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Kenyan Women Dancing Their Way to Empowerment Featured

By October 03, 2022 0

They enter the room in file, one after the other, taking small steps with an ever-so-slight shimmy in the shoulder or bounce in the knees. With their bodies and their voices, they follow the rhythm set by Mama Prudence, who leads the group with her gentle acapella singing in Kisagalla. Like most others, she has put on a handwoven straw hat for the performance, though I can still catch glimpses of the blue, orange and red shades of the headscarf she wears underneath. A calmly confident smile rests on her face; she has pulled down the surgical facemask that had been hiding it. The local language in which she sings is foreign to me, but I can make out the word mlilo - ‘pathway’, and the name of the self-help group the dancers proudly represent.

Beyond the door lie the rolling hills of Kenya’s Sagalla region, a spectacle of green shrubs, banana trees and mbaazi (bean) crops punctured by the typical East African paths of rusty soil which, viewed from up high, never cease to look like deep-red rivers to me.

When all six dancers - five women, one man - have made it through the door, their two drummers jump in. They start calmly, as if with hesitation: a single tick of their wooden sticks on their mwazindika, or hollow tree trunks, at the start of each four-count. It is a clear, rather sharp sound that complements the deep tones of the singing voices. Before long, the drummers up their pace - tick, tick - and then again - tick, tick, tick, tick. Mama Prudence, meanwhile, is steadfast in the calm rhythm of her Kisagalla words; the others continue to follow in chorus.

Their bodies, however, seem unable to resist the increasing tempo of the drums. The dancers start tilting forward at the hips. Hip movements become looser, shaking left and right with each small step. Bare feet hit the ground as in the old days, when dancing served to quicken the drying of fresh clay floors in new homes. They break formation and move around freely, circling each other, mirroring others’ lively shoulder shimmies or arm swings as eyes meet, then following the music back into their own unique grooves. Some look down, some throw their heads back, but all faces are marked by radiant smiles - and still the steady singing continues.

All but two of the performers are well into or past their sixties, and have been dancing kirindi for a long time. Kirindi is the local name for this traditional dance style, which most have learned from older women before them, at weddings, funerals and other gatherings. Concerned by the loss of interest of today’s younger generations in kirindi, or simply driven by the joy of dancing, several Sagallans banded together in 2009 to form the Mlilo Self-Help Group in an effort to showcase and preserve this part of their cultural heritage. But their aims soon became more ambitious: dance, they felt, could be used as a vehicle toward more sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families.

From hand to mouth and from ideas to dead ends

Mama Prudence, whose warm demeanour makes her stand out in any group, has been selling lemons and scrap metal door-to-door since her husband died in 2013. The sale of scrap metal is considered a last-resort economic activity by many Kenyans. Mama Prudence has little other choice: lemon harvests are seasonal and their market price used to be better than it is today - about 12 Kenyan shillings, or $0.12, per kilo.

She admits that she barely manages to cover her needs, especially as the sole caretaker of her son Hillary, 29, who gradually lost his eyesight five years ago and is completely blind today. He is registered at a school for the visually impaired, but the fees of $150 a term would be difficult to keep up with by almost anyone in Sagalla, and he is currently facing a risk of suspension for missed payments. Hillary would love to own a posho mill, used to grind maize into flour, to supplement his mother’s income, but knows the purchase is out of reach.

After an evening in Mama Prudence’s home, I am struck by the contrast between her day-to-day and the unfettered, joyful energy I saw in her singing and dancing just a day earlier. One moment, she is throwing her head back with laughter as she pulls me in to join her performance; the next, she is going from farm to farm asking if anyone needs a hand so she can supplement the month’s disappointing income from the sale of lemons and scrap metal.

The stories of Mlilo’s other creatives are eerily similar. Mama Eddah Soko, a founding member with sharp cheekbones and a constant twinkle in her eyes, moved back to her ancestral home of Sagalla in the 1970s with her three children after her marriage broke down. She cracks jokes about her name Soko, which means ‘market’, as she talks about going down to the market to sell oranges from her trees all those decades ago. It was not a very lucrative activity - three oranges sold for 2 Kenyan shillings, or $0.02, which was meagre even then - but it allowed her to provide for her family.

As the effects of climate change began to manifest and rainfall became a lot more sporadic, the harvest from her orange trees dwindled significantly. She tried planting cassava, a drought-resistant crop, but thieving monkeys proved to be a serious problem, and she was unable to find any guidance on how to handle the issue. Today, she calls her means of subsistence “largely non-existent”. She has ideas for solutions: she’s aware, for instance, that there is strong local demand for goat milk and that the market price of $0.80 per litre would make for a decent income. But the start-up costs are too big of an obstacle, as it costs about $100 to buy a goat. Like most of her neighbours, Mama Eddah Soko has never been in a position to afford such a purchase.

Or take Mama Monica, who also longs for the days when farm yield for subsistence farmers was guaranteed. The erratic rainfall of the past twenty years means there is now “zero assurance” of a decent harvest. When harvests fail, she tries to supplement her income with the sale of handwoven baskets, but “baskets are not like food; people don’t need a new one every day”. She, too, knows what she’d invest in for more reliable income should she have access to just a couple hundred dollars: a sewing machine to put her tailoring skills to use, and perhaps a goat or a cow, too.

Home after home, talk after talk, I hear variations of the same struggles, most of which are closely tied to the challenges of environmental degradation. More importantly, I hear many concrete and ingenious solutions that build on the skills and resources available in plenty, right there in Sagalla and the Mlilo Self-Help Group - if only they could be tapped into a little more.

Mlilo’s light at the end of the tunnel

Picture this: united by the love of music and dance, a group of Sagallans travel to nearby Voi to perform at a local cultural event before continuing on to the coastal city of Mombasa for a series of performances in a major hotel. Elated, they return home, where they pool their earnings. Some of it is used to buy materials to make bags that combine traditional weaving techniques and the modern aesthetic that has become the trademark of accessories made in Sagalla. The combined profits from performing and the sale of handmade items - at local markets as well as online - are paid out equally to each group member. Some of them use the money primarily for the care of their children with disabilities, others for the school fees of dependents or to have solar panels installed.

The income generated through the Mlilo Self-Help Group comes as a bonus to the steady monthly revenues each household earns from, say, goat milk, maize flour, tailoring or the harvest of new crops that are reliable enough despite the region’s changing environmental conditions. In fact, thanks to a modest one-off sum of money paid out to each individual using external funds channelled through Mlilo, all have been able to invest in the very concrete solutions for more sustainable livelihoods that they identified a long time ago.

Mama Prudence, Mama Eddah Soko, Mama Monica and their fellow Mlilo partners happily give 10% of the earnings made from these private investments back to the group each month. The invaluable contribution goes into a shared compassion fund the group has been wanting to set up as a way to support the elderly founding members and those in particularly trying circumstances - like Mama Prudence’s visually-impaired son. Any funds that remain at the end of the year are divided equally among Mlilo’s members as annual dividends.

Eventually, Mlilo uses its growing revenue streams to set up a local cultural centre, where you, welcome visitor, can learn to dance kirindi yourself - or simply enjoy a performance while you eat regional specialties like kimanga. After dinner, you sleep in a rental house in the midst of the community; that, too, is self-funded and run by the Mlilo group, whose membership has grown considerably over the past years.

The set-up is simple and far from unattainable, built as it is on the group’s love of dance and a bit of initial help at the household level. Even better: the objectives, ideas and execution come from the Mlilo members themselves. So why is this not yet a reality today? The truth is that it takes a listening ear and small external boosts in the form of modest start-up capital, connections and training to revolutionise Mlilo in this way, and that such targeted support - starting with the listening ear - has largely been absent from the numerous outside interventions in Mlilo’s 12-year history. As Mama Eddah Soko put it: “So many organisations have paid us a visit, but no one has come into my home to listen to my story for hours on end.”

The Mlilo Self-Help Group is a great reminder that the solutions to sustainable livelihoods usually lie within the community. If we are willing and able to piece them together by triggering the right conversations, the potential means to a community’s empowerment become abundantly clear. All that’s left, then, is to join hands with the Mamas of Sagalla as they embark on the mlilo, or pathway, toward the bright light they see ahead. Look closely, and you, too, can see it: right there, behind the dried-up orange trees.


The Mlilo Self-Help Group will soon be recording an album of the songs they write and dance to! Interested in staying up to the date on the project? Write us at sustainability@environmentalafrica.com (we won’t spam you - promise).

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