UW-Madison Grassroots Encourages Women's Development in KenyaIt doesn’t take an organization with hundreds of thousands of members to make a difference in the world. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there is a group known as Merry-Go-Strong (MGS). MGS is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children and women’s development in Kenya through the expansion of both minds and resources.

Women’s Development in Kenya

Back in the spring semester of 2012, Professor Lesley Sager challenged her students to use design thinking processes to artistically create shelters for people displaced from natural disasters.

The students created a structure based on cardboard. Susan Miller, a designer, saw value in cardboard structures being brought to Kenya. Sager and Miller teamed up and decided to journey to Kenya to see if there was any viability in promoting cardboard houses for families there.

Aside from the architect side of the trip, Sager had a deep interest in bringing education opportunity to the children (specifically girls) in Kenya.

Sager’s Journey in Gatunga

When she arrived in Gatunga, a small village in Tharaka Nithi County, Sager met Aniceta Kirigata, the founder of the Tharaka Women’s Welfare Program (TWWP) and the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP). ARP is designed to protect girls from female genitalia mutilation (FGM). TWWP receives its funding through a scholarship with the Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP). Many girls are forced to drop out due to lack of money to pay for fees, or they must remain out of school in order to work; therefore, a scholarship like one from WGEP is a huge deal.

Once she realized there was an immense lack of income generating options for women and children, Sager decided to take a different approach to helping women’s development in Kenya.

The Origins of Merry-Go-Strong

In fall of 2014, Sager offered the first of four sequential design thinking courses at UW-Madison. These courses would focus on using student’s own ingenuity to create projects and tools that would be useful to the women in Kenya. These projects range from product development, to solar power, beekeeping and other options.

And one of these projects is how MGS was born. The members within this organization partner with TWWP in the village of Gatunga, a project that supports women by providing materials to create viondo (aka bags/purses). The purses are then bought from their Kenyan makers to be sold in the United States where there is a much bigger consumer market.

MGS’ Impact

The profits from the purses are used to fund future projects and create scholarships for girls to continue to attend ARP and finish proper schooling. This approach to supporting women’s development in Kenya is empowering because it provides for self-sustainability both among women and the community in Gatunga; these lives will be positively impacted in the upcoming future.

Sager still continues to go to Kenya once or twice a year to follow up on the progress of Merry-Go-Strong’s efforts in empowerment and ending FGM (Big Ten Network, 2017). With this type of resiliency and consistency, women’s development in Kenya will hopefully experience leaps and bounds.

– Caysi Simpson

Photo: Flickr