The whir of the manual sewing machines fills a small room at the Baptist Children’s Center, a Buckner school and orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. A weaving loom methodically guides back and forth as if following the beat of a metronome.
Students in their late teens and early 20s are bundled in winter coats and thick sweaters, threading needles with cold fingers and laying patterns over rich burgundy material. They’re part of the sewing program, and they’re using the skills they’ve learned over the past year to make uniforms for the children who attend school at the Baptist Children’s Center.
They weave the material to make sweaters for the younger children in the school on a giant loom in the corner. They make pants, skirts, dresses and track suits in the school’s colors, burgundy and light blue. They also make uniforms for children in other Buckner schools around Kenya.
The class instructor, Zibora Ilagosa, has been teaching the sewing classes for 10 years, but to her, it is so much more than a job. She walks around the various stations in the room, checking on progress but also checking on the welfare of the students.
Ilagosa’s mission is to empower the students through teaching them skills they can use to help provide for themselves but more importantly, to empower them with the word of God.
Classes start each day with devotions. Ilagosa hopes each student will learn to put God first by starting the class with Bible instruction.
Most of the students live in poverty, and many of them are orphaned. The rest have only one living parent. Many of the students and Ilagosa walk up to an hour each way every day to attend the classes.
Ilagosa grew up in similar circumstances to many of the girls in her classes so she understands what they’re going through.
“So many of these girls are going through trials and temptations and no one can hear them,” Ilagosa says. “They have no one to listen to them so when we gather here, we have time to talk, and I like to empower them through the word of God. I ask them to surrender their life to Christ so Jesus may help them through their trials and they would learn to embrace it.”
Students often don’t have shoes or even appropriate clothing to wear so Ilagosa tries to provide it for them. Many of them live in rough communities where temptations to use drugs and other destructive behaviors lie around every corner.
Ilagosa likes helping people, and she likes telling people about Jesus. It comes from a deep place of gratitude – she’s been at rock bottom, and she has no problem sharing what Jesus has done for her.
“It’s important to teach girls this age a skill like this to avoid them hanging on the outside,” Ilagosa says. “If we leave them alone, they have bad relationships with men. It’s very important to empower a girl. If you don’t, the only thing she can think is hanging out with men.
“When you equip that girl with things – working, teaching her, just making her feel important – she won’t think about men.”
Ilagosa recruits students from all over, including her church, the surrounding neighborhoods and even communities further away.
One such student is 22-year-old Calvin Mada. He lives in a tiny shack, if you can call it that, with five siblings. His parents are dead. Life is bleak, but the tiny ray of hope is Ilagosa’s sewing class.
He’s been in the program for a year and his time is coming to an end. But the 30-minute walk to the class has been worth it to learn a new skill and to find community.
“I like coming here because of the care and because of the friends I’ve made,” he says. “My teacher has taught me well about sewing. I love my teacher. She is teaching me and the other students the word of God. When we need something, we can ask her and she answers. She loves her students.”
Mada, like many other students, had trouble paying the school fee of 500 Kenya Shillings – the equivalent of $5 USD – to join the class, but Ilagosa provided the money for him to attend. When he finishes his training, he hopes to work for a company and eventually open his own shop. He would love to make and sell traditional African clothing.
“I come here because of my life and my future,” he says. “This is my best future.”
Story and photos by Chelsea Q. White