Kinawataka’s women: Female defiance

By Jessica Pattison

Female independence may not be something that you associate with the developing world. Yet, through all of the trials and tribulations of living in a third world country, a group of women have managed to empower themselves.

The women of Kinawataka Women's Initiative (KIWI) are a prime example of women ‘doing it for themselves’. Their story shows that female empowerment really can exist even in the harshest of environments. | Photo: Jessica Pattison
A dusty, bumpy road lined with tin huts, soldiers walking around with guns across their backs, children bare-footed, and barely clothed. This was the sight that greets you in the Mbuya slums of Kampala, Uganda.

As I climbed out of the van, the open arms of a small, dark-skinned, motherly figure greeted me. This woman, about five foot two and 60 years old, kissed me on both cheeks and ushered me into her home. Benedicta Nanyonga’s face was filled with joy and excitement at the prospect of our visit.

It was clear that Benedicta, as the founder and director of KIWI and the attached orphange, was the heart and soul of it. Getting to know the organisation meant getting to know her: “When I was a child, I was an orphan so I know what it’s like. This is why I now look after orphans, to give them a chance in life.

“About 10 years ago I had to leave my job at the Bank of Uganda, after 23 years,” she told me. “I had to retire early as I had back problems. I didn’t receive much money from the bank so had to make my own earnings. I could see that there were other women in my community in the same problems as me.”

Benedicta realised that the plastic straws and polythene bags littered throughout the village were not only a nuisance, but were also ruining the environment. She decided to take this rubbish and turn it into saleable goods. | Photo: Jessica Pattison

After a cup of Ugandan tea, brought by a beautiful little girl called Rebecca, Benedicta continued with her story. To occupy her time after retirement, she “mobilised” her community by organising “village cleanups”. It was this which was her ultimate inspiration.

She realised that the plastic straws and polythene bags littered throughout the village were not only a nuisance, but were also ruining the environment. She decided to take this rubbish and turn it into saleable goods.

With five other women  she began to make ropes, bags, mats, belts, earrings, and baskets which she sold in order to make a living. The 75 registered members of KIWI collect thousands of straws each week from the local Coca-Cola factory. The straws are then left in disinfectant for a day and woven into products.

“The aim of our work is to mobilise and sensitise the less privileged women in the community so as to fight poverty, disease and illiteracy. Most of our members are single mothers, widows, disabled women or women with HIV/AIDs, who can earn money to live in no other way.

“We also help women from war-ravaged areas who settle in our area by providing them with sensitization seminars and workshops on several projects including bread making, wine, ropes, mats and cooking baskets. The training is free because I want to help the community and especially women because women struggle a lot.”

As I spoke to Benedicta, I could see a real sense of wisdom, faith and optimism. She struck me as completely selfless. Her work is clearly driven by her motherly instinct, love of her community, and desire to empower women. It was clear how much it means to her to be able to give children a good start in life, and to give women who had never had that opportunity.

Benedicta reached for my hand and led me out of the house to the front yard. Underneath a makeshift canopy, used for shelter from the burning sun, were 10 women all sitting around chatting, smiling, laughing and weaving. I took a seat with these women and asked to have a go at making something. Weaving straws is much more difficult than you might think.

I chatted with these women all afternoon and I have never met a group of ladies so inspiring. Despite the poor hand they have been dealt, they were upbeat, strong, independent and determined to make a better future for themselves and their children.

Now when I think of female empowerment, I instantly picture the women of Kinawataka and their use of positivity and originality in order to survive.

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