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Kenya's Poor Make Art to Escape Slum Life

Artisans in Nairobi work at beading, painting and packing to fill international orders for their artwork

Artisans in Nairobi work at beading, painting and packing to fill international orders for their artwork

Joseph Muchina was a teenager living in a Kenyan slum in the early 1970s when a radical concept took shape: teach the poor skills to make them self-reliant rather than keep them eternally reliant on charity. Muchina was among the first wave of participants in a new program sponsored by a Kenyan church group. Later, he was among the first to join the international fair trade network. Some 40 years later, he is co-founder and co-owner of an international jewelry business that employs people living in Nairobi's teeming slums.

Beading, painting and packing to meet a deadline to ship a large order of jewelry to a distributor in Denmark.

A handful of artisans work in almost near silence to beat the clock. Workshop owner Joseph Muchina says he and his workers have the same goal:

"...creating beautiful things, and making sure also we maintain our culture, our African culture of the kind of jewelry we used to have, because it is dying, slowly and slowly," said Muchina.

Such is life at Trinity Jewelry Crafts, a small workshop in Nairobi's low-income area of Kariobangi. But Trinity Jewelry Crafts is more than just a producer of bracelets, necklaces, earrings and other ornaments sold primarily overseas, mainly to customers in Canada and the United States. It is a social experiment gone right.

In 1971, Joseph Muchina was one of a small group of slum-dwelling young people trained by the National Council of Churches of Kenya in a project with a radical new philosophy.

"The intention was, after you get training, then you have to be on your own: go and start your own business, with either your own family or join together as a partnership a number of you, and then start doing something for your own future," said Muchina.

He recalls how this way out of poverty contrasted with the more widespread notion of "charity."

"We were used to being given, given, given, given so many things," he added. "Yes, the majority of us could maybe not take it well coming from that kind of life of being given so many things to, you know, going and standing on your own, doing things on your own, because it is really tough."

Muchina learned how to design and make jewelry, skills that he taught for 14 years within the National Council of Churches and a subsequent organization.

In 1984, he and two others created Trinity Jewelry Crafts in the low-income area of Dandora, where they worked for about a decade before moving to Kariobangi.

Muchina achieved another feat: having one of the first Kenyan companies, and one of three in Africa, to join the World Fair Trade Organization in 1991.

As a fair trader, Muchina's company provides its employees with salaries, health benefits, a pension and savings plan, emergency loans, profit-sharing and group decision-making.

"We had to carry the same, old idea of working with poor people from the slums," explained Muchina. "That is where we came from. We knew the problem, and of course we wanted to also help the same kind of people who had gone through the same problems that we had gone [through]."

Some two million people - about half of Nairobi's population - are estimated to live in 200 slums, or informal settlements.

Informal settlements are not included in city planning. Most residents do not receive basic services such as running water, sewage pipes and electricity. Only 24 percent of residents have access to toilet facilities at household level, with up to 200 people sharing a single latrine in some neighborhoods.

And, more than half of Kenya's population lives below the poverty line.

Muchina says his business, and others like it, produce a multiplier effect with the country's poor.

"After now, you learned and get out - go and start your own business - then others would come and be trained also," said Muchina. "You create that space, give space for others to come be trained and also go out and do something."

All this, while immortalizing Africa's rich cultures.