When the women started spinning the wool themselves, they had big smiles on their faces. They imagined earning enough money to buy food for their families.
Becoming a bat mitzvah meant I was going to become an adult in my community. Like everyone else, I would practice my Hebrew prayers, prepare a d’var torah, and do a mitzvah project. At first I thought I’d collect canned food for a homeless shelter or do volunteer work—something simple. But when my mom told me about a small group of women in Kenya who wanted to learn how to spin wool and weave cloth to support their families, I decided that a project in Africa was as good as any.
In my mind I said, “Whatever.” I didn’t have clue about what I was getting myself into.
It all started with a conversation my mother had with Dr. Karambu Ringera, a Kenyan woman who sat next to her on the airplane when my mom went to Kenya in 2005. Dr. Ringera had founded International Peace Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that helps Kenyan people become self-sufficient.
At that time this didn’t mean much to me. All I was thinking was, “I wish I could go to Kenya.” And, three years later, I only wanted to raise enough money to buy and send a spinning wheel and loom to Kenya. No more.
My mom helped me send out emails to friends and family. Donations came in slowly, mostly $18 per family. More money was needed, so I spoke about my project at local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. It was very nerve-wracking to talk in front of a lot of staring faces. I could feel my face flush, heat rising to my cheeks. I tried to look past people to the back of the room. With each presentation, though, it was easier to talk in front of groups of people I didn’t know. It gave me confidence I didn’t think I had.
Eventually I raised about $2,500, enough to purchase the spinning wheel and loom and pay for weaving training sessions in Kenya.
It was my mom who brought up the idea of our family going to Kenya so I could oversee my project. I was thrilled!
Before going, I took a few short spinning and weaving lessons in Boulder and we all read a few books on the craft. It was really fun. I hoped the women in Kenya would find it fun too.
On the day of our trip I took one last look at my house and sighed. What kind of person would I be when I returned? What would I learn? Who would I meet? I was very excited to be going, but scared too.
Arriving at the Nairobi airport I was feeling a little shy. What would the women be like? Would they like me?
We traveled by van to the village of Meru, about four hours from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. In the women’s eyes I saw a glint of hopefulness. Beneath the hopefulness, though, I could see they had a hard life, not knowing when they woke up each morning if they were going to eat that day.
In Boulder, Colorado you don’t see eyes like that.
We stayed at Karambu’s house. Later my dad helped me assemble the loom and the spinning wheel. One of our first students was Carol, 19, who lived in the shack behind Karambu’s home; she had escaped with her mother and brothers when violence broke out earlier that year in the Rift Valley. When we took the loom out of the box, I rolled the bubble wrap on the floor and started dancing on it, popping the bubbles. I heard laughing behind me. It was Carol. She had never seen bubble wrap. I told her to try it. At first she stepped on the edge. When she heard a pop, she giggled. After we walked on it a few times, she got down on her knees and said, “Lilly, let’s do two” and started popping two bubbles at a time with her fingers. I will always remember her smile—the warmest I’d seen in a long time.
After everything was assembled we met with a group of women. We showed them how to pick out the big pieces of dirt in the wool that Karambu had bought from a Kenyan farmer. I demonstrated how to clean the wool by soaking it first in hot soapy water and then in vinegar and hot water. My dad followed with a demonstration on carding (brushing) the wool to align the fibers for spinning. Next came spinning. When the women started spinning the wool themselves, they had big smiles on their faces. They imagined earning enough money to buy food for their families. They kept on saying, “Thank you,” “Thank you.”
The next day the women, in halting English, told us about their lives. Helen’s husband had sold their property just before he died. She didn’t have money to buy the house back from the new owner. Nanus was caring for her two grandchildren because her daughter had died from AIDS and traditionally widowers do not care for children, especially daughters. Helen and Nanus had such soft voices, they reminded me of my great-grandmother, also named Helen, who died when I was six. They had known me for less than a day, and already they thought of me as their grandchild, making me feel more special than I thought I could ever be.
To see how these women lived, one time my parents and I walked with them from their homes to Karambu’s. It took about two hours. They couldn’t afford public transportation.
These women do not have running water or electricity. They get their water from a nearby stream or collect rainwater in a large pottery jar. They use kerosene lanterns for light. The floors are made of dirt or cracked concrete, and the walls are covered with newspaper and cardboard to keep the cold from blowing through the cracks.
In Lucy’s house ants are everywhere. There is no bathroom. Her two daughters go into the fields with a machete to gather food for the family’s cow. The girls share one twin-size bed. Lucy’s teenage son lives next door in his own shack, as is the custom.
Lucy is HIV positive. Her husband died of AIDS. We gave her money to buy chickens. She was very grateful.
Of all the women we visited, Purity seemed the most upbeat and organized. She has a goat, chickens, rabbits, an orchard, and a garden. She also grows a small amount of coffee beans to sell. She greeted us with a big smile and served us papayas. I liked visiting her home because she is such a happy and energetic person.
The weaving training was going well, but we soon realized it had limitations. How could we, beginners ourselves, teach these women to be expert weavers? Karambu asked three groups of Kenyan weavers to continue the women’s training, but even the offer of good pay did not tempt them, because they feared competition.
In our free time we explored other parts of Kenya. Sometimes we traveled by matattus, a small van used for public transportation. The conductor always crowded about four more people on the bus than the number of seats. Sometimes he himself hung part way out of the van. The vans sped through the crowded narrow streets, somehow avoiding a crash.
One day we took some orphaned children on a field trip to see elephants and giraffes. On the way back, in Nairobi, my mom spotted a little sign on a post on the side of the road:
“Weaver.” We stopped. Inside we met George, who seemed more American than Kenyan because he spoke such good English. It felt like a miracle—he said that he and his craftsmen would be happy to teach the people in Meru.
A few weeks later George and two helpers came to Meru to instruct our group in weaving. It turned out that we had been teaching the women the hobby way of weaving and not the efficient way of production for commercial purposes. We’d gotten the right spinning wheel, though—it could spin fine wool fast. If a trained weaver spun for eight hours, six days a week, he or she could make enough money to buy a new spinning wheel every week, making it possible to expand the business.
Still, this way of working was very demanding. Stringing the floor loom with the yarn involved a lot of calculations. The women and a few men who joined the project would show up “Kenya time”—late—for lessons. Some of them began questioning why they should learn this trade. George explained that, like them, he had grown up in poverty. And when he said he bought a three-month-old car from the money he’d made weaving, they stopped coming late and even stayed late to practice.
The women were getting it now. They learned to dye the wool. It’s a whole new art. You need to know how much dye to add in to make other colors and how long to let the wool soak. George also showed them that it was much more efficient to clean the wool after it was spun into yarn.
Once they got a pattern going, the women worked surprisingly fast. And when the first rugs and scarves came off the loom, smiles just filled the room. “Wow!” I said to myself. “I’m not dreaming, am I?”
At the end of one week of training, George proposed that four of the women come to his shop in Nairobi to be trained for another month. Each would specialize in one subject, such as spinning or dyeing wool; then the four would come back and teach the others. George even said that he would hire them once they were trained because he gets more work than he can handle from hotels. The women liked the idea, but they didn’t have the funds to pay for this new training.
It was time, after five weeks in Kenya, for us to go home. My mom and I joined the women in a closing prayer, followed by lots of hugging. One woman gave us African necklaces with large orange beads she had made in gratitude.
As the taxi taking us to the airport drove away from the waving Kenyan women, I felt something tugging at my heart. I decided to complete what I had started by raising the money to train the four women at George’s shop so they could return to their town and teach what they learn to others. That way, more people can start their own businesses and be able to put food on their tables and send their children to school.
Lily Glairon became a bat mitzvah on February 23, 2008 at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado. To learn more about Lily’s continuing wool project visit http://woolproject.byethost33.com/.