Road to Takaungu

Past Kilifi town, about an hour’s walk from the nearest paved road, is a village called Takaungu. Ringed with palm trees, it is quiet and remote, home to a matatu stop but inconsistently found on maps. The community struggles with the usual public health culprits like HIV and malaria, while the county at large is regionally famed for high incidence of lymphatic filariasis (or “Elephantiasis”) and poor access to clean water. Despite all this, the people are open, welcoming, and friendly. In many ways, it’s pleasant yet unremarkable, indistinguishable from countless other villages in the region.

What sets this community apart lies a few kilometers down the rocky road. There, you will find a compound called the Vutakaka Center. This is home to a tiny health facility (now being subsumed by a larger, government-assisted facility a short distance away), a petite but cheery primary school, and a low thatch building that serves as home to the Takaungu Sewing Club. Here, women use their tailoring skills to make handicrafts, the profits from which they use to improve their lives and provide a stable income.

The idea of an accessory-focused tailoring collective is not cut from whole cloth. Plenty of women’s groups make slouchy handbags as an income generating activity (IGA). I’ve gone through several of them myself; most don’t stand up to the kind of punishment I heap on them and are resigned to the “beach bag” hook on the back of my door within a couple of months. But these, well, they’re pretty special – as are the people who work here.

This week, my amazing PCV friend Kelly and I were able to visit. I’d never been, and it was an easy day trip for me. Business planning and assistance is provided by an expat named Kate C. I’d met several times through friends of friends, and she graciously invited us to come see the workshop for ourselves.

Congratulations, Kate. Now you’re internet-famous.

At the Takaungu Sewing Club, a half-dozen local women lend their skills to making a variety of nifty products from Kenyan fabrics. Disclaimer: I LOVE EAST AFRICAN TEXTILES. Bright colors, bold prints … I could go on. (And do, from time to time.) They lend themselves extraorinarily well to funky handbags/laptop carriers.

Each mama focuses on a different style or two. They have zippered bags, tote bags, little makeup carriers, eyeglass cases, wallets, fold-over messenger bags, cooking aprons … a delightful array of colors and styles. Everything is lined, the stitching is quality, the attention to detail astute, and at the end of the day, the entire club splits the profits. What’s not to love? This income goes towards school fees, food, and whatever else running a rural Kenyan household entails for that particular family.

Mama Sofia, one of the seamstresses, posing with some of her work.

In the future, there are rumblings of establishing an Etsy presence and expanding their work to make padded Kindle/iPad/tablet cases. If that happens, so help me God I will pay international shipping in a heartbeat. Everything is reasonably priced, and it goes to a faaaaabulous cause.

Store your makeup, iPhone, cash, ID, tampons, coins, credit cards, someone else’s stolen credit cards, small engine parts, horcruxes, or anything else your heart desires.

After the next public health group swears in, the community of Takaungu may be getting its very own Peace Corps volunteer. I can’t help but say it: I’m a little jealous. But there is much to be done, and I am sure s/he will have a busy, productive two years … full of unusually fashionable accessories.