By Harriet Constable
On a Monday afternoon in a building in a busy part of Nairobi, there are women singing.
Standing in the garden below, you can see them gathered in the second-floor chapel, smiling as their melodic tunes ripple out of the windows. They look happy and peaceful, coming together to give thanks. Yet many of these women are refugees, and they have suffered inconceivable pain and loss during their lifetimes.
The women are in this particular building because it’s the headquarters of Amani Ya Juu, a fair trade sewing and training programme that employs marginalized African women. They make handmade goods and accessories, which are sold at the on-site shop, as well as online and in stores around the world.
The setting is idyllic: There’s an outdoor café set on a lush green lawn with scattered round tables, colourful table cloths, and dark green umbrellas providing shade from the Kenyan sun. At the back of a garden, there’s a large children’s playset with kids happily scrambling around it. In the shop, each room displays expertly handcrafted items from bags and purses to oven gloves, aprons, and bed quilts.
Rwandan refugee Ingrid Ingabire is one of the women employed here. She fled her home country in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, during which up to a million people are estimated to be have been killed.
“I was 12 years old when we fled,” she says. “Originally, we went to Congo, which was called Zaire at the time. We stayed in a refugee camp called Kashusha for two years, but in 1996, the camp was attacked and many more people died.”
So at 14, Ingrid faced the terrifying ordeal of trying to survive in the huge forest with her family— with little food, near constant rain, and no form of navigation.
“In the forest we could walk for more than a week and still end up where we started, but we had to keep moving. We were hunted like animals by men with poison arrows.”
During one attack, they all ran in different directions—Ingrid escaped with her sister, but she never saw her parents again. After recovering and gaining back her strength, she met the man who would become her husband. They married, had children, and tried to set up a home, but peace was still not part of their lives.
“By now it was 2010 and we were living in Goma, but it was still very dangerous,” Ingrid says. “One day my husband left to get food and he never came back. I think soldiers attacked him. I was so afraid and sad. I was pregnant with my baby girl at the time and I got so depressed I nearly lost her.”
Later that year, a kind neighbor gave Ingrid some money to leave the Congo, and she and her children escaped to Kenya. Upon arrival, she was reunited with her sister, who was already working at Amani Ya Juu and got Ingrid a job there, too.
“Since I came to Amani, my life has changed very much. I have been trained to use a sewing machine and have been taught to make many products. I earn enough money to feed my family, pay rent, and pay bus fares for my children to go to school.”
Ingrid’s story is just one among nearly a hundred women working at Amani who have faced incredible hardships as refugees.
“These women are mourning,” says Amani Ya Juu director Becky Chinchen. “They’ve lost their lives, but peace can’t wait. [Amani] is about finding peace within and moving on with your life. We try to give these women hope. We’re teaching the women here that you can live life no matter what the circumstances. You can get up. You can heal.”
Ingrid’s coworker and Rwandan refugee Neophite Uwamutarambirwa explains that being surrounded by others who have suffered at Amani helps the healing process. “More than job security, at Amani we are able to forget the bad things together and comfort one another,” she says. “We care about one another.”
Tantine Mitamba, a Congolese refugee who fled her country in 2006 after multiple rebel attacks on her community, agrees: “I felt very alone [when I first arrived in Kenya], but working with others who have also struggled so much in life, you feel you are not the only one. We are able to share the burden together.”
Once women have reached Amani, they tend to stay for a long time according to procurement officer Judy Otalo, who has been with the company for 16 years.
“Most women stay [at Amani] at least four years to become trained,” she says, adding that Amani also acts as a springboard for women who want to set up their own businesses. “One Rwandan woman came here to be trained and then eventually went back to Rwanda—she set up an Amani Ya Juu in Rwanda, so now we have a company there, too!”
It’s been 20 years since Amani first opened its doors to refugees and marginalized women from across Africa. Director Chinchen is as intent as ever on continuing to offer a peaceful haven to women and training them with skills that can set them up for the future. According to her, the business model is working: Customers come back again and again to support the Amani initiative.
“There’s something about being with women who have healed and found peace that draws people,” she says. “It’s hard to find a community where there’s trust, forgiveness, and love in this world, but you find that here.”