Mary with her four daughters.

Several weeks ago, Jenn, Nicole and I had the chance to visit our friend, Mary, at her home in Embul-bul.  Mary is our lifesaver and cleans our apartment and takes care of our laundry each week. (No automatic washers and dryers in this house!)  We are so grateful to have her.  But as Mary told me as we chatted over chai one Sunday afternoon at our apartment, this in’t quite the life she had planned for herself.

Over time I have learned that Mary is a talented and trained seamstress who used to own her own tailoring business where she employed and trained other young women in the trade.  But like so many women before, she learned that when life knocks you down, it can knock you down hard.  Her father became very ill (with what would turn out to be gangrene in his legs) and Mary closed her shop in Nairobi and to move back to her parent’s rural home and help her elderly mother with his care.  Ultimately, both of his legs had to be amputated.

Several years later, living her rural home and with no working capital to reopen her business her future and ability to care for her four young girls was looking grim.  With a strange combination of pride, sadness and irony she told me, “Many of the women I used to employ now own their own tailoring businesses, but I am struggling to start again.”  But over time as Mary’s family adjusted to his new way of life and she was able to move back to Nairobi where opportunities for income are more readily available and began cleaning homes to earn a living.

In the three months that I have known Mary, I have been so impressed with her diligence, generosity, meticulous attention to detail, and strong will to make the best out of the situation she finds herself in.  When we visited her family for lunch she had even remembered that 2 out of 3 of us don’t eat meat and had prepared a delicious vegetarian spread for us, complete with fresh, home-made mango juice!

Mary lives in a small slum, albeit the most orderly and clean slum I have ever visited, just 30 minutes outside of Nairobi.  She arrives to work before 7am six days per week.  Mary’s eldest daughters also now attend university in Nairobi on scholarship at the United States International University and the University of Nairobi, studying International Business and Engineering, and her younger daughters attend primary school minutes from her home – smart girls!  Her one-room home was meticulous, making me cringe and wonder what she must think every time she comes to clean our apartment!

Outside Mary’s home in Embul-bul.

In a culture that seems so infected with the “hand-out” mentality, it is so inspiring to meet women like Mary.  If nothing else, her children speak volumes about her character and outlook on life.  While there is nothing easy about her day-to-day, she is slowly building a better one for herself and her daughters.  Mary doesn’t complain about her job or work, in fact I know she is grateful for the income, especially in a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 40%.  But when she talking about sewing I can see a gleam in her eye; it is what she loves to do.  So I am excited to start brainstorming with Mary about how we can work towards helping her start her business again.

And this is the rewarding part of living in Kenya.  Meeting people like Mary, hearing their stories and sometimes, just sometimes, even being able to doing something to help.