and cannot read or write. "It’s important to me that my children can learn," she explains. She thanks me for the interview and for asking her important questions.
Through all the interviews I am sitting in the sweet space where fragile dreams are taking root. Seeds of hope are being sown on as fertile ground in the hearts of the women as the rich soil surrounds the building. I will carry Christine, Elizabeth and Jane's stories and weave them into the tapestry of stories I have heard over the past ten years at Thistle Farms. Together they make a beautiful picture of how community heals individuals and transforms the world. I don't take any of it for granted and sit, like in a fallow field, and wait for another season I haven't yet even imagined. I can already feel how this harvest will produce another harvest of things that are useful, and healing, and that help us love each other a little better.