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Mama wa kiondoo


The journey

I popped into a wholesale factory in Nairobi, Kenya, where baskets are delivered to from various rural areas around Kenya.  The baskets are there in large quantities and the staff working at the establishment are all of an exceptionally cheerful and friendly disposition.  I purchased a few baskets, but I was more interested in where the baskets came from and the work involved in making them.  (The staff at this workshop did not want to be named, nor their location advertised)  

For a green spiky plant to be made into a beautiful bag, basket or rug is remarkable and what are the working conditions like for the people involved in the process?

So the adventure commenced, I got the details of a lady based at a village where the products are made.  I set off early on my adventure, for the journey to Matuu, a town 120km North East of Langata, a 2 1/2hour journey from my house.  We meet at 09:30, I immediately spotted a very joyful pair of ladies at a fuel station and knew just by the sparkle in her eye, which one was Janet.  A lovely outgoing lady with a constant huge smile.  The majority of people who live in this part of Kenya are from the Kamba tribe, speaking a Bantu language known as Kikamba.  Matuu town is located in the East of Kenya, the area here is relatively dry, with limited rainfall and extended periods of drought.  These conditions are perfect for the Agave Sisalana plants that produce the Sisal fibre (pronounced ‘size all’).  This is what the baskets and bags at the warehouse are made from. The plant is characterized by its leaves, they grow to approximately a metre and have a sharp point at the end and they produce a creamy coloured fibre.

This fibre can be used to make carpets, clothes, bags, ropes, rugs, building industry materials and plenty more.  Each plants can be harvested around 20 times.  Before the advent of cheap and (highly destructive) plastic, sisal was hugely in demand for its durability and longevity.

Janet directed us to her village, which she advised was ‘just down there’.  I didn’t think about this comment at the time, 27.5km later I now understood Janet’s version of ‘just down there’!

The route from Matuu to Yumbuni Village was lovely, passing by locals who waved happily and children who ran alongside the vehicle.  I was advised that I was making history, as I was the first white lady to be attending the village.  As the journey went on the terrain became more arid, the trees and crops much more sparse and local village huts began to appear here and there.  In certain parts of Kenya, upon the approach to a village or town a vast amount of litter can appear, but here, I saw none.  The first town we came to was Ngangangi Market town, where the ladies must get a motorbike to, to gain access.  There are about 65 families living here.  Shortly after this we came to a well, it looked like quite a modern structure, but then I was advised that the well is empty and had been for some time.  Janet did say that there is another well closer to the village, but is a two hour round trip on foot which they have to do most days.

We passed carts being pulled along by cows, this appeared to be the main form of transport here, to transport tools to the fields and the produce back.  Janet said that the last time they had rainfall was in March this year (seven months prior to this being written) therefore people were working the fields preparing them, just in the hope they had some rain.

Janet has five children and has been making products out of Sisal fibre for 12 years, Men do not do this type of work, they will go out and try to find manual labour.  Both men and women worked in the fields preparing for rain. Fourteen ladies work with Janet making the produce, generally they meet once a week to work together for the day,  but complete the majority of their work in their homes otherwise the transportation costs to get to work do not make it viable and the walk is about 2 hours for some of the ladies.

All the children in this part of Kenya go to primary school here, but secondary school will depend upon the parents finances.   Primary school is approximately 2500ksh ($25 USD) a term and secondary school is 8000ksh ($80 USD).


The Agave Sisalana Plants

The closest main town is Matuu, here an acre of land will cost approximately 150,000ksh ($1500), but here where the ladies work it will cost more like 30,000 ksh ($3000). Doesn’t sound much does it, but in a country where 40% are unemployed and the average monthly wage for those who are is $100, the prospect of owning such a piece of land is a lifetime ambition for the luckiest and an inconceivable concept for most.

As we drew closer to the village, little dirt and rock roads were lined with the Agave Sisalana plants to make the boundaries, it did start to look rather sweet and quaint in a Kenyan bush type of way and again no litter evident at all.   Janet advised that the rules are strict here, no charcoal production or logging is allowed and the main dishes eaten here are Githerie and Ugali (a light vegetable stew and a heavy maize flour product with the consistency of mashed potato).  Which was good as I brought 10 bags of maize flour with me, as a thank you.  

There is not much waste in these lands, the maize stems are used as fodder for the cattle, it has a nice and salty taste.  You are wealthy here if you have 6 cattle in your homestead.  The land here is mainly for the rocks in which it sits on, they used to sell very well and were the main source of income for the people here, but for over a year now, the rocks have not been selling anymore and the funds have stopped coming to the area. 

Upon arrival at the village I received a lovely welcome greeting from all of the ladies, they were so happy and cheerful despite their daily hardships.  Speaking to them was wonderful, it did take some time, as I would speak in English, it would then be translated into Kiswahili and then into Kikamba by Janet, so that the rest of the ladies present could understand.  Therefore if some of the information gets lost in translation, then please do accept my apologies.  

The ladies advised that they would show me how the baskets are made from start to finish and this was wonderful news.