Production, Sustainability

#Whomademyclothes : Millie

I kept calling him Dan and she corrected me twice. The third time she gave me what they are now calling a bombastic side eye and I corrected myself – ‘Dave.’

His name is Dave. 

He is integral to this story, the guy who indirectly or directly changed her life.

She grew up in Ugenya. She doesn’t remember her dad, but she says her mum had a husband who was not her father. She went to school very late in life because she had to wait for her mum to be able to make enough money to educate her. Her first pregnancy was when she was 16 in class 7. 

“My mum told me that since I had chosen the parental path, I should stick to it.” 

Off she went to start her married life with a guy she says was a drunkard who mistreated and abused her. After 7 months she was pregnant again, and in a span of four years she had 3 kids. She was now 20, with 3 kids in tow.

Then, her mum died!

 This broke her and she eventually left the abusive man and went to seek refuge with her mother’s relatives. That didn’t last long because apart from her 3 kids, she now had the responsibility of taking care of her 5 siblings. At 20, she was involuntarily a mother of 8 kids. Nobody wants that kind of burden. Even family. Like everyone in shags who has faced rejection from their family and life in general, she decided to move.

This was in 2006.

Nairobi looked promising.

She told herself, if her mother somehow survived in this city that she had only heard about, then she would too.

She left all of her 8 children in the care of the eldest brother and a neighbour. She started working as a casual labourer in people’s homes. She realised soon enough, that was not her calling and eventually joined a mjengo (Construction site) as the tea girl in Kilimani. 

This is where she met Dave. 

He winked, she served tea, he winked again and she served more tea. After a week or so, he was curious and asked for her name. She didn’t hesitate, She gave her name and expressed interest in working within the mjengo. Dave was the foreman at the construction site, and since he liked her, he made her the water girl, a different type of water girl. 

She was tasked with carrying several jerrycans of water up a flight of stairs for the construction site. She would make 200 bob per day and Dave would add a little tip at the end of the week as he made payments. That gig ended and she thought that was the last of Dave she would see. They played the cat and mouse game for a while especially after he found out she has eight mouths to feed. “I get it, it was a lot even for me.”  

He moved to every new project with her. 

At this point, she would send food to her clan weekly via the Nya Ugenya bus as she calls it. However that was not sustainable and after a month of trying, and the neighbour frustrating her, she sent money and the kids were bundled up onto the Nya Ugenya bus to join her in Nairobi.

One evening in 2010, after a long hiatus on construction site jobs, she receives a call and it’s Dave. No, it was not that type of call.  He was calling her to show up to yet another construction site in Westlands. It is important to note that at this point there is no romance; they are just work buddies who could have had a thing that was not a thing. I am gutted because I was rooting for  a classic mjengo foreman and tea lady romance; but I digress.

At this new site, she is promoted to cement lady; where she would carry a bag of cement up a flight of stairs. In a day she would carry 20 bags of cement. Third week in, she was minding her business, doing what she needed to do. It was a Saturday, so pay day and the financiers were on site to inspect progress.

She caught the eye of one of them who was the lady in the group. She was called to the office at the end of her shift. Dave came to pick her from the gate as her and her colleagues awaited their pay. A million thoughts were running through her mind, she tried to ask Dave what it was about, but he would not budge. 

She walked in to find her boss’s boss waiting for her, only the mood was not cold, it was pretty warm. After asking her a series of questions about her life, the lady boss offered her money or an opportunity to go back to school and partake in the course of her desire.  She offered her 30K to be exact. I ask her if she thinks Dave had put in a good word for her and she nods yes! It was the moment she was not ready for but somehow felt like the moment she had been waiting for all her life.

She turned down the money.

 “It felt like if I took the money it would not last a week in my house, but an opportunity to go to school was priceless.” She was given  a week to think through what she wanted to study. She didn’t need a week, she knew she wanted to go to design and tailoring school. She informed the lady boss as much. 

She had all the information she needed and within two weeks she was seated in her first class. WIthin a year she was done with school. Within the same year, the lady boss passed away. She did not find out about this until later on, when she tried to reach her and thank her.

She had already gotten into employment while in school. She would work nights and go to school during the day. On the other end, her troop had gotten assistance as well and they were all in school and could take care of themselves. They knew mama had to do what she had to do to keep a roof over their heads. 

Her name is Millicent Aoko Oloo. I will not bore you with details of how she worked so hard, bought her first machine and a second one, and finally opened a shop at Kenyatta market and then one day it was all gone due to a fire gone bad. This incident found her with no savings because when you have grown up like she did, sometimes when you can finally feed yourself and your family and make life better for them, you forget about savings and it becomes all about the good life that you have desired so much, and can finally live the dream!

She tried to make ends meet, got back to working for various designers in town who were unfair and would fail to pay her most of the time. At some point she ended up going back to being a construction worker, and this time Dave was not there to help her, so gigs were far and between. Then one day as she was scrolling through Facebook, she came across the facebook page – Kenyan Tailors and designers – In there was an advert by NAWIRI looking for seamstresses and tailors. She applied and called the number and got her first interview in late 2021. 

She showed up on time and got the job on the spot. But that was short lived. In what felt like bad luck to her, NAWIRI needed to downsize, business was not doing so well.  2022 was a bad year for many businesses. She left, went back to one of the designers she had worked with before and still that didn’t go so well. Her back couldn’t handle the construction work any more so she went back to cleaning people’s homes.

In 2023, she saw another call for seamstresses by NAWIRI, she applied again, and again she got the gig. 

“It has been great coming back here, I love working for NAWIRI. I didn’t know that you can put labels on clothes and size them differently, Now I know… I also love that I get to be treated as a human being first, not just a fundi”

Her last born son is about to join university, Most of her siblings have married and gotten married. Her second born is in his last year of university, her first born is working and taking himself through school. 

Written by Joy Obuya

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One thought on “#Whomademyclothes : Millie

  1. Hilda says:

    Quite an interesting read. Indeed, everyone has a story, Thank you NAWIRI for sharing these stories with us

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