By Lisbeth Overheu, Kenya Client Relationship Volunteer
Milcah Muthoni has had an interesting life to say the least. She grew up in Nyandarua north of Nairobi in Kenya. With her parents both working as casual labourers on a farm and eight children to support, they couldn’t afford for them to go to school. However, when Milcah’s father got a job as a watchman in Nairobi the family relocated and she was able to start attending an informal neighbourhood school when she was around 10 years old.
Milcah’s father passed away when she was a teenager but a sister at their church, recognising Milcah’s potential, paid for her to continue studying up to Standard 8 so she was able to complete her KCPE (Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education) and even one year of high school.
When she was 18, Milcah gave birth to her son Martin, but she found it very difficult to cope as a young, single mother and tells of how she became very desperate, succumbing to alcohol and drug abuse and often neglecting her baby, feeling that her life was over. With support from a European missionary, Milcah managed to move beyond her destructive behaviour even becoming a volunteer with the organization helping other vulnerable youths.
In time she met her husband, Francis, and they had another son, Joseph. They also support two young girls. Mary Wanjiku’s single mother, a relative of Francis’, was unable to support her four daughters so Mary lives with Milcah and Francis and is doing very well in Form 1. Faith is an orphan Milcah literally met on the roadside around two years ago and she now also lives with the family and enjoys her Standard 7 studies.
Soweto (photo courtesy of Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7hH8iB)
The family of six live in a two-roomed house in the Soweto slum area near Kahawa West in north eastern Nairobi. Their small house is wooden framed with iron sheets forming the walls and roof, and as Milcah and I looked at the small but numerous holes in the roof she confirmed the rain does come in sometimes. They share several long drop style toilets with many other nearby households which are reached along a winding labyrinth of small alleyways and are several hundred metres from their house.
Milcah with her cookers (stoves) getting ready to make dinner
Milcah’s main source of income used to be from bags and bracelets she made and sold. But with the main market for these items being foreign tourists and the current downturn in the Kenyan tourism industry following several terrorist attacks, she has had to look elsewhere for enough income to support her family. Fortunately, several years ago Milcah was taught how to use charcoal waste to make charcoal briquettes which people use for cooking. So the production of these briquettes is now her main source of income and nowadays Milcah is even hired by some NGOs to train others in how to make the briquettes.
Charcoal briquettes drying outside Milcah’s home
About six years ago, Milcah broke her leg in a car accident, and she still suffers some pain in her left leg especially when she has to walk long distances, walk up or down stairs or when it is cold. She also has some nerve damage on her left side occasionally losing sensation and use of her left hand and arm. Milcah was also very sick at the end of last year which led to her inability to make some of her Zidisha loan repayments on time but she is now back to full health and doesn’t let her car accident injuries slow her down.
When she’s not working to support her family, Milcah certainly stays busy. On Fridays she volunteers at the nearby hospital as a Community Health worker assisting with tasks such as weighing babies and taking their temperatures. Milcah is also involved with the local community based organization the Mwambo (raising up) Foundation, which offers a variety of services to the local population such as drug and alcohol counseling, gender-based violence prevention training, a small free preschool for young children and they recently began distributing sanitary towels to teenage girls whose parents can’t afford them, so that the girls do not need to miss school for lack of sanitary towels.
Milcah’s brothers, Samuel and Joseph, making a briquette drying rack for a neighbour
On this particular afternoon Milcah and I are talking in her living room having looked at the machine she uses to make the charcoal briquettes (pictured above) and checked how well the briquettes were drying on racks in the cool and damp Nairobi winter. The three youngest children burst through the door home from primary school and while Faith is soon off to meet big sister Mary on her walk home from high school the two boys settle down to do their homework hoping to complete it in time to watch that evening’s World Cup football match.
Joseph working on his Standard 2 math homework while Martin focuses on his Standard 8 Swahili homework
Milcah wants all four of her children to be able to finish school and possibly even college or university but she struggles to pay all their school fees and support the family with her monthly earnings from the briquettes being around US $100 – 200, as well as the irregular money Francis is able to earn as a casual labourer. In order to educate her children, Milcah would like to expand the briquette making business as the demand is high from customers who prefer briquettes to traditional lump charcoal as it is cleaner and cheaper.
As Milcah, Martin and Joseph walk me to the bus stop for the long ride back into Nairobi city, Joseph admires a battered bicycle being ridden by another child and asks if he can have one. At the moment that kind of expenditure is beyond the family’s reach but hopefully in time they may be able to afford such luxuries as Milcah’s briquette business expands with the help of the Zidisha community.
Milcah has nearly finished repaying her first Zidisha loan, after being delayed by illness last winter. You can sign up to receive a notification when Milcah posts her next loan application in the “Follow” section of Milcah’s Zidisha profile page.