“Teach your children well” Most Impactful People I Have Met: Part I
The original premise for this 5-part blog series was to highlight impactful women of Kisumu that I had met in this western region of Kenya during my PULSE assignment, and describe their contributions to improving health and well being within the local and outlying communities. But as this series evolved, I quickly realized that would certainly do an injustice to the many others who commit so much personal time and effort into raising themselves and their communities while moving away from accepting poverty as a way of life. And when I had met Evance Otieno Odhiambo, I quickly realized that I needed to be ‘flexible’ in my ways of thinking, and that my very own central premise needed to be modified just a bit to present to you the first of five ‘most influential people of Western Kenya that I have met’.
Once again, the lyrics of a song remind me about the person I present to you this week:
“You who are on the road; Must have a code that you can live by; And so become yourself; Because the past is just a good bye; Teach your children well….” (“Teach your Children Well” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, 1972)
What connected me with Evance was his craft generating products made from the ropes of water hyacinths, an invasive and aggressive plant species found on the banks of Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake. Several years ago, with help from Nora Pataut (2010 GSK PULSE volunteer), several students from the Oasis School of Hope interned with Evance to learn skills and capabilities about artisan crafts and operating a community based business. Lake Victoria is the source of livelihood for the majority of people living around Kisumu providing fish and trade within Kenya and its neighbor, Uganda. Water hyacinths grow and spread rapidly, choking out native plant and animal species, trapping industrial waste and environmental hazards from factories in the water that is used by many village communities for drinking and bathing. In 1997, the thick hyacinth growth created a natural barrier that blocked the Kisumu Ferry Terminal whereby boats could not depart or enter the port Thus, businesses were spawned that made rope from the vines of the water hyacinth to generate products such as baskets, placemats, furniture, and even coffins to be sold as a source of community income. Many of these products (sans coffin) are available on his website ( http://www.zingira.org ).
Growing up in the Manyatta slum of Kisumu, Evance attended Ezra Gumbe primary school through level 6, but was then required to attend to his ailing and disabled uncle and was able to complete level 7-8 at St. Vitalis Nanga. He was able to finally complete secondary school levels 9-12 at Ambira High School. In addition to playing high school rugby, he completed a fiber technology science project that led him into making recycled paper and greeting cards. Unfortunately, his parents could not afford to send him to a university, so Evance continued to learn the art and hone his skills of paper making. His craft’s capacity expanded, as his tree, holiday and seasonal cards were the top sellers at the Hairobi Craft Fairs. Holiday ornaments, mobiles, earrings soon filled in a more rounded inventory and his business began to develop and Zingira Nyanza was born. Working with recycled paper is where Evance began to develop his skill and create his trade. Now Zingira buys used paper from local business in Kisumu to make greeting cards helping to show others the financial and environmental benefits of recycling efforts within the community.
Zingira is Swahali for ‘surrounding’, and Zingira Nyanza is a community based organization in Kisumu dedicated to cleaning its surroundings. They coordinate the efforts of approximately 20 local artisans to produce a range of hand crafted products made from recycled materials. The effort is inclusive of people from all tribes within the local area, working with people 18 years and older. Their overall goal is to provide training, education, and employment in the interest of empowerment and social welfare whereby improving the quality of life for the people and communities within the region.
Why recycled handicrafts? Waste disposal is a very serious problem in Kisumu. There are no waste disposal services, and there exists no infrastructure in place to support recycling efforts. Area rubbish dumps continue to grow in size, impacting the quality of the local environment and community health. Often discarded materials are swept into piles and burned each day, polluting the local air that everyone breathes, and often releasing toxic gasses from burning plastics, batteries, and other hazardous materials.
Finding employment within Kisumu is also difficult, and often, wages are low. People who use to support the tourist market in years past, now find it very difficult to make a living. Evance and Zingira Nyanza are working to develop and integrate opportunities to focus community artist talent with the present environmental challenges. Many of their projects’ aims are to use solely recycled materials from natural and sustainable resources. The creation of crafts incorporates materials that will help to minimize the damage to the environment and reduce the impact of discarded and burned waste. Evance’s love for his country and its striking beauty adds to his efforts to teach others about the importance of being environmentally responsible and helping to develop community, artists, and establish sustainable businesses.
Zingira African heritage utilizes unwanted and discarded materials to create handicrafts. Plastic bags, metal cans, electrical wire can all be turned into crafts sold at local and regional markets. This provides a source of employment and also teaches lessons in recycling and environmental conservation. Income generated from the sale of these products helps to improve the standard of living of the local community by providing better shelter, food, electricity, clothing, school fees, and health insurance. Local artisans are employed to make handcrafted gifts and products from local source materials; products are distributed and sold to a wider and more lucrative market beyond Kisumu, whereby the income generated provides for the daily wages of the artisans.
All profits generated from gift sales are used to sustain and expand the market base and to train more craftsmen. This helps to maintain job security and a source of employment within the local community. The training teaches about the importance of recycling and environmental responsibility. Altogether, Zingira Nyanza enables people to generate an income and to take control of their own lives. Approximately 20 artisans are employed and much of the profit from sales supports local project development efforts by providing financial assistance towards efforts such as well-building and providing much needed resources to local schools
Zingira Nyanza encourages people to become involved and develop their personal talents by offering training and apprenticeships for those who wish to pursue career opportunities in sustainable arts and crafts. Zingira Nyanza also travels to rural communities to share expertise about recycling and income generating activities enabling these more isolated communities to have access to a broader market. A training program, for example, may demonstrate the skill to create paper and how best to use natural materials such as water hyacinth and banana fiber to create other crafts.
Currently, Zingira Nyanza is partnering with several people to move products into international markets. His contacts in the UK (Global Indigo), AFROArt.com, Sweden, Norway are now taking prospective orders to test the market and his own capability to meet the capacity required. He is also partnering with Ocean Sports in Watamu (near Mombasa). Water hyacinth baskets and cards are being made available to assess demand, capacity, and interest. Several products were recently on display at a Swedish craft fair (Nov 2013) and 2 shows were also completed in Norway. Zingira Nyanza also partners with two international organizations that are focused on contributing to the improvements in the livelihood and human rights awareness of the fishing communities living around the Lake Victoria Basin (Evance asks that you please refer to Diakonia Sweden Kenya, http://www.diakonia.se/en/ and Mistra Urban Futures http://www.mistraurbanfutures.org/en for additional information).
At home, Evance is a proud parent of 3 children, his daughter is the older sister to twin brothers. Evance conducts a ‘Kids’ Club’ on weekends and teaches life skills even at a young age. For example, he will have a pile of shredded plastic strips from recycled shopping bags, and the children will create large balls for play, but with the incentive that there are prizes (maybe candy, maybe books) for the largest and most creative design.
Evance believes that you should do what ‘moves you in your heart’. Over lunch he tells me “life is beyond begging”. He professes that receiving money through donations does not teach you value, but being provided with money as a soft loan is what makes us strong in standing and teaches us the value of hard work and personal return on investment, strengths with which each person can build upon in development of important life lessons and a sense of personal independence. He tells all of us that “life is a journey, the driver is passion, the engine is patience, the road signs are devotion, and arrival is achievement.”
Evance’s personal message to you is simple. “I started with 10 shillings and a girlfriend.” “It is important for a man to own (1999)” his girlfriend tells him upon returning home from university. And he told her “the next time you come, I will show you my house!” So with nothing but a cart and a bunch of empty containers, and only 10 shillings start up money, he began to sell water by wheeling his water filled cartons around town. 10 shillings turned into 120 shilling with one cart load, and by the end of the day and 4 carts worth of water sold, he earned 480 shillings minus his initial investment of 10 shillings. And with just 250 shillings, he purchased his very first house and surprised his girlfriend with the keys on her next visit home. His message is ‘Try, Train, and starting small will take you places’, much as his hard work and his beginning with making paper and turning his efforts into an impactful, sustainable, and educational environment for all within his community. Now, Evance equates himself to a farmer,” the person who prepares the soil and plants the seed close to the ground; germination is left for other causes and forces—That is what I do.”
Evance also learned a valuable lesson about ‘trust’ from his mother. His mother asked him to take Julius under his wing and teach him life skills, but without knowing who Julius was, he was initially quite reluctant to trust his mother’s judgment. Julius worked for his mom tending to the local garden, and Evance quickly saw this was an individual with talent and with a sense of motivation and initiative, and a strong work ethic. As the ‘farmer’, Evance soon began to chaperone Julius and taught him many of the skills discussed. And now, Julius’ hard work has ‘germinated’ as his profits help pay for his school fees so he can complete his secondary school education. Julius came from nothing, had little to show but his work ethic to want to learn to be successful. By learning to trust his Mother’s judgment, Evance too became a builder of character and has enabled another to improve his quality of life in the Kisumu region.
Through his dedication to those who he teaches and inspires, Evance is the PULSE within his community, and is clearly a leader for “Being the Change”.
Plastic bags: Plastic bags are one of the most noticeable waste problems throughout Kenya. Zingira Nyanza collects bags from the streets and countryside, cleans them, organizes them, and reuses them to weave into more stronger and durable multifunctional products such as handbags, and tote bags for carrying every day goods or produce from the local market.
Scrap metal is gathered from local factories as well as disposed rubbish, and used to create tins, decorative cases. Discarded electrical wire and wires from car engines are used for producing mobiles, wire handicrafts, or figures for greeting cards. Cans and bottle tops are recycled to produce figures for earring and mobiles.
Soaps: One of his women’s groups makes soap (solid and liquid), yet to create a sustainable soap production Evance would like to use this current group of women to train others to create up to 3 other groups creating a ‘healthy’ competition to meet supply, production, and costs. He is a firm believer that his role is to train others so they can either continue to work for him, or branch out and start their own business. He sees the scenario where others mimic what he does, and improves upon the process and the product, a means for other people to develop a sense of personal empowerment to control their own destiny rather than remain dependent.