Inside each ImaniXchange bag is the name of the Kenyan woman who carefully measured, cut, and sewed the local kitenge fabric—each name representing not only the maker, but also a life and a story. The makers are single, widowed, disadvantaged, and disabled women who have persevered despite the poverty that runs rampant in their country. Their stories are becoming known across the world, and it all began with a 20-year-old and her dusty sewing machine.
Jenny Nuccio first stepped foot on Kenyan soil in 2009, not to serve, but to figure out her life as a recent high school graduate. “When I first came to Kenya, I was 18 and I was still trying to find myself,” she said. “I was in a really hard place. I asked the Lord, ‘Show me what I’m missing, because my life is really selfish right now.’”
Jenny started out by serving other missionaries and finding sponsors for the Kenyan children, but started perceiving the great needs of the children’s mothers. “What I noticed was that the kids being sent home were coming from homes with single or widowed mothers,” she said. “They lived so far out in the village that they had no job opportunities. The cycle of poverty was not being broken.”
She knew God was leading her to help these women, but she did not know where to start. She soon realized God was revealing how sewing and tailoring could give these women opportunity.
“It’s funny how the Lord places you in really unique places,” Jenny said. “I have my master’s in leadership and at the time, I had no idea what I was going to do with that. The last time I had sewn was with my grandma when I was 8 years old. My sewing machine had collected dust.”
That’s when Jenny began sitting in front of her sewing machine every day, teaching herself patterns. “I never thought I’d be doing this, but it’s cool to see how the Lord puts you in these funny situations that you are not equipped for,” she said. “At times I wanted to give up. But the Lord [keeps saying] ‘No, I’ve given you this talent. You can do this.’”
“The last time I had sewn was with my grandma when I was 8 years old. My sewing machine had collected dust.”
More than a Sewing Class
ImaniXchange (IXC) is a women’s empowerment program in Mtepeni that provides job opportunities to single, widowed, disadvantaged and disabled women with the hope of helping the women and their families develop a better future and defeat the cycle of poverty. Recently featured in The Huffington Post, IXC currently employs 21 women with sewing and tailoring skills, as well as offering financial planning, first-aid, English, and other classes.
The developmental stages of the program required Jenny to build up trust with the Kenyan women. Jenny started with 40 women interested in the idea of the program and invited them to form friendships with her and other missionaries. By May 2013, the program was officially launched, and 16 women were enrolled. The women spent many years getting to know her and when the program finally launched, it was a reassurance of hope for them.
“When I stepped foot in the village, I remember one of the women saw me; she lit up and ran to me,” Jenny said. “It was like she knew something cool was going to happen, even though I had no idea what was in store.”
Jenny said it has been amazing to see the growth of the women in the program. “The original 16 women that started out in the program had no education at all,” she said. “When they were first learning their patterns, they worked slower than expected, and then I realized they didn’t know their numbers. Because of that, a lot of them felt they weren’t worthy enough. We want them to know they are worthy enough and loved by Christ. It has been amazing to see them measuring, cutting, and making something and seeing them smile— seeing them so proud of themselves.”
“When they were first learning their patterns, they worked slower than expected, and then I realized they didn’t know their numbers. Because of that, a lot of them felt they weren’t worthy enough. We want them to know they are worthy enough and loved by Christ.”
Many of the women have come to know Christ. “About half of my women were not following Christ before I met them and have accepted Christ within the program,” Jenny said. “The coolest part is not only seeing those come to Christ but those who already had a relationship grow and flourish. All of my women have grown in their confidence in Christ and share the gospel daily with friends.”
The program has given the women the opportunity to do things others may take for granted. “I had a conversation with a woman who has seven kids,” Jenny said. “She told me she saved up enough money from her paychecks to buy a mattress for her kids to share. She was able to supply something so little, but it was so big to them.”
At IXC, the women start their day with prayer and devotions before beginning their work. English courses have allowed women, many who are in their 30s, to write their names on a piece of paper and read scripture for the first time. “When I sit in the back and listen to them read scripture, pray and sing songs, I can feel Christ glowing in the workshop,” Jenny said.
Jenny said she decided to live beside the women in the village, where she learned no matter where someone comes from, everyone has the same basic needs. “I wanted them to know I was no better than them; I could live on their level. They are not just women in the program. They are my sisters and my family.”
Even with the program’s joyful moments, Jenny has also faced many challenges. “There are always needs and you have to have tough love sometimes,” Jenny said. “As much as they are my sisters and family, I’m also their boss. Within the program, there are constant medical needs and home needs. It can be hard and overwhelming and exhausting. I really have to be prayerful in my decisions of when I should and shouldn’t give.”
“When I sit in the back and listen to them read scripture, pray and sing songs, I can feel Christ glowing in the workshop.”
Jenny said she strives for the program to always show the women they can do things independently because they are capable and worthy, trusting in God to provide for them. “When you just focus on what you aren’t able to give to and let that break you down, you won’t make it. We are human and we don’t have the capacity to do everything and we have to be reminded of that.”
IXC continues to grow, and the organization recently started a new location. “The first woman I hired for the new location was crying on the side of the street when my friend found her,” Jenny said. “She was saying she really wanted to work but couldn’t find a job. So many widowed women here choose to beg on the streets, but instead of letting her disabilities define her she wanted to work.”
The organization will also be launching a jewelry line in March 2016. By August 2016, IXC hopes to run the program through product profit alone, rather than the 50 percent they currently receive through donations. Jenny said IXC has been making a bigger push to increase product profit, and since August, IXC sends approximately 250 products per month to America, and about 100 are sold, totaling an average of $1,500 per month. Jenny said she wants to get to the point where IXC ships the inventory and 90 percent of it is being turned over within the month.
Profit is what keeps an organization going, but Jenny said it is never the focus of the program. “We care about our women holistically,” she said. “IXC focuses on not how many products we make per month per say. We are solely focused on the woman and her wellbeing.”
IXC not only pours into the lives of the women in the program, but also into the local economy of their country. “Everything that goes into the bag is bought at local vendors in Mombasa,” Jenny said. “Does this make consistency harder? Absolutely. But my relationships with these shops are rich and we get to share Christ in that way.”
Jenny said there are so many beautiful products out there, whether they are fair trade or not, but with fair trade the customer is able to take the product and know exactly where its profit is going. “If you look in the inside of our bags all of the women sign them,” she said. “That’s the beauty of it. There is always a story behind every product; it’s giving back 100 percent to the program and person.
WorldVenture is often involved in creating fair trade opportunities around the world, including selling specialty coffee from Costa Rica. WorldVenture is also focused in breaking the cycle of poverty in East Africa, as seen through the efforts of Lumi, a business providing solar energy in Uganda, as well as Rickshaw’s, a tourism business providing jobs to the local Makua people in Mozambique.
(Photo credit: ImaniXchange)