Ubuntu Life co-founders Jeremiah Kuria and Zane Wilemon, both pastors, one from Austin, Texas, and the other from Maai Mahiu, Kenya, had no intention of starting a lifestyle brand. How then, twenty years after their first meeting, do they now own and operate a global lifestyle brand? Simply, they answered the needs of their Maai Mahiu community.
With a friendship forged from shared faith and values, they came together to create a center for children with disabilities, providing life-changing therapy and medical care for kids who suffered from mental and physical challenges and social stigma. This work continues with our sister organization — Ubuntu Life Foundation, whose day-to-day business is run by Jeremiah, while Zane is CEO of Ubuntu Life, now a public benefit corporation.
Among the many beneficiaries of the Foundation’s programs are our nine founding Maker Mums. Before the enrollment of kids to the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre, caring for their children was all-consuming, but once established, the Mums soon started a new conversation with Jeremiah and Zane: “Now that our kids are out of the house, can you help us do something productive with our time?”. And with that, what is now Ubuntu Life started in 2009 in a 15 foot by 15 foot rented room with three manual Singer sewing machines. The first products were simple and easy to master: shopping bags, coffee sleeves, bandanas, and coasters. Ten years later, the Ubuntu team comprises 400 + Makers, including these founding Maker Mums, who create complex and detailed bags, beaded bracelets, or shoes that require the highest level of artisanal skill.
This Mother's Day, we share the heartening stories of Alice Njeri, Monicah Wambui, and Teresiah Nyokabi, three of our founding Maker Mums:
Fifty-two-year-old Alice Njeri was born on Nyakinwa Farm in Maai Mahiu, where her parents still live. She attended the local primary school but did not progress beyond that level, as her parents, who had seven other kids, could not afford to send her to secondary school. Once she left school, Alice helped her parents on the farm, until at seventeen, she met and married her husband. "When you don't further your education, you are just lost in the village. I got married when I was young," she explains matter-of-factly.
A mother of five — three daughters and two sons — Alice credits Ubuntu for changing her life. Her son Mike Ndungu attended the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre as a pioneer student from the age of 6 to 17 years. Mike suffered from weakness and deformity on one side and epilepsy. Sadly, Mike died last year. When Mike was born, Alice faced incredible hardship, as her husband and her community thought she had done something wrong. “I don't know why it looks like a curse. Everybody doesn't like you, doesn't want you. Even your husband. My marriage got very desperate when I got Mike [sic].”
Alice met Monicah and Teresiah at the Full Gospel Church in Maai Mahiu, where together with other mothers of children with special needs, they had formed a support group. Through Comfort The Children (CTC) International, the non-profit now known as Ubuntu Life Foundation and its community development projects in Maai Mahiu, Zane became aware of the group and attended a meeting. Alice says of Zane, "He came and listened to our stories. He felt us."
To get the project going, Zane brought in Alison Costain, an educationalist, and colleague from the time he spent teaching at Kenya’s Rift Valley Academy, to spearhead what would become the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre. Alison was also instrumental in the sewing training program, in which our nine founding Maker Mums participated. To facilitate their training, they fundraised in the community and bought the three manual Singer sewing machines they honed their craft on. Almost thirteen years later, Alice is now part of the shoe team that makes Afridrilles and our renowned Lamu Mules selected as one of Oprah's Favorite Things in 2020.
Of her life and experience over the last decade, Alice says, “Ubuntu has taken me very far. It has lifted me. They met me when I was very down. I could not even feed my children very well. Just struggling in the community. Looking for casual work in the gardens, washing clothes so that we may have food.”
Alice rents a three-room house in Maai Mahiu town, where she lives with her youngest daughter. Her oldest child, having moved to Nairobi when she got married and now runs her own business. At the same time, her second-born started a barbershop in Kikuyu, which she began after graduating from a beauty college in Nairobi. Alice’s other son works at the barbershop, having received training from his sister.
Through her years with Ubuntu Life, Alice has sustained herself and her family, educated her children, and bought a small parcel of land in Maai Mahiu. When asked why she has stayed at Ubuntu Life for 10+ years, she says, “First of all, I love it! I love being active and having skills. It has made me a powerful, empowered woman.” Once her youngest daughter completes her education, Alice plans to save to build a house on the small parcel of land she purchased a few years ago. While Alice has experienced hardship, challenges, and the painful loss of Mike, she gives thanks to God for the blessing of his life and his time at the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre.
Born in 1970 in Kiambu County, Monicah moved to Maai Mahiu with her parents and six siblings just in time to join primary school. However, she did not further her education past the primary level because her father did not believe that girls should study beyond this point. Instead, she joined a sewing course organized by her local church in Londiani, Kericho County. Upon achieving certification, Monicah returned to Maai Mahiu, where, unfortunately, she couldn't find a job. During this time, she got married. She now has six children of her own. Her firstborn son lives and works in Nairobi, while the rest of her children live with her and her husband in the ‘Governor’ area of Maai Mahiu
Monicah, like Alice, was part of the Full Gospel Church support group for kids with special needs, and their journeys to Ubuntu are similar. Monicah’s son Steven Njuguna started at the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre when he was six years old and received physical and occupational therapy until about four years ago when Monicah and her family moved to Governor outside of Maai Mahiu town where they had bought land and built a house. It was too costly to bring him to and from the Centre every day. Now 17, Stephen spends his time at home with family and neighbors. He enjoys being outside in his wheelchair, and while he can't walk or speak, he can hear and understand.
Monicah says, "I am blessed because of that child. My life changed. My husband didn't have an income you could rely on. Sometimes you had food and other times you didn't. Sometimes there was tea in the morning; sometimes, there wasn't. I could now ensure that kids have food regularly.”
Like Alice, Monicah is a member of the shoe team. Having taken a sewing course in her late teens, Ubuntu Life has allowed her to use her skills and build on them. She uses her advanced sewing skills to train fellow Maker Mums and her life experience to motivate the younger Maker Mums. As the company has grown and the demand for shoes has increased, Monicah has fallen more in love with her job, as she likes to be busy and enjoys the faster pace of the studio.
Teresiah Nyokabi moved to Maai Mahiu in 1999 when her husband, a long-haul truck driver, got a job in Maai Mahiu. Unfortunately, soon after they arrived, he lost his job. At this point, Teresiah says, her family started to struggle. To make ends meet, she would travel to Nairobi to buy second-hand clothes, which she would sell in Maai Mahiu.
A member of the original nine Maker Mums, Teresiah’s son Danson Kibiru was born with cerebral palsy. Before Teresiah joined the support group at the Full Gospel Church, she was in a dark place, hardly leaving the house and not wanting to see friends. She struggled as kids younger than Danson reached milestones while he could not grasp objects or crawl. Danson joined the Centre when he was 11 and attended the Centre until Teresiah could no longer carry him on her back to and from home, and it caused too much physical pain for Danson to be pushed in a wheelchair. On the advice of the Ubuntu team, Danson stayed home and received occupational therapy until, at 19 years of age, he sadly passed away in his sleep.
Community, first at the support group started over a decade ago, with the founding Maker Mums, and now the growing Ubuntu Life team is of the utmost importance to Teresiah. The only founding Maker Mum in our bag department, she remains close to all the Mums, including those who’ve retired and left the company. Theresiah plans to stay with Ubuntu for as long as she continues to grow and learn, as she loves the peaceful working environment and how everyone from the management team down to the trainees comes together to do their best work.
As implausible as the current iteration of Ubuntu Life may have seemed 10 years ago, when you hear Alice, Monicah and Teresiah's life stories, it makes sense. Their hard work, commitment, and resilience have permeated through every fiber of Ubuntu. And each day, leading by example, they challenge and inspire us. As Monicah often reminds younger Maker Mums, "the work you put in is the blessings you receive!"
This Mother's Day, join us in celebrating Alice, Monicah, and Teresiah, the OG Ubuntu Maker Mums!