Monday, November 22, 2010

Mama G.

Grace Chihanga is my community partner in Kayafungo, Kenya. She is a living breathing testimony to why social business and entrepreneurship will revolutionize rural areas such as Kayafungo.

Grace was born to a family of moderate means. She was a middle child who was fortunate enough to have a loving Uncle who paid her way through Primary and Secondary School. For all four years of Secondary school she sat in the first student seat, meaning she had the highest marks of her class. She unfortunately did not get the chance to go to University to pursue nursing, a dream of hers, but not because of lack of competence or lack of ambition, it was because of a lack of resources. University was unobtainable, yet this did not stop Grace from volunteering with the Kenyan Red Cross, AMRIF2- an HIV focused organization, ThinkImpact as a Certified Health Trainer, or the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation as a Community Health worker. All positions of respect within Kayafungo, and also positions that lack payment.

Grace is motivated by the idea of helping others. She has one of the warmest hearts and positive attitudes of anyone I have ever met. She is efficient, effective and hard working. She is used to putting in extra effort when needed to cultivate a situation for the positive. She and her husband worked their way from a modest mud hut home to one of cement and grandeur, complete with solar powered electricity. Grace has an attitude and demeanor that would give powerhouse women in the States a run for their money. She has spent years devoting her time to establishing a network within Kayafungo and the surrounding areas. She epitomizes the vision that ThinkImpact has about community ownership of projects. As Chairperson of the Kayafungo Mungano Women’s Group, Grace has advocated for the making of soap to help alleviate the spread of disease by providing a product to the community for handwashing to occur. She wants the sales of this soap to not just be for income but to also have an educational component for the community. Grace and the women came up with this product themselves after asset mapping occurred in August 2009. After seeing partial challenges with access to one of the main local ingredients, the women in the group turned to Grace for guidance. As a women’s health activist, she suggested sanitary pads to be sold. After many lengthy discussions it decided that reusable pads would be the most effective.

I left Kayafungo for a period of time to go to Nairobi for some meetings. While I was away Grace located another female entrepreneur in a surrounding area, who works with young girls empowering them through football and educates on menstruation. Grace and her new partner had many meetings and discussions about different ways to make the reusable pads. Grace had meetings with the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation to learn more about the issue of access to sanitary pads, and to look for the grass her new partner had said could be used in the absorbency part of the pad. She did research on what local women use each month and approached schools about the support offered to young girls about menstruation. All this was self-prompted. She was doing market research without even being the wiser; just a natural step for her to take.

Grace is a motivational leader, of whom the women she works with turn to for advice and guidance, not just about the business, but also about health and life. Most of the mornings at Grace’s home consist of neighbors dropping by to chat, drink chai, and discuss things that are happening with them. Grace takes the time to sit as long as needed, with each and every one of them who drops in.

Grace has a thirst for academia and is always seeking for ways to learn as much as she can. She recently just bought a university level course book on business. She told me it was so she could further her knowledge, so the business will be successful. Grace works and sets up meetings without prompt from me. Grace is an example of the kind of person that a community partner needs to be. I know that my project would not be as successful as it is right now without her. She does the hard work, and I am here to facilitate and prompt thoughts. I know when my fellowship time is up; the KMWG will be in good hands.

Recently, I had a meeting that included some new women. I listened as Grace spoke about social business. She described it in English first in an eloquent and stimulating way. She completely understands the idea, something a few months ago I may not have been able to say. Grace will make this successful because of the passion I heard during that speech. When the soap and sanitary pad business is ready for expansion, she has contacts and potential markets identified to do so.

The attribute Grace has that might be the most imperative is her strong voice in the community. Living within a male dominated society, this is an important and key aspect to the success of the Muungano business. Grace knows who she is and what she stands for. She is prepared to fight not just for her own rights, and freedom of speech, but that of her fellow women in Kayafungo. She is a rare gem that shines brightly. Grace’s spirit illuminates those around her, and during meetings I see her confidence inspiring the other women.

Grace is causing a revolution in Kayafungo. She is causing women to rethink their situation, stand up for themselves, and begin to have hope. Grace is an entrepreneur for a vast number of reasons, but most importantly she is an inspiration. Grace is the reason I have come to fully believe in social business. This is the type of person I know lives undiscovered in many places throughout rural areas of the world. People, who are silently inspiring others, are fighting poverty in unique creative ways and are naturally leaders. All it took for Grace to take off running was a conversation. A conversation we had on the steps of a shop, about women’s health, and how to improve it. One conversation has ignited a fire that empowered 30 women to become businesswomen. One conversation that has changed my life forever.

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