HandCrafting Justice

I write to you from the comfort of Jomo Kenyatta International airport. We have about an hour left on Kenyan soil and we are contemplating not only our journey, but return to daily life back in Brooklyn.

The contrast to the glittering duty free and pricey food court is even sharper after the day, perhaps one of the most eye opening we’ve had here in Kenya.

Here in Nairobi we are doing work for a fantastic organization called HandCrafting Justice, which empowers women all over the world to earn a living with hand crafts. As host of the most excellent Sisters of the Good Sheperd here in Nairobi, we met the women from the slums of who create everything from baskets, to dresses, to greeting cards. After a long day of shooting hands nimbly moving across fabric, paper and thread, one of the group of mamas (who make beautiful woven baskets) marched up and announced that all would like us to visit there homes in Makuru Slum.

What do you say to that? Yes, mama… How is nine am?

So we spent our day in the slum… A maze of one room shanties that stretches for miles.. Rivers of sewage winding between and garbage covers many of the main paths.

The awful parts of slum life are well known and I won’t elaborate on them here. Instead I want to tell you about our Journey. Each home we visited welcomed us. Each mama told us what they did to keep food on the table.. One sold nuts. One sold charcoal… One sold fruits. As we went to the next house the other mamas would follow until we had an entourage of rowdy, colorful older women helping us cut our way across the slum. Each stop involved cramming another person into the small one room homes.

Sitting here in the airport the thing that amazes me the most about the slum is the tremendous volume of hard work and vitality we found there today. Tens of thousands of small business occupy every crevice of the neighborhood. People sell fruit, cut hair, roast meat, grind corn. There was a movie theater (a small tv you pay a few shillings to crowd around and watch the world cup on).

This a place where people, despite popular imagination, are struggling to live… not waiting to die. The women we met feed a family of five for less than three dollars a day and they do it with their hands and backs and minds.

In the same way we found HandCrafting Justice a hugely intelligent idea in this context. They are helping these women do what they want to do. Kazi Kazi (Work work!) We are proud to be bringing home images of these women using their hands to not only make beautiful things, but to improve their businesses.

And guess what they asked us for. Not money. Not food. Not our shoes or camera.

Market. Customers.

I couldn’t believe it. But over and over we heard these women praying we help them make their hand crafts a success. Sitting there in the slums (as I sit now in the airport) I’m heartened that suffering’s companion seems to be the enduring will, talents and potential of the poor to work. For them to make and do things. For them to still invent (and monetize) everything from water to toilets. I believe we owe it to poor people everywhere to respect and learn from their already vast experiences in survival. Only then can we help them thrive.

Wheels almost up. Thanks Kenya…



  1. Magda
    June 17, 2010

    As we tackle the creation of an inventory system back at the NYC office, it's so good to be reminded who we're working for!
    Thank you for sharing

  2. nicki k
    June 18, 2010

    Agreed, thank you for sharing. I hope you guys are having an ok time adjusting back. I am happy to report that when I visited Kibera, my guide did not ask me for money, nor goods – he asked for support for empowering the local businesses and nonprofits. I love how you explained the vitality and hard work – I found the same. It is so refreshing to read about experiences like this!

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