Differently-abled and flourishing

Francis Kariuki during the interview .

Photo credit: Macharia Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Joined at the hip by adversity, they find solace in unity and use the skills they have acquired to put food on the table.

They literally make lemonade out of lemons.

While some of their peers seek alms from well-funded and well-meaning well-wishers, the physically challenged group engage in income-generating activities in the midst of obvious challenges.

They earn stipends by selling their wares, which include the famous (African baskets) Ciodos, bracelets, backpacks and other items they have skilfully crafted.

Overcoming adversity, struggling to stay afloat in a society that sometimes looks down on their condition, and with their backs to the wall, they meander through life.

For Tabitha Wangui, the loss of her husband at a formative stage meant swimming against the tide, taking the easier route in anticipation of financial freedom. 

Ms Tabitha Wangui during the interview.

Photo credit: Macharia Mwangi | Nation Media Group

She limped from door to door looking for a mama fua job (a job washing clothes on the estate), but perhaps because of her physical condition, she was denied an opportunity every time she knocked on the door.

"I was denied opportunities that I believe were largely a result of my mental impairment," he recalled the sad chapter in the storybook of her life.

Without a penny to buy food for her four children, they nearly starved. "We went three days without eating. We survived on a sip of water," she recalled.

"At one point I thought we were going to die, there was no respite in sight. We were barely surviving. It was my lowest point, despite having endured the ridicule of living with a disability," she added.

Eventually, a neighbour came to their rescue before Ms Wangui enrolled in a skills course and learnt the art of making ciondos.

Although he did not earn much, he was able to educate her four children, with one of her sons managing to secure university grades.

"He got a B minus, but I am worried that I will not be able to educate him at university. I am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping against hope," she said.

Since the coronavirus, the fortunes of Ciondo's business have plummeted, leaving this determined woman on the brink.

Her colleague, Jihan Wanjiku, a bead-making expert, also faced hard times due to the physical impairment before she broke free and gained financial stability. 

Ms Jihan Wanjiku displays her wares during the interview.

Photo credit: Macharia Mwangi | Nation Media Group

"My fortunes changed after I joined the Disability Resource and Information Centre (DRIC). The centre started connecting me to the market," she confessed.

With ready buyers, she was able to build her own house in the Maai Mahiu area, where she still lives, and said the opportunity was "a game changer".

"I was able to secure lucrative deals that changed my life, but since the coronavirus, things have taken a turn for the worst," she said.

She is pinning her hopes on the Naivasha-based NGO to help her secure new markets as she decries the high cost of living.

For Francis Kariuki, selling one of his wares to then Deputy President William Ruto motivated him to work hard and improve his financial situation.

Recounting how the ornate vase of discarded flower buds ended up on the current Head of State's desk, he explained with a beaming face.

"I got hold of the Naivasha MP (Jayne Kihara) and sent the MP with a special gift for the then DP. For me, it was a token of appreciation, but he rewarded me with an equally kind gesture," he acknowledged.

Before the global financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus, Mr Kariuki had been able to break even and was on the verge of offering jobs to some of his contemporaries.

"The pandemic has messed everything up...I am now in a financial quagmire, unable to break even...and things are getting worse," he admitted.

He is keeping his fingers crossed, hoping for a change in his fortunes, albeit with fading hopes.

For basket and backpack maker Jane Gathoni, improving the skills of her colleagues is her forte. "I love teaching skills to my colleagues. It is my calling," she says. 

Disability Resource and Information Centre (DRIC) coordinator Josephine Mahinda shares a moment with her team during the interview.

Photo credit: Macharia Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Having been given the opportunity to train in Shanzu, Mombasa, she has acquired the necessary skills and has a burning desire to pass on the knowledge to young people, especially those with physical disabilities.

"Unfortunately, those who want to learn the art do not have the money to pay, making it difficult to teach them for free. I also have to take care of my personal life," she said.

According to DRIC coordinating officer Josephine Mahinda, the lack of a steady market has been the biggest obstacle for budding entrepreneurs to realise their dreams.

"The market has been an issue, but as a unit we are doing everything we can to connect them to either physical or digital markets. It has not been easy but we are not giving up," she said.

The DRIC official said most of them have the right skills, but also lack the capital to go big with their ventures.

"I hope the international market will open up for them. Some are the sole breadwinners and are really struggling," she added.