Alayna Aiken is on a mission for Kenyan women.
During a December trip to western Kenya, Aiken met with women from the Pokot tribe and saw firsthand how they depend on sewing machines for their livelihoods.
“I saw them making flowing skirts by hand with what looked like dental floss,” she said. “It hit me deeply and hard that I needed to help them.”
The Cape Henlopen textile teacher spent her Christmas vacation flying 17 hours from Philadelphia to Nairobi and then driving another 10 hours along unpaved roads, before arriving in a Pokot village with a travel group from Pokot Outreach Ministry, part of Harvesters International Ministries.
“It was like the desolate end of the earth,” she said. “Some of the roughest living conditions on the planet.”
For 10 days, she lived with the villagers, learning a little Swahili, and trying her hand at a treadle sewing machine operated by a foot pedal.
While her new Pokot friend, Jen, was proficient on the machine, Aiken, a master seamstress, struggled with the clunky, manual machine. “I couldn't believe Jen was using the machine as well as she was,” Aiken said.
Sewing provides Pokot women with a means to support their families. Pokot women do not have the rights that western women enjoy, Aiken said. Marriages are arranged, and often made to men with multiple wives. Pokot women are raised to believe their only role in life is to have babies and take care of their husbands. Female genital mutilation is prevalent, a painful procedure that continues to cause pain throughout a woman's life.
“Despite all of that, they are wonderful, kind women,” she said.
Before leaving Kenya, Aiken said she knew she would return. She already has a trip planned for spring break, and she convinced her husband and kids to join her for a five-week stay over the summer.
“I can't believe he agreed to it, but he's a teacher, and he'll do some teaching while he's over there,” she said.
Aiken's goal is to raise money to buy sewing machines and supplies for the Pokot women. It's cheaper to buy sewing machines in the United States, but shipping them is expensive. In Nairobi, sewing machines are more expensive, but she'd save on shipping costs. When she travels there in spring, she said, she hopes to work out those details with friends she has made there.
Aiken brought back Kenyan fabric after her trip, and she has shared it with her Cape High textile classes. She has enjoyed teaching them about Kenya, and a few of them have spoken with her friends in Kenya.
“They are so connected to Kenya now,” she said.
One of her students made a skirt and dress; others are deciding what to make with their fabrics. Aiken said she made some neckties for one teacher, and the $20 he gave her for each of them will go to her sewing machine fundraiser.
So far, she has raised $520 of the $3,000 goal she set. To donate, go to https://www.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1111455&supId=442762743.