Meet Leah Auma Okeyo, a Kenyan World Pulse leader sparking a confidence revolution for women in her community.
Auma | Kenya
She can’t find employment and she lacks education. She would like to start a business, but she can’t get the capital. No one will give her a loan because her property is in her husband’s name. Her husband fears the loan officer’s threats: If she doesn’t give us back our money, we will come to your home. We will take your cows. We will take your furniture. Even if she gets a loan, she now has corruption to contend with: up to a 20% bribe in addition to interest. And before she even makes it that far, she’s likely already been worn down by constant messages minimizing her worth.
Ten years ago, Leah went into community work to change this story.
“When your self-esteem is so low, how are you going to run a business?” Leah asks.
She recognizes that many women in her community are still a long way from achieving economic independence, and when she looks around her, she sees huge obstacles remaining: hunger, entrenched poverty, HIV/AIDS. This year, the region was hit with a devastating drought.
While Leah doesn’t have a quick fix to solve all of the problems of the women who come to her, she is witnessing something happening in her Positive and Active Towards Change Organization (PACHO) that gives her hope: groups of women coming together to produce beadwork to sell, including sandals, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and clutch bags.
The earnings from sales provide a modest source of additional income for women. “I know the local prices we have are very meager,” Leah says, “but still we say a bit of bread is better than none.” She has her sights set on international markets where women can earn more for their crafts. And as her vision expands, so does the vision of the women PACHO serves.
“They have to dream about getting out of that situation,” says Leah. “One of the biggest issues we have as women is lack of self esteem. You feel like you cannot do anything that has any value. Unfortunately, for a long time we have not been able to look at our skills as a way of boosting us economically.”
At PACHO, women are discovering their skills and recognizing the value of their contributions. They are now saying, “I can do things. I can start something new even when I’m above 20 or 30.”
Leah knows this is crucial because it was the key to her own success story.
“I have worn the shoe, so I know where it pinches,” she says.
When she gave birth to her first child the same week she turned 15, Leah’s life was on a trajectory that felt set in stone: “You are a teenager; you’re married; you’ve fallen out of school. You have children and you’re young and you don’t know how to go about life,” she says. It would have been difficult for her to imagine her life now as a globally-connected leader in her community who others turn to for help.
One of the first members to join the World Pulse online community in 2007, Leah quickly rose as a leader in the community and an inspiration to others. She shared her story, her poetry, and her encouragement with women around the world. She says, “Before this time, I thought it was a strength to be quiet. You are strong to suffer quietly.” Quickly, she came to realize we share the same challenges, even across borders. She began speaking out.
“From that time onward I never went back,” she says. In 2014, Leah traveled to New York to train with the Empowerment Institute and hone her vision. As the power of Leah’s voice has grown, so have the voices of those around her.
In the craft groups, women are developing their voices, and this, Leah says, is just as significant an outcome as the income they are earning. These are forums where women can talk about the challenges they are facing and come up with solutions. “We work on knowing ourselves, realizing what we have and where we are, and then making our goals. We train the women to have a voice so they can express themselves and their needs.”
Leah points out that her activism has followed a similar path to the lives of the women she works with. Her organization itself is working towards economic sustainability; it is constantly learning, discovering its potential, and struggling to thrive in an environment with scarce resources and ingrained corruption. Seven years ago, Leah says, she wasn’t seeing the impact she had hoped, and she felt stuck. It wasn’t until the past two years that Leah really felt the momentum picking up. The difference, she says, is the clarity of her goals.
Leah has come to realize the power of her vision, and the influence she can have leading by example. Her vision for PACHO involves continually exploring markets and opportunities for women in Kisumu. Through a mentorship program for girls, she envisions a future generation of empowered young leaders who can break through today's taboos.
Leah hopes to build on the global networking and relationships she has been nurturing and expand PACHO to become a full-fledged entrepreneurship training center and safe haven for women, equipped with a bakery and IT facilities.
“Sometimes we have battles,” she says. “Sometimes we have internal problems, like political fighting and tribal fighting, and we don’t get along with each other because we don’t speak the same language.” She says that when her organization is able to bridge these gaps as community leaders, the rest of the community can embrace this approach.
Despite government leadership that Leah says can’t be trusted, and systems that reward corruption and tribalism, PACHO is attempting to model a different reality. Every training includes members from more than one tribe. The doors are open. Minds are opening.
The problems Leah sees in her community come from the top, and she sees the solutions rising from the bottom. She places her hope in the growing confidence and leadership of women who have very little, who have been told they don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute.
“It’s not just jewelry making,” Leah says. Women are daring to take control of their own destinies.