Once in a while you get lucky. My trip to Kenya, more specifically my connecting flight to Nairobi, was just such an occasion.

The plane was packed and I was going to be sitting in the middle seat. I kept hoping that the person who would be sitting on the aisle wouldn’t show up and I would have a bit more breathing space.  Not long before take-off, an attractive woman came down the aisle and slid into the seat beside me.

We ended up having one of the more powerful conversations in my life. Hers is a story that is beyond inspiring. Her name is Jane Ngoiri.

“To me my story is important because of the way I was brought up. I had nothing. Jamii Bora taught me that it does not matter where you are but where you are heading. Never lose hope. I started my life again.”

I was intrigued.

Let me say here that there was no bitterness as she told me about her life. She has two things that drive her: the love of and pride in her children and the possibility of being a beacon for somebody else.

Jane was a young mother with a two-year old and a one-week old when her husband left her for another woman. With no real options, no home and kids to feed, she turned to commercial sex work. She met a man and had another baby because he had promised to marry her. Her fourth baby was just one of those things and fortunately does not have the HIV that she already had contracted by the time she was pregnant with him.

A friend who was not in ‘the business’, Jane Njoki, had been begging her to stop around the same time that Jane Ngoiri had heard of a microfinancing program starting up. Jane and 94 others decided they wanted a way out of their current lives and formed a group called Tushimikiane (Swahili for ‘Unite’)   In 1999, they borrowed 200,000KES (about $2,540)  as a group from Jamii Bora a micro-financing organization headed by a Swedish woman named Ingrid Munro.  (www.jamiibora.org)

The money was used for training and to buy supplies for the group to start making beads. As a group, they paid their loan back in 2.5 years.  Although the business was making money and each person was being paid, it wasn’t a lot. From her wages, Jane was expected  to put aside 50KES a week (about 60 cents) in savings and like many others in the same group, she wanted to start her own business. There were times where she had no money and commented that it was stressful. She persevered. It took as she says “a year and one month for me to save 2,100KES.”

Jane borrowed 4,200KES ($50.49) in total  on her own from Jamii Bora and bought her first sewing machine in 2000. She says with pride that she paid that loan back in a year. She has borrowed other times to expand her business as well as to buy her first home in a suburb of Nairobi. It is a long way from the Mathare slums.

The cornerstone of Jane’s success is her dressmaking business. She goes to the clothing markets in Nairobi in search of bridal and formal dresses which she then brings home. She takes the dresses apart and uses the fabric to make two or three girls’ dresses. She does all of this without the aid of paper or measuring tape. She says she knows what she wants the dress to look like when it is done and that is how she makes them.

I got the chance to visit Jane and her family and we talked about her business.

When we met, she was coming back from a one week trip to New York and Denver in the US. It was the first time Jane had ever had a passport and she is the first of her family to ever be outside of Kenya. Jane was the subject of  a New York Times piece by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof and it was through this connection that she made the trip.




She loved her time in New York . Was there anything that surprised her?  “I did not know I could get an ocean in New York. I thought it was only for Kenya.” The Staten Island ferry was also a big hit.

Her trip to Denver was in order to speak at a conference for women. She amazed even herself by speaking to more than 750 people and telling them her story.

I wanted to know more and took note of the answers she gave me to my questions on the plane and at a subsequent visit to her home:

On being a mother –

“I could not have something to say if I didn’t have my kids. I think my story is powered by having kids and getting them to school.”

Caroline is 20 and has already graduated from high school and a computer skills program. She studied web design and will be putting together a website for her mother. Anthony was the only one I didn’t meet but he is a star student at 18 and wants to be an engineer. Cynthia is 14 and we talked about the benefits of being a lawyer or a super model – in truth she could do either. Moses is 9 and was doing homework at the table while we talked. With so many ladies in the room, he excused himself to go and sit with James who was more comfortably waiting in the car away from the chatter.

Jane is….

” Jane is a mother of 4, very talented in tailoring and bead making but looking for support to network her business and also to get my children in school in  a proper manner.”

The best and worst things about your life –

“The best thing is meeting the needs of my kids. The worst is when I fail to give the things they need or when I hear that someone has died of HIV.”

Goal in 5 years –

“To continue to tell my story. To give hope.”

Any other goals –

“1. I want to have a store where I can sell my dresses and my necklaces. I want to have some international customers. If I get successful I want to run a program for HIV orphans. I also want to run a computer program for people to learn. If I am invited, I am prepared to travel anywhere now to tell my story.”

Personal Joy –

“I’m alive; that’s the first thing.My children are healthy. I am healthy and I can do my work and meet new friends.”

Thank you Jane. You reminded me of what’s important.

***If you want to be in touch with Jane or are going to Nairobi and want to bring her dresses, contact me and I will let you know how to get in touch with her. ***