Mary Wanjiru had dreams to make it big in Nairobi. Naro Moru in Nyeri County could not contain her. It could not quench her thirst for adventure and quest for financial freedom. It was too small a city to accommodate her dreams. She was beautiful, young, hopeful and full of energy. And so at the tender age of 18, Mary bid her parents farewell and boarded a bus to Nairobi.

True to her dreams, Nairobi was kind to her. It opened its arms wide and presented its treasures for her to mine. She lived with her elder brother and took up cleaning jobs and whatever else her little hands could find to do so as to complement his income. Her beauty, coupled with her work ethic, attracted a suitor who married her when she was 20 years old. Young and eager to start a new chapter of her life in marriage, she moved in with her husband.

Right from the onset, her husband would pressure her to bear him children and would threaten divorce if he did not get what he wanted. Determined to save her marriage, she consulted numerous doctors and after countless tests, the doctors found out that she was barren. Their marriage hit the rocks after four years of a childless union.

“I was devastated when my husband told me he was leaving. Nothing I said or would make him change his mind. He said he could not live with a barren woman. I later found out that he married again but I made up my mind to remain single,” she says.

As if this was not enough, death struck and took with it her elder brother. She was dumbfounded. Her support system and confidant was taken away. How could she survive without her brother who was all she had in the city? Panic gripped her when she remembered her younger brother who also looked up to her for support. Who would take care of them seeing that they were orphans and it was their elder brother who had shouldered their upkeep after their parents’ demise?

Not one to languish in poverty or pity party, she picked herself up and started looking for a solution. She had to survive in the city. With no one to hold her hand and show her the ropes, she continued doing temporary cleaning jobs for sustenance. Her younger brother relocated to Mombasa.

Luck was on her side as she got hired as a kitchen staff at a local club in Soweto slum in Embakasi. She was determined to pull herself together after her nasty divorce and brother’s death. She put her best foot forward at her new workplace, which endeared her to her colleagues and bosses.

Her excellence and hard work paid off as she got promoted to be a cashier. She left such a deep imprint on her bosses that they tagged her along to a swankier branch they were opening in a new location.

In search of something new…

After many years of working as a cashier, she started contemplating retirement. The cashier job was starting to have a toll on her plus age was also catching up. She knew her time at the club was running out and she slowly started charting her exit plan.

Her light bulb moment struck at the age of 50 when she resigned and started her kiondoo making business. This was something that she was good at. It was something she used to do in her teenage years. She remembered how she would help out her mother make the traditional baskets and thought to herself that it was a venture worth pursuing.

With some little savings she had managed to accumulate over the years, she bought her first supplies. She quickly identified a market where she would be selling her product and immediately started working.

“I used to sell my kiondoos at Kariakor market. The business was booming. I really enjoyed making them as it gave me income and freedom to do what I wanted. Once I started making them, I never looked back,” she grins.

Another setback hit her life in 2006. It seemed like Nairobi was starting to reject her. One day as she was on her way to the market to sell the baskets, she slipped and fell breaking her leg.

“I was in excruciating pain and told bystanders that my leg has dislocated but they did not really understand what I was talking about. They brushed it off and instead of taking me to hospital, they took me home,” she laments.

When her friends heard about her misfortune, they rushed to her aid and did what they thought was best. Due to lack of money, they opted to administer readily available traditional herbs to their ailing friend.

“My friends are not from well-off backgrounds and when they heard about my accident, they came and gave me herbs to ease the pain. I also did not have money to go to hospital so I just had to bear the pain. My pelvic muscles were swollen and the entire region had turned a deep red colour. I felt like I was dying. I could not sleep or eat!” she exclaims.

The next few days were filled with immense pain but help finally came. A young doctor working at a neighbouring dispensary came to her rescue. After examining her and confirming that indeed her leg was broken, he took her in and began treatment. Part of the treatment was the administration of two injections on a daily basis for a period of one month.

“Until today, I do not know what the daily injections were for, all I know is that they worked. I thank God for the young doctor who treated me irrespective of my financial situation,” she says.

Her faith in humanity was ignited after she received help from random people. For six months, she could not leave her house. Unable to walk or do even the most basic chores, she had to rely on others for sustenance.

“A friend of mine gave me the house where I am currently living as she travelled out of Nairobi. God miraculously brought people to my aid. One of my neighbors used to come and bathe me and also clean the house. Some young girls would come to wash my clothes and cook my meals. There are indeed good people out there who have a heart for people,” she says with tears in her eyes.

Innovating for survival…

The accident also rendered a huge blow to her business, as she could no longer travel long distances to the market or source raw materials. She had to think fast and smart. Her strategy was to befriend a neighbour who she would then send to purchase old sweaters for her. She also tapped into the community youth to market her products.

“Being a businesswoman, I understood the need to cut my costs. I usually buy cheap sweaters from Gikomba market at throwaway prices and undo them to get high quality thread. I realised that buying the thread from the shops was very expensive and uneconomical,” she says with a sly grin on her face.

It was not all gloom and doom for Mary. Her keen observation and strong business acumen enabled her to keep up and adapt to the latest trends in kiondoo making. She understood that she needed to come up with exciting designs to attract the younger generation. She was also extremely happy when the plastic bags were banned as this increased demand for her baskets. She draws inspiration for her designs from her environment and newspaper cuttings.

“Initially, I just used to weave plain kiondoos but God gave me the skill and insights to start doing fashionable ones to meet the growing demand. I got one of the patterns from looking at a picture in a newspaper. I found the design very attractive and immediately thought that I could do it. I took up the challenge and when it was done, I was happy with the result. That kiondoo sold at a better price than the plain ones,” she smiles.

Her business still has challenges on access to market. Mary is thus looking forward to the day when she can have large-scale orders irrespective of size, colour or design. She would like to deal directly with re-sellers, as she would be assured of a steady flow of income. She takes approximately one week to do the big kiondoos while the small ones, which are mostly used by younger women as handbags, take a shorter time.

“I am very happy when my customers appreciate my work and when I make something out of my situation. I choose not to pity myself or beg for sustenance. God has given me a brain and hands to work and I know He will bless me. I know I can never sleep hungry if I continue working and using my gift,” she says.