Watoto Wote Wazuri

Tuko Pamoja–The Vision Ahead

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 09/29/2013

Scan 15

The Tuko Pamoja (“We are together” in Swahili) Board descended on Rockville, MD on September 19th for 4 days of a board meeting, retreat, reunion, and time filled with inspiration, brainstorming, synergistic energy, tears and laughter, and even cheering and dancing. When this group of five women get together with all of our passion for Kenya and the women of Tuko Pamoja, our joy of working with them, and ideas start flying fast about future plans, it seems as though the building should rumble or glow a little!

I flew in from Maine to be greeted at the airport by Jen and Karen and amidst all the hugs and excitement of being together again, we hadn’t even moved from the spot where I landed before Karen and I were both in tears overwhelmed with that feeling that we get when we feel the passion of this work together and the emotional connection which brings us back to our sisters across the globe. We had a full few days ahead complete with color coded itinerary and agenda prepared by Jen and Lloydie, and a lot to accomplish ( but also a couple of “field trips” included on the agenda….if we “got all our work done.”)

We met at Lloydie”s house where there’s never a feeling of being too far from Kenya with all of the Kenya decorations, Tuko Pamoja ware, and ever mounting duffels filled with donations for the next trip.


Jen and Karen making what would become 100’s of tags


Snacks and tags for merchandise

Before we got down to the full agenda we had a chance to visit and see that Jen had been working on a new SKU tagging system for the Tuko Pamoja merchandise with which we would all become very familiar. Thanks to Jen we now have a much better system for check out and cataloguing the Kenyan Women’s crafts.

We worked on many different issues during our meeting, but began with a review of the past year. Tuko Pamoja began a little over a year ago as a socially conscious LLC dedicated to collaborating with marginalized Kenyan Women artisans to help them create  a sustainable market for the sale of they goods in the U.S. It had been a successful year with increasing the purchase of their goods by 50%, increasing the number of scheduled sales events, selling close to 90% of the inventory, and hosting that amazing 1st Annual Women’s workshop when we were in Kenya last January. Almost every woman artisan at all six sites has been interviewed and photographed to create individual bios of the women. While we want to sell their goods, we also want people to have a chance to know them–they are each amazing women with strength, grace, resilience and talent who all have remarkable life stories. We want people who buy their goods to have a chance to feel the connection with them. Each site has a book of bios of the women artisans and we have these to share with people who attend our sales events. We know from comments like this in the event guest book that sharing the women”s stories, photos, and bios does give people a sense of  connection with these women whom we have come to know and love.


Comment written in TP party guest book

A bio and photo for each woman

A bio and photo for each woman

But now it was time to look ahead, to fine tune some of the business plan, and to rework our plans to more clearly reflect the ultimate goal of having women artisans groups eventually graduate from Tuko Pamoja and become independent. And so we reworked our mission statement:

To collaborate with marginalized Kenyan women”s artisans groups toward the goal of creating sustainable income and independence.”

We want to convey the concept of developing independence and our ultimate hope that each of these six groups of artisans will, through our collaboration and training, develop the skills and self confidence to become independent, and become alumni and mentors to other groups who enter Tuko Pamoja. So how will this happen? This is what we spent a lot time and energy–and excitement–working on. We will need the collaboration and input of our Kenyan Board members and their diverse talents and a clear vision with milestones and goals to be reached over the next five years. This is what we focused on for our second Annual Women’s Workshop to be held in Kenya on January 25, 2014. We talked about measuring success and how we know if the women are getting what they need to develop independence. This is when is was extremely helpful to have Karen, who is a financial planner and business owner, focusing us on the details of planning. While the planning was detailed beyond what I wish to report here, woven throughout was a great deal of heart, a deep connection to our sisters in Kenya, a passion to be helpful and profound kindred spirit with all of them.

Shared amongst us were many stories and reminiscences of times in Kenya, the times that most deeply touched our hearts and keep us so passionate about this work. There were moments of laughter, and joy and even some of deep sadness when we recalled our most overwhelming times in Kenya when we each felt flooded by the despair of seeing such hardship. We had to stop the planning  for a while and simply process these experiences and support each other as we have all been there— overwhelmed  for a brief time faced with the enormity of the poverty, disease, hardship, only to find our bearings again—the bearings that lead you to remember that if you look at the whole larger picture you can become immobilized with despair, but if you focus on the people right in front of you, then you can make a difference, you can change someone’s life…… and in the process change your own.

While we don’t know precisely how to measure the success of Tuko Pamoja and are working on that, what we do know is that the number of women’s self-help groups has more than doubled since Tuko Pamoja began working with the self-help groups formed in the Lea Toto clinic of the slums. We know that the grandmothers who weave the baskets at Nyumbani Village are now earning enough income through basket sales to be able to save a little and need bank accounts. And something else which is hard to measure, but undeniably present from working with the women over several yearsbefore Tuko Pamoja, is the look of hope on their faces and the lightening of their spirits. That is something you can just see and feel.

Deb and LLoydie on our  "field trip"

Deb and Lloydie on our “field trip” beside a most appropriate sculpture

Some of our most pleasurable planning time was spent on what special things we can do for the women when we return to Kenya. We decided to come up with a motto to print on a business card for them, something that they can keep close at hand and heart to remind then of Tuko Pamoja and that “we are together” in this venture and remain connected even when we are not there. Our motto became:

        Tuko Pamoja

        We are strong and beautiful

        We are growing and learning

        We are together……always

However,  before our time together was done, not only was it a motto, but also a cheer and song, also accompanied by Kamba dance moves that we can’t wait to share with the women, especially those limber jointed dancing grannies of Nyumbani Village!

The herd of beaded animals in our inventory

The herd of beaded animals in our inventory

Dislaying new items of Tuko Pamoja

Displaying new items of Tuko Pamoja

Sharing ideas...

Sharing ideas…


and more ideas..

and more ideas..

and more.

and more.


The Tuko Pamoja Board

The Tuko Pamoja Board


In addition to all the planning for Tuko Pamoja, we also reviewed our trip itinerary for travel to Kenya in January. Although Lloydie says that no one is allowed to get exhausted on this trip (hmm, right, Lloydie?) and that the itinerary is less packed, we still have a lot to accomplish. In addition to all of the Tuko Pamoja site visits and the workshops, we will spend time at Nyumbani Village working on multiple other projects and I will spend a good part of my time there consulting with the Village counselors as I have done in the past. We have some wonderful fundraising projects for people to support which I will write about in a future post. As we all were getting into the excitement of the trip, we decided to call our friend Justus, our driver, guide and protector extroadinaire in Kenya. It was so wonderful to hear his voice and laugh, but this is when we first heard of the terrorist attack on the mall as this was unfolding as we were on the phone. Although excited about our trip and feeling exhilarated by being together, this news left us all heavy-hearted and deeply saddened for our friends in Kenya. Since some people have asked me whether this will deter our travel plans, I will answer that question here. We are very cautious about safety when we travel, we don’t go to places like the Westgate mall, we spend most of our time in rural Kenya or in the slum areas and very little time in more populated areas like Nairobi where we just past through. So no, we are not deterred and will be cautious, but remained determined to carry on this work with more passion.

The last event of our time together was a cocktail party to welcome the Executive Director on Nyumbani, Sr. Mary Owens to the Washington D.C. area where the annual fundraising gala would take place the following weekend. It was a nice opportunity to chat with her, hear updates from Nyumbani and update her on the  plans for Tuko Pamoja. I have to give an enormous amount of credit to Lloydie and Jen who have worked diligently on Tuko Pamoja event planning, site books, collating interviews and doing much of the stateside leg work of Tuko Pamoja.  We all hated to depart the next day, but all felt like we had accomplished a great deal and could feel the mounting excitement of planning for another trip to Kenya in January, a trip filled with many things to accomplish,  but most of all with lots of experiences to touch and overflow our hearts as always happens in our time together there.

"Dressed up" for the evening

“Dressed up” for the evening

Tuko Pamoja group photo in Dandora--see you soon!

Tuko Pamoja group photo in Dandora–see you soon!




My words about the women of Kenya after my first trip–I didn’t realize just how true they would really prove to be be ….,

Tribute to the Women of Kenya

Oh women of Kenya,
do you know how beautiful you are?
With your dark eyes holding your
stories of such sorrow and despair
your shining faces still able to smile so lovely
despite hardship beyond imagination

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how strong you are?
To carry your sick children on your backs
for miles through the alleys of Kibera
to raise the children of a nation through
sickness and poverty with such love

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how powerful you are?
You are the true backbone of your country
the bricks and the mortar of your people,
the keepers of the culture and traditions
the past and the future

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how glorious you are?
you dance and sing with a lively spirit
that could fill the heavens
that suspends all time and lifts all hearts
with infectious joy

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how truly amazing you are?
You moved me in a way I could not have imagined
found places in my heart I never knew existed
A piece of me is there in Kenya with you
I am but a deep breath away and in my mind’s eye
I am remembering just how beautiful you are!

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