As she criss-crosses the dusty, sprawling slums of Kaptembwo, Barut and Kapkures in Nakuru West, Ms Hellen Tonui may easily pass as an ordinary woman hawking door-to-door.
Every day, she leads tens of hundreds of women in these slums in a bid to empower them.
She has advanced the role of women in economic empowerment in the three slums, boosting their socio-economic activities and preventing conflict. She is proof that women are transformational engines of their communities.
Ms Tonui lends her broad exposure and expertise to work on gender, social justice and good governance to uplift the lives of women and through her exemplary leadership, she has expanded access to essential public services and increased public transparency.
“Women in these slums undergo many challenges and risk their lives for a better future, often going unnoticed,” she says.
Ms Tonui, 41, has overcome hardships and is a proponent of women empowerment at the grassroots.
To this end, she has helped slum women cut maternal mortality and promoted easy access to cheap loans through organised table-banking schemes.
She holds her meetings with the women under a tree and they accomplish a lot.
If she is not distributing food and medical supplies and giving women health and nutritional tips, she is attending Nyumba Kumi security meetings and talking to women groups on the need to save for a rainy day.
This has led to the formation of table-banking groups in collaboration with Joyful Women where they borrow money at an interest and at the end of each year, they earn a bonus and dividends.
“Through such collaborations, the women also learn tips on financial investment and this has helped to reduce defaulters and increase loan repayment.”
“Women and vulnerable groups in Kapkures, Kaptembwo and Barut need to be healthy; they need training and economic opportunities and access to cheap loans,” she says.
Her honesty as she oversees finances of more than 3,000 women and her nurturing but practical character, have made her a natural fit for a leadership role in the region seeking better opportunities for women who are still reeling under male dominance.
Ms Tonui also engages youths, religious leaders, politicians and local administrators to preach peace in a region that is regarded as political violence hotspot.
Many women facing domestic violence turn to her for psychosocial support or advice on how to make ends meet when the breadwinner runs away from home.
As a trained community health worker, she also offers first aid to abandoned pregnant mothers who need emergency assistance.
Food and empowerment
“I visit women in all the three sub-locations of Kaptembwo, Kapkures and Barut and listen to their issues. I talk to them about health, which is one of their immediate need. I talk about water, food and empowerment. These are not things we read about or watch on video. To them, it’s the daily lives. I understand the issues of children and access to land ownership. Women are the ones tilling the land but when it comes to management and decision-making on selling the land, they are ignored,” she offers.
Ms Tonui says the high level of domestic violence and poverty in the region gives her sleepless nights as her phone is inundated with calls from women undergoing domestic violence in the middle of the night.
“There is a lot of GBV cases and I’m called in the middle of the night to reconcile warring families before going to the chief. I’m the first person to respond to calls of distress before the police and the chief,” she explains.
She reveals that rape cases increased during Covid-19 as many schools and women were at the mercy of unemployed men and youth, who were heavily stressed due to losses of livelihoods.
“The few women who ventured out to help their distraught husbands by selling fresh produce were not allowed to spend the money without consulting their husbands,” she adds.
She says the regular meetings she holds with the women are very participatory, educative and brings women together for a purpose of uplifting their lives from poverty.
“Women in the region are living in better houses now. Their children’s health have improved. Others are doing poultry farming while some have bought dairy goats and selling milk to take their children to school.”
The women groups have several projects, which they approve during the meetings.
“Sometimes I propose an idea and the women tell me, ‘No there are other issues.’ They suggest other projects such as the need for water tanks,” says the mother of four – two boys and two girls.
Ms Tonui who lives at Kapkures Ward in Mogoon Sub-location is also a renowned chairperson of the traditional dancers in the area popularly known as Boiboiyet.
The group is always invited to perform at national functions and university graduations.
The trained peace mediator at the Njoro-based Egerton University, also leads many women groups including Unbound Sacco, which has 2,000 members. She has received training at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology on women empowerment, entrepreneurship training, rabbit production and value addition.
Female genital mutilation is still prevalent and through Boiboiyet Traditional Dancers, girls and women are encouraged to avoid the outdated practice.
Unlike other areas where pregnant girls are ostracised from society, Ms Tonui leads women to talk to pregnant teenagers and ensure they go back to school after childbirth.
“My passion for leadership started while in school as I was a class monitor and team leader in sports,” says Ms Tonui who is an alumnus of Emitik Secondary School in Olenguruone.