Hey Change Maker!
My guest this week is Chelimo Saina of Shoe4Africa’s Women’s Empowerment Program.
We begin the episode by talking about Chelimo’s background and how Shoe4Africa’s Women’s Empowerment Program got started. Chelimo was born to a family in Kenya that was heavily involved in politics. She was raised on a farm, but began attending boarding school starting when she was five. Chelimo went to America to earn her college degrees, but later moved back to Kenya after the death of her only brother. The Women’s Empowerment Program was born out of her own struggle with domestic violence. Chelimo remarks that her domestic violence experience with her first husband took on several different phases of violence – physical, psychological, and sexual. After her mother encouraged her to leave her first husband, Chelimo moved back to America with her two-year-old child.
Next, Chelimo and I discuss how domestic violence affects women beyond its physical implications: “Apart from the physical, it completely destroys your creative thinking. It destroys your confidence. It destroys the ability to just relax and even enjoy your own company. You start to blame yourself for what’s happening.” She compares domestic violence to an onion with many layers, remarking how it creeps up slowly as layers are gradually peeled away. By the time you’re finding yourself in the core part of that onion, it’s often too late for many women, and they need the help of others to escape their situations. We also discuss the cultural implications of women leaving their spouses. Chelimo remarks that African culture, with its density of women in rural areas and large population of women in poverty, creates the perfect bedrock for domestic violence to fester. She relays a saying from women in her tribe long ago about women filling up their mouths with water to avoid speaking back to their husbands. This saying is still culturally relevant today, and the stigma associated with domestic violence is still very much alive in Africa.
We then shift gears to discuss Chelimo’s work with the Women’s Empowerment Program. Her decision to start the program wasn’t planned, but rather spurred by a fateful interaction she had. When her parents passed, Chelimo inherited the farm she grew up on. One day, a woman came to the farm seeking refuge after fleeing her abusive spouse. This first woman was the “guinea pig” for what came next: a program that provides not only housing and a safe haven for women fleeing domestic violence, but also opportunities for dignified employment and knowledge of cutting edge farming methods through work on Chelimo’s farm. We also talk about the changes Chelimo has seen in the women during their journey through the program. The first thing she sees is the women gaining weight, which she conveys is a very good thing. Chelimo also sees a newfound sense of peace and joy emanating from the women in her program. The rhythmic patterns of their life on the farm present a stark contrast to the daily fear and stress these women felt while in abusive relationships. The opportunity to not only do the work, but also earn money for their work, is empowering for the women in the program.
After that, we talk about the impact that land ownership has on the women she serves. Chelimo describes that when she starts to fight for a woman’s independence from her husband, one of the first things that is questioned is the value of the woman in terms of land and cattle ownership. Chelimo works hard to ensure that the women she’s helping own the titles and deeds to their land so that they can have the right to fight for their independence.
When describing the community of women on the farm, Chelimo uses words like “jovial”, “very happy” and “collaborative”. Whenever she visits the farm, the women sing as she approaches. Chelimo also comments on why empowering women is so vital in the fight against poverty: “By empowering them [women] and creating an environment where they’re forced to be at the head of the table, then you’re empowering that society. And I’ve seen it happen in the years of this women’s group.”
As we wrap up the podcast, we discuss Chelimo’s inspirations, as well as how listeners can get involved. Chelimo relays that her mother is a huge inspiration to her. She comments on her mother’s commitment to her father throughout his political career, and even after his death. Chelimo encourages listeners to not only donate to Shoe4Africa and the Women’s Empowerment Program, but to also become actively involved. She relays her experience connecting the women in the program to a group of students in the UK. Chelimo recommends that listeners visit www.shoe4africa.com to read about the Women’s Empowerment Program. Listeners are also encouraged to reach out and connect with Chelimo on LinkedIn.