Kenya visit: in which I learn about work

I thought I knew what hard work was.

As a student I worked hard. I was determined to excel educationally, to be the best I could be. I left school with As and A*s for my GCSEs, As and Bs for my A Levels, and then a First in English Literature at university.

I work hard at the gym. I enjoy the feeling of pushing myself – running for ten more minutes, lifting a slightly heavier weight, or holding a yoga position for just a little longer.

And I would say I work hard at my job. I love what I do, and feel very privileged to have a job at all, especially in a time when more than one in five 16 to 25 year olds are unemployed. So I throw my whole self into my work, and feel very passionately about it. I work hard.

But I have realised that actually, truthfully, I don’t really know what hard work is.

I have no idea what it is like to work hard because my ability to eat depends on it.

On Monday I spent over two hours sweeping millions of fallen lime tree leaves, returning the drive leading to our house from a patchwork cloth of chocolate, russet, ochre to its sanitized concrete, ordered grey. For most of this time I was bent double, listening to some music to fill my head. As my brush made long rhythmic strokes across the golden ground, the refrain of the song urged me to ‘put in work’. My back ached and my arms ached. I swept and sang, and as I put in the work, I felt myself transported back to Kenya.

This time last week in a little village in Kisumu county, I was with a women’s co-operative that has established a small business making stoves.

 Did you know that smoke inhalation from indoor air pollution kills more people than malaria? In fact, the figure is 1.6 million lives every year – one person every 20 seconds.

 So Practical Action has been training women on how to make improved stoves – ‘upesi stoves’.  The upesi stove is a simple pottery cylinder which is built into a mud surround in the kitchen. It burns fuel more efficiently than an open fire, and therefore produces less smoke. This impacts significantly on the health of the women and children who invariably spend lots of time in the kitchen. One woman, Agnes, told me “Before we didn’t realise how bad the problems with smoke were. Our eyes would stream constantly and there was so much coughing and sneezing. Our children suffered a lot. But now the situation is so much better. And we’ve already started teaching our children how to make the stoves. We are happy.”

I watched as this group of women embarked on the ritual of making clay stoves. The clay is fermented, then sorted, moulded, thrown, shaped, and finally, fired. The whole process takes two months from start to finish. And it is hard work, involving not just the hands, but the whole body. These women are not labourers, they are true artisans.

We have also trained the women on how to install the stoves into kitchens once members of the local community have purchased new stoves. For this, the installer must spend most of her time doubled over, or on her knees, preparing the mud floor, then building a stone layer to create a raised platform, and finally smacking the red earth until it hugs the stove so tightly that it remains locked in place.  It is manual work – and physically gruelling. I sat in a kitchen, watching in awe, as one 50 year old woman employed every muscle in her body, expended every ounce of her energy, until she completed the job perfectly. I am 24, and I don’t think my body would be up to the task.

And for every installation, lasting up to four hours, an installer can expect to be paid approximately 145 – 150 Kenyan shillings (that’s about £1.00).

£1.00 for four hours of exhausting work.

But this small sum of money means vast improvements to the lives of the women. They have enough food to feed their children. They have enough money for school fees. They have enough profit to reinvest in their stove business, and their futures.

Too often there are accusations that people in the developing world don’t do enough to overcome their poverty. That maybe they are lazy, or that they just rely on hand-outs from development agencies, or that they don’t really work that hard.

I know – because I have seen it with my own eyes – that this is not true.

I have never seen anyone work as hard, or with as much energy and determination, as these beautiful women in Kisumu county, Kenya.

women's co-operative

2 responses to “Kenya visit: in which I learn about work”

  1. Geoffrey Mahinda Says:

    Thank you for an insightful article on the rural women of Western Kenya.I totally agree with you on the amount of hard work input by people,women especially in the rural areas of most third word countries.I work with pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in drought ravaged Turkana District in Kenya and the amount of goodwill and zeal these local women have towards donor funded or own initiated projects is just overwhelming.I would urge willing hearts to donate towards Practical Action and other other active agencies in their fund-raising quest for East Africa and other areas while at the same time emphasizing on the use of new technologies and sustainable approaches to fight poverty.

  2. Ella Jolly Says:

    Hi Geoffrey,
    Thank you so much for your comment. I am really glad you enjoyed reading about Practical Action’s work with women in Western Kenya.
    Your work with pastoral communities sounds really interesting. I also visited some pastoral communities in Mandera when I was in Kenya. You may find my blog on what I saw interesting:
    I too agree with your call for more donations towards Practical Action’s vital work.
    Thank you,

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