I am Fidelis Karanja, I reside in Kenya where I was born and brought up. In a family of 23 siblings’ polygamous family. My father had a burden of educating all of us but most of us were lucky to get to secondary school but with the help of our mothers. I sat for my fourth form exams which I managed to get good grades but not good enough to make me join a public university. I tried to secure place in several tertiary colleges but my father did not care so to send me to a college. My mother who was illiterate, a second wife and who worked so hard to see me her other 9 children through secondary school, could not come to my aid at the time. I admired her and wished if she was well skilled to earn a good income to take us through college. He determination gave me a desire to empower women. Since that time I promised myself if I will have an opportunity to empower a woman I will never hesitate. I started my journey as an unskilled woman, working and doing clerical jobs in different firms and institutions. Some were very frustrating employers, no salaries, abuse and being laid off without a notice or pay.
After some struggles I got a job a private hospital as a cashier. I had an interest in serving others and therefore I developed an interest in nursing but I could not afford the fee to pay for a nursing course. However, that did not stop me from pursuing my dream, I saved some little money where I joined a social work college. I took part time course in the evening for two years. Later I got a job with a microfinance organization. The organization lead women money to start small business. I passionately helped women to establish business and recruited more than five thousand members. I was later promoted to a credit officer due to my hand work. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side, in 2007 December Kenya went to a general election that led different communities into conflict. My community was unwanted in the area of our operation. I traveled to my home for Christmas and by 2008 January, our office lost everything. It was burned down and we started receiving threatening phone calls not to report back to work in that area. I could not go back to my work station and I could not get a transfer so I lost my job.
Kenya 2008 as result of disputed presidential elections, many women lost their business and source of livelihoods. They also experienced very traumatizing situation. This made me realize a need in championing peace trainings among women to become peace builders and peace ambassadors as well as holistically empowering them (socially, economically and spiritually). This thought lead to conception of Young Africa women initiative(YAWI) organization. I did not have funds to set up the organization, I talked to a few women friends with whom we registered YAWI self-help group. The group was so limited in reaching out to the women in the larger community. Most of my fellow women gave up and could not sacrifice their time to educate women on peace or offer any other help.
“I was left alone with my vision of a society where women were empowered and freed from any form of oppression.”
I kept telling myself, i know my tomorrow shall be better than today. I believed Kathy Troccoli words ‘There is candle in every soul bright and shining” i know mine was bright and shining and I needed to carry mine and reach out to hopeless women. So I soldiered on. In March 2008 I joined a National NGO as a volunteer. I volunteered in the women department dealing with survivors of political strife. I trained many women on small business and advanced credit to rebuild their lives. Also during this time, I told myself it times you achieve your dream of having a degree and I enrolled for Bachelor’s degree in Development studies in a local private University. I sacrificed my volunteer allowance to pay for my fee which was not enough. Lucky enough, January 2010 the NGO leadership employed me as full time staff where I worked as a micro finance trainer with a better salary enough to pay my fee. I trained women in war torn countries that is South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi , Tanzania and DRC Congo in business skill and accessing credit for their business. I worked in the organization until 2011 where my contract was not renewed due to economic hardships. Again I lost my job. Losing my job was really devastating because I thought I had a good chance to serve the women of Africa but it was short lived. I was really angry and frustrated I still had one year and half to finish my degree and now the job is gone. Through my gratuity I was able to finish my studies and graduated with 2nd class honors. Since then vowed I will never search for a job again.
My passion for serving the women of Africa lead me to register YAWI as an NGO. I felt and believed that I was now in the right place and no one would destabilize achieving my goal of empowering women. In 2012 January YAWI was fully registered, we got a certificate. We hit the ground running. We moved to the slums where I had contacts with women. Where did several trainings on peace, human rights and we started a micro credit programs. Later we moved to the rural areas in Maasai community, where electricity is farfetched dream that may never be realized in the near future. Women have hazardous way of lighting their homes. We came up with a program, LIGHT IS BASIC where women are provided with solar lanterns to light their homes and for children to study. We distributed 500 households with solar lanterns. Unfortunately, some of these project could not be sustained due to lack of funding and therefore I went back to employment and lucky enough the same organization offered me a position in community transformation and resource mobilization. at the same time, I applied for a common wealth scholarship which I was given to study a master’s degree in public administration international development at University of York UK and I graduated in July 2018.
However, all this time I never abandoned by dream in YAWI, so I continued looking for funds and supporting women. In 2017, Kenya government banned the use of plastic bags. More than 500 women livelihoods were affected and resulted in dangerous means of earning an income. Majority living in the informal settlement. I applied for funding from VGIF to train at least 300 women on tailoring of reusable, biodegradable and Eco-friendly tote bags. VGIF granted us a grant that has enable us set up a tailoring center where more than 300 women will acquire skills in tote bag making and in addition entrepreneurial skills such as record keeping, marketing communication etc. Also in collaboration with other local organization the women learn other skill on Gender based violence, peace, security etc. so far 50 women have acquired skills and already marketing.
In addition, I have introduced another bag we are calling it “KICK OUT PLASTIC BAGS!” the bag will go global via online sales and partners. The objective is to promote clean environment globally and abolishing of plastic bags globally. In an addition the bag is targeting adolescent mothers who engage in sex voluntary or through coercion. Their health is at risk. This particular bag will have a health code that can be used on mobile phone or internet. Once an adolescent girl, mother or vulnerable woman send a text she will automatically be linked to sexual reproduction health information that is provided by professionals. I hope that the women will be able to establish viable business in groups and become retailers and suppliers of tote bags, earning income and uplifting their standards of living and enjoying good health. I am so happy with my self because i am on a journey to achieve my dream, pursuing my passion of empowering women. We need feminist to come on board and achieve this big dream together.