A sewing project is changing the lives of two dozen Kenyan mothers of children with disabilities. Malaika Mums, run by the humanitarian group Comfort The Children International (CTC), produces and sells reusable cotton tote bags and coffee sleeves. In addition to providing the mothers with a good wage, the income supports a school with rehab services for their children. The sewing project and school sit side by side in the town of Maai Mahiu, just northwest of Nairobi, breaking local stereotypes about disabled children and their families. I asked Martin Milimu, a CTC occupational therapist who works with the children at school and home, to tell us more.
BLOOM: What stigma is associated with disability in Kenya?
Martin Milimu: In Kenya, some cultural traditions hold that handicaps are a curse from God, shameful and reason to ostracize a child and his or her family. It is believed that the mother is a sinner and the child is her curse. Many children with special needs never leave their home, hidden from the community.
BLOOM: How are children with disabilities and their families treated and what does having a child with disability typically mean for a family there?
Martin Milimu: Children with special needs are often considered cursed and continue to be systematically excluded from public schools, creating even more stigmatization within the larger community. Malaika Kids was created to combat this injustice by providing therapy and education to children with special needs in Maai Mahiu. Public rehabilitation funding is an area that is starting to be explored here in Kenya... On assessing a child with special needs, we sometimes find that fathers have left the mother…”
BLOOM: Do mothers typically become full-time caregivers?
Martin Milimu: The extent of the impairment a kid presents with dictates whether the mother will become a full-time caregiver or not… Most mothers whose children have severe special needs struggle with the difficult choice of going out to work and leaving the child dangerously unattended, or staying home to provide care all day and thus not earning any income.
BLOOM: When did you begin the sewing project and why?
Martin Milimu: The Malaika Mums project and Malaika Kids program were started in 2008 by CTC. The vision is to provide a sustainable, income-generating project for mothers of special-needs children in the community. The mums have an opportunity to earn an income for their families, support an education for their children and create products that improve the environment.
Malaika is a Swahili word which means ‘angel.’
BLOOM: What are some of the products?
Martin Milimu: They’re called LIFE (Livelihood, Invest, Future, Empower) Line. They make reusable cotton bags with graphics related to our programs, messaging or individual customer needs. One of our current bags features a group portrait of the women that make them. They also make reusable cotton coffee sleeves that protect your hands and the environment. One LIFE Jacket can save almost 18 pounds of trash a year.
BLOOM: Is Whole Foods the major buyer of the tote bags?
Martin Milimu: Yes, Whole Foods Market is our major international buyer for the LIFE Line products. The products are purchased through Allegro Coffee, Whole Foods’ coffee supplier and can be found at the Allegro coffee counter at Whole Foods. We also sell these bags locally here in Kenya and in numerous shops throughout the U.S. Whole Foods is also our major client for coffee sleeves – LIFE Jackets. Zazzle.com has also been a huge supporter of the LIFE Jacket and feature them on their online retail website. We also have partnerships with several coffee distributors and have merchandise in over 25 smaller coffee shops around the U.S. Bags and sleeves can be ordered online.
BLOOM: What is the goal of the sewing project?
Martin Milimu: By working together, helping each other, and building a sustainable business, the Malaika Mums have breathed new life into the community of Maai Mahiu while supporting the development of Malaika Kids, the only special-needs program here providing rehab therapy, structured education and nutritional support.
BLOOM: Do all of the children of the sewing staff attend the school while their mothers work?
Martin Milimu: Nineteen of the mums have children with special needs in Malaika Kids, and two of the mums have physical disabilities themselves. The Malaika Kids are located next to the Malaika Mums so the mums can check in on their kids throughout the day. Another 12 kids attend our children’s program, but their mums do not work with the sewing program.
BLOOM: What types of disabilities do the children have?
Martin Milimu: They have various physical challenges that include cerebral palsy, rickets, spina bifida, hydrocephalus, one-sided weakness and muscular dystrophy. Cerebral palsy is the most common medical condition. Some kids have dyslexia, Down syndrome and intellectual disability.
Twenty-five students aged three to 18 are enrolled in the school. Two students commute weekly from hospitals nearby to participate. Three specialized classes – Shooting Stars, Happy Angels and Busy Bees – cater to children with varying needs, from physical impairments to brain and development disorders.
BLOOM: Do you find that the mothers’ attitudes toward their child’s disability change as a result of working with other mothers?
Martin Milimu: Almost every Malaika Mum has said that before joining the program she thought that she had the only child with special needs in the entire community. They have expressed great gratitude at having a community of support where they can share the difficulties and triumphs as they raise their children. Knowing they are not alone has been one of the most widely-stated benefits of the program.
The mums are happy to have their kids receive these fundamental services and they feel as though CTC has helped their kids reach the next level in their development. The mums are empowered to be proud of their children instead of ashamed.
BLOOM: What are typical daily activities at the school? How is the school funded?
Daily activities include developmental therapy… to promote function and reduce dependence and structured educational programs to help these kids attain academic skills.
Income from LIFE Line products helps fund the Malaika Kids program.
BLOOM: How is the sewing project funded?
Martin Milimu: The sewing project is mainly funded by the sale of LIFE Line products. It's also supported by individual donors.
BLOOM: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the mothers – and in their children – since they began the program?
Martin Milimu: These women now have a steady source of income, the comfort of knowing that their children are receiving the attention they deserve and a true sense of pride in themselves. This income allows them to fully support their children’s special needs, the needs of their entire family and break the cycle of poverty. The Malaika Mums are well respected members of their community, reshaping conceptions of women and special-needs children.
BLOOM: Have you seen any changes in attitudes toward disability in the community?
Martin Milimu: There has been a series of changes from stigmatization to acceptance of special-needs kids in the society as a result of the [programs], following sensitization about special needs and the fundamental services these kids... benefit from. Currently, many children in the community with special needs are being brought here for assessments and advice and many are on a waitlist to join the Malaika Kids program. Unfortunately we can’t accommodate all of them because of our limited space and inadequate resources (staff and equipment).
Check the winter issue of BLOOM for an interview with Joyce Njeri, 23, mom to Tabitha, 7, who attends Malaika Kids. Photo by Chelsea Dee. You may also be interested in:
Kenya National Survey for Persons with Disabilities 2008
State of Disabled People’s Rights in Kenya 2007