Hot, dry, dusty…and inspiring

Imagine the hottest, sandiest, dustiest barren land and you’ll be imagining something like Merti.

We were due to spend 2 days in Merti, to the north of Nairobi. In fact in turned out to be only one. After an hour and a half of travelling the bumpy route the CAFOD Landcruiser was stopped by a soldier from the British Army. With a broad Yorkshire accent, the soldier informed us that we couldn’t use the road ahead as they were doing ‘gun practice’ and live ammunition could well be crossing the road we ‘d hoped to travel. Sadly we had no option but to turn back. Concerned that communities were gathering for us, and that our hosts had prepared food for us, we weren’t too happy about this. The challenges facing by our partners are many, but this wasn’t one I expected.

When we finally arrived at Merti the following day the previous day’s experience faded as we visited 3 special programmes. Merti has a large Muslim population, well over 80%, with a small Catholic population, but the Catholic Church is visible and active, living the Gospel message in a very practical way.

For me, the highlight was meeting the Widows’ Group. They were inspirational. This group of ladies, all Muslim, were all widows, now the sole breadwinners for their families. We met them in the small room of one of their houses and immediately their warmth and hospitality shone as they offered us cool drinks.

We sat in awe of these ladies as their story unfolded. Following a grant from CAFOD, which they received through our partners – the Catholic Diocese of Isiolo, they invested the money in 2 activities: they opened up a small business and they planted trees. Both are flourishing, and so are they.

Boru, their patron, said since the support came from CAFOD “This group is now going somewhere.”

“We are widows” said Fatuma, the chairlady, “Once we come together we feel motivated to act.”

Rachel and me taking a stroll after our meeting


Their first love is the planting of the trees. They’ve planted them in public places: in the school grounds, at the hospital, to improve the environment – not for themselves but for others. And now they have a nursery with young trees and a piece of land which they are converting into a park area. They want to line the area with trees, and plant fruit trees in the middle, to make it a quiet, shady place where people can come to rest. I looked at their ‘park’ – it was dry and dusty with a few young trees, but I believe that these women will create this beautiful haven. They’re strong women!

When asked why planting trees was so important to them, Fatuma said:
“This place is very dry. We’re showing we can do something positive to respond and the trees will provide shade and improve the environment.”

It reminded me of Wangai Matthari, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She celebrated women nurturing the earth itself as millions of trees were planted through the women of the Greenbelt Movement. I’m not sure if these widows had heard of Wangai Matthari, but this was exactly what they were doing too – mothers nurturing the earth itself. We were so moved by their vision.

Jon with the widows, with Boru holding the tree. Fatuma is the lady on the far right

Later they took us to plant a young tree in their park and they would look after it for us and even put a plaque with our names on it. We just have to return now in a few years time to see how it’s doing!

We plant the tree given to us

“Eco-feminists,” whispered Rachel, during the conversation. They were truly inspiring women.

One of the trees in their nursery

Then there was their small business. With the money from CAFOD, they bought a shop and stocked it with top-up vouchers for a mobile phone network called Safaricom. They use scratch cards here to put credit onto mobile phones. The widows also sell phone accessories, batteries, cases etc There’s a high demand for mobile phone air-time so the shop is busy every day. Their bank account is healthy. The money is used to support the women in this group – a small business generating income enabling these widows to support their families. Their pride in the business was clear.

The shop sign, outside their tiny but successful shop

“What gets invested in women doesn’t get lost.” Fatuma said. I agree!

When asked about their hopes for the future, Fatuma said “We want to expand the business to help other vulnerable women in the area and we want to plant more trees.”

Rachel with the ladies of the group


Then, to our complete surprise, they said they would like to dress us in traditional dress. Two ladies dressed me and Rachel in beautiful dresses and shawls, and Boru dressed Jon in a kikoi (a bit like a wrap-around skirt). My oh my….it was just brilliant. They laughed with delight, and how me and Jon laughed too as they dressed Rachel in bright orange – Blackpool football club’s colour! Jon quipped that she was showing her ‘true colours’ (that one’s for you Dave!) We expressed our gratitude. I told the ladies they gave us strength. One of the group, Rufo, proclaimed that she would be my second mother. My family continues to grow as we stay in Kenya!

Jon is dressed in a traditional 'kikoi'


It was touching also to hear them refer to Stefano, the programme officer from the Diocese of Isiolo who has guided them through this, as their ‘son’. Stefano has about a dozen mothers! Their generosity of spirit was overwhelming.

I’ll never forget that day. A group of the most vulnerable and marginalised Muslim women, who, given a little support from CAFOD, were now blossoming and empowered to make a real difference to each other and to the environment. This is what CAFOD is about. It made me smile and thank God.

Rosa : )

Jon and Rachel with Mumina, who runs the Safaricom shop, inside the shop

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