For those of you who may not have heard of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, it is a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a mountain that sits calmly in South Dakota, United States. The sculpture features the faces of four pre-eminent US Presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Although I have never been to Mt. Rushmore, I am told that it’s quite a spectacle. It would be really cool to behold such a spectacle at Sagalla Hill, a place I have visited many times since 1998 when I first set foot there. In mid-April 2018, I drove up Sagalla Hill and as I beheld its massive rocky terrain, I imagined faces of African heroes sculpted into these rocks. Circling these rocks like green sentries was an army of trees whose gentle sway in the afternoon breeze seemed to be giving me a warm green welcome.
As I soaked in the trees’ welcome, I told myself that if a huge sculpture of African heroes was to be carved out in Sagalla’s rocks, then Wangari Maathai’s face should definitely be among the first ones to be sculpted into Sagalla’s massive rocks. As should Thomas Sankara, the young President of Burkina Fasso who would have catapulted this west African country into greatness had an assassin’s bullet not taken away his revolutionary life. But apart from these well-known names, I would also love to see the faces of two other women up there with Wangari Maathai – Mama Dora and Mama Juliet. They are the Chairlady and Secretary of Mlilo Women Group respectively.
After spending a refreshing night at Nebo Cottages which sits calmly on top of Sagalla Hill and next to Sagalla Forest, I spent three hours with several members of Mlilo Women Group. They embraced me warmly and kept referring to me as ‘kijana wetu,’ our young man. Since I stormed out of my twenties years ago, I am not a regular recipient of this ‘young man’ tag, so it felt very refreshing to be referred to as such by these amazing women. I in turn referred to them as ‘Ma’ a testament to my Kiamu Swahili dialect which often resorts to ‘ma’ instead of mama.
Mlilo Women Group has been around since 2009 when it was founded by Mama Dora, a former secretary of Mwakichuchu High School. After her retirement, she brought together a group of about fifteen women and they began to perform traditional sagalla dances as a way of earning much needed extra revenue. Their dances were so good that they were invited to large events organized by the Taita Taveta County Government. One of those events was the War Memorial Event, which attracted hundreds of people and gave them widespread publicity. As a result, they started being invited to events in the neighboring County of Mombasa.
“Well paying events are however rare, so we had to come up with other ways of earning money,” Mama Dora says with a warm smile.
She started shopping around for other opportunities and soon landed a leather tanning training for her group members. The training was organized by Taita Taveta Wildlife Forum. Another training a few weeks later focused on making bar soaps. After these trainings, they did some informal survey and realized that the quicker way of making money was to combine their leather tanning skills with weaving so that they could weave traditional baskets for sale to tourists and the local populace. This realization launched them headfirst into the traditional basket industry.
These baskets were handcrafted using fibre sourced from locally available African wild date palm. They were then dyed using natural dye from the wattle tree, which was also locally available. In utilizing such non-timber forest products, they were playing a role in conserving Sagalla Forest. This should definitely qualify them for some funding from all those billions that are pledged and raised for climate change mitigation and adaptation. But just like thousands of other similar women organizations across Kenya and Africa, the rift between them and such funding is so wide that it can’t even be bridged by the 165 kilometer long Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge in China, which is the world’s longest bridge.
Mlilo Women Group has since made dozens of baskets and sold some of them mostly to tourists.
“We however haven’t made much money from our baskets,” Mama Juliet the Secretary of the group says.
“We need a much wider market,” she adds with an almost resigned look on her face.
“I have the answer to your market woes,” I say to Mama Juliet and her colleagues. They are about ten of them, and they are crowded around me in their small office at Mwalangi shopping centre, Sagalla’s public transport terminus.
As the middle-aged and elderly women look at me expectantly I hand over my phone so that they can see the home page of Sasafrica.shop an e-commerce website that I had started a few months earlier.
“What you are seeing on my phone is like a supermarket selling exclusively African products like your baskets,” I explained, “people from all over the world will be able to buy your products here. You will have your own online shop with information about you so that they can also get to know you more even as they buy your products.”
I took time to explain in depth about e-commerce and how anyone in the world can buy products on such a site.
I could see their faces lighting up and I returned their smile, determined to introduce the world to their amazing natural products. And to ensure that they also access the billions that are raised every year for forest conservation activities. Apart from being skilled basket weavers, they are also guardians of the utterly cool Sagalla Forest.