Just moments ago I had been on top of the world. We had done it! And to top it off THEY HAD COME!
Every community in the world has some version of it. They may not be the richest, they may not be the oldest, but they are the gate keepers. Here, in Kamrongo, that was the village elders, a council of about 15 men and one woman who supported the Sub-chief and Chief of the area. When we rolled up in our rented matatus, 10 of them were waiting in the shade next to the old church. It was like Christmas, my birthday, and a raise all rolled into one. I wanted to dance!
But, as I watched the women file through the gates of Wandiege Primary School, to start what we had hoped to be the most impactful training yet, I was struck by one unmistakable sound… silence. It felt like my stomach had fallen out the bottom. Ringing in my ears were the words of a young African woman who had worked with Mama Maji over the previous summer:
“When a man speaks girls learn to be quiet; Quiet is safe, quiet is right, but quiet does not learn.”
As the last of the elders passed through the gate I honestly wondered if I was going to cry. Ten men eager to learn… in a workshop we had struggled for weeks to arrange for these women.
What had I done?
The first part of the training was going to be a tour of the Wandiege Water Company, a community-started and community-owned water company. The whole point was for the women to get the chance to ask questions, to learn from Kenyans what Kenyans were capable of. We had even gotten two of the founders to lead the training, and as they walked the group up to the first kiosk, sure enough; the women were in the back the men in the front.
“Excuse me, but I think you’re mistaken. Water costs 17 shillings per can now.”
That wasn’t one of the elders.
Craning to look over the group she was just barely visible right next to the kiosk window. She was leaning in close right next to the bars that criss-crossed the kiosk; somehow she was managing to speak quietly enough not to offend but loudly enough to be heard clear across the cirlcle… Olima. And she had corrected one of the Elders!
For the next few hours, it was like having front row tickets to the most amazing transformation ever. At each stop on the tour the women were just a little more engaged. Every question they asked seemed to make them grow just a little bolder. These were women of Kamrongo…water was their domain, and Olima had opened the flood gates. What was more though, was that the Elders were listening!
Every time a woman answered a question that they didn’t know the answer to I could see their respect grow. By the time we reached the gathering hall, where the founders would be speaking, it was hardly even a surprise that Olima was unanimously chosen as the group’s leader for the discussions. When some of the attendees asked if the founders could speak in Luo instead of English it was Olima that stood up to get the vote. When the Chairman of the Wandiege board began asking questions about the projects that were happening in Kamrongo it was Olima that was chosen to present them.
The sun by this time was streaming in through the side windows. A full day of lively discussions and long walks had left everyone just a little bit listless. In one corner of the room two of the Elders were sitting as low as they could get in their chairs, legs sprawled out in front of them, chins on their chests. They looked like they were ready to take a nap. The Wandiege Chairman was standing in front of the group wrapping up all of the pieces from the day. As he finished his speech he switched back to English and raising one hand in the air like a school teacher trying to fit one more fact in before the bell he challenged the room;
“Follow in our footsteps, learn from our mistakes, and your projects can grow. Someday, you will be as big as Wandiege.”
In her corner Olima stood up, and just like the first time we met she swept the room with her gaze and pinned each and every person with those piercing eyes, instantly commanding silence. Then, she turned to the Chairman and warmly shook his hand.
“From the bottom of our hearts thank you, but”, And with this she looked over at the village elders who were now all sitting forward at the edge of their chairs,
“Ours will be bigger. Ours will be better.”
The women of Kamrongo are organizing right now to build a system that will provide water to thousands. You can join them. Inspired?