By Mukurima X Muriuki
As the sun sets and the streets empty out at The Universal Studios in Hollywood-the Entertainment Capital of Los Angeles-the Hilton Hotel that overlooks the city is playing host to the annual Kenyan Women in the United States (KWITU) Reunion Party.
KWITU is a non-governmental organization established in 2015 to connect, empower and support Kenyan Women Living in the USA. According to their website, the organization’s mission is to “connect and build relationships among Kenyan women in America through mentorship, career and leadership development, personal support, and advice.”
Over 500 women drawn from all across the United States of America will attend the reunion. Their unity is obvious and, after the interview of a cross section, this unity is certainly their strength.
As the women walk the red carpet, seemingly oblivious of their eminence, I think of how diverse they are. Yet this does not threaten their association in any way. Their diversity is notable in various ways. For example, a number of the women are highly educated while others have only a basic education. Some of the women earn more than $100 an hour; others are struggling to make ends meet as they earn minimum wage. Some have attained dual citizenship, yet others have not obtained a work permit. For this reason, they live in constant fear of deportation. As to their marital status, there are those who are happily married, while others are going through divorce or separation proceedings. Several have been in America for decades, while others are fresh from their Kenyan home. Some have seen the realization of the American dream, but a few have lived the American nightmare. To all of these women, regardless of their backgrounds, KWITU has offered an opportunity to learn, grow, inspire, educate, and motivate. This reunion is a celebration of the milestones, big or small, that Kenyan women in America have made in this last year.
As I interact with some of the attendees as an observer at the invitation of KWITU leadership, I learn about the real life impact some members have realized from membership with the organization: “I have become a better wife by learning the language of love from women who are in stable, working marriages,” reveals an attendee from New Mexico.
The founder and president of KWITU, Lilly Richards, believes the organization she leads, together with the help of Jean Ayacko and Mary Kimari, is perfectly morphing into one that provides a support system for Kenyan women who buy into the vision of empowerment. “We have touched numerous lives,” Lilly admits to me. And she is right. The organization has been featured by international media for the campaign to bring serial rapist Gregory Dow to justice. The Pennsylvania born Gregory abused orphaned children who were under his care in Kenya. In July, an American court indicted him on four counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place.
On the sidelines of the Saturday event, I spoke to Dr. Mercy Kamau from Boston who reinforced the notion of women empowerment, “People come to the (KWITU) reunion with different issues, but they walk out empowered. What we have is a sisterhood. And you know, it is not easy bringing people together, but women have now crossed that obstacle and this means we can navigate all challenges affecting women. Many women have been inspired to start businesses in different fields by networking with other women who have experience in their respective field. Other women have gained employment from tips provided by women who are experienced in human resources and recruitment.”
Miriam Lulu Chemmoss flew from New York, a 5 hour flight, to attend the reunion in Los Angeles. For her, the reunion and the sisterhood provided by KWITU is all about shredding old dogmas. She says, “There are many forces against women, and I grew up in a patriarchal system where as a girl you are required to fight harder because the playing field is not level. When women gather together like we have done, I feel like I am part of one big family, and I also feel supported. KWITU has given women a sense of belonging and companionship because America is a lonely place. Sometimes it’s all about the hustle or school; we are in an individualistic society, a world away from home where have grown in a communal setting. Such a reunion, therefore, creates a sense of belonging and allows us to meet people we would have otherwise never met. And these people, in addition to becoming friends, end up being important resources and solutions.”
Nelly Harris has been a member for 4 years and is a California Representative. “I learned from KWITU about creating strong relationships. There are women who have achieved a lot in their careers and learning from them – it is all about building up each other. KWITU also helps.”
Robert Menja, a financial advisor with Mass Mutual was in attendance as one of the event’s sponsors and I was glad to speak to him to get a male perspective about the reunion: “This is the ultimate organization for women. Over 13,000 members. Women make connections; they help each other out; they share stories and bring each other up” he offered.
“Isn’t KWITU all about gossiping though?” I pose to Lilly Richards, not because I hold that point of view, but because there have been soundbites about the same.
“Absolutely not!” Lilly asserts; “This is the misconception by people who have never spent a single minute trying to know us, and they imagine we gather as women to plot against men or spend the whole day gossiping.”
The KWITU re union was graced by among others the Los Angeles Consul General Njeri Karago and Stephen Loreshe.
As I take the South-bound route 101, the radio station plays the song “ Strength of a Woman” by Jamaican reggae singer, Shaggy. I get carried away by his lyrics, “So amazing this world was made, I wonder if God is a woman.” And I wonder if indeed God is a woman as I remember Lilly’s parting shot, “When I think about our future (as Kenyan women in America), it scares me because we have barely scratched the surface.”