Una vita in Africa – A life in Africa Rotating Header Image

July 23rd, 2010:

In Passerella per una Vita Migliore – Catwalking for a Better Life

By Philip Emase
One of the best ways to experience the stark dichotomy between Kenya’s majority poor and its modest middle class is to visit one of the many shopping malls that have sprung up in major urban centres.
At the Westgate mall in Nairobi, affluent shoppers cart their purchases towards their sleek four wheel drive cars. As they wheel their trolleys on the concrete beyond the glass walls, they walk past a bunch of small children from the neighbouring slums, waiting with their hands outstretched and begging for a loose change to help them buy an exercise book or a piece of bread back at home, or in the case of the homeless urchin, a bottle of glue to sniff the cold and depression away.
It was therefore a sort of positive irony on July 2-4 when a Fashion and Beauty (FAB) Expo was held at the Westgate mall and among the exhibitors were a group of rehabillatated former street girls showcasing their own unique collection of high fashion wear.
The three day event had all the glamour associated with fashion and beauty. Fashion houses and magazines, designers and photographers, bloggers and franchise owners were all gathered at the at the three-storey mall in the upmarket Westlands suburb.
The rooftop parking lot had been turned into a vast array of exhibition stalls, with a catwalk located just a few metres inside the mall, at one the end of the food court.
The expo was hosted by Pinky Ghelani, a Kenyan model of Asian origin, and the event’s programme proudly announced the star presence of Sylvia Owori, the eminent Ugandan designer and editor of African Woman magazine whose designs have been modeled in Milan and Paris. One the sidelines of the show, popular local musician Redsan was auditioning for his next video and novel luxuries like a “Nail and Oxygen Bar” were on offer.
Three o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, July 3. Pinky Ghelani introduces the “G2G collection” as the next item on the catwalk. To modest applause from the small crowd seated around the catwalk, the first G2G model steps out with a calculated walk, clad in African print trousers and a loose Western-style maroon top. The cameras click as the next model follows in an immaculate African pattern kitenge blouse, matching it with Western-style formal pants.
Unlike the other exhibitors, the G2G Collection is made by former street girls from at Anita’s Home, a rehabilitation centre in Ngong area, 20 km south of Nairobi.
The collection is a product of the Get Together Girls (GTG), a project was formed to help the former street girls achieve self-reliance after years of rehabilitation and formal education at Anita’s Home. The project is headed by Grazia Orsolato, an Italian lady who first came to Anita’s Home as a 32 year old volunteer in the summer of 2004.
Grazia had chosen to come to Africa instead of taking the traditional holioday for relaxation, and the she spent at Anita’s home had a profound effect on her. Most of the girls at the home have either been rescued from a life on the street or are the children of a single parent who is unable to tale care of them. At the home they receive their basic needs, education and formation, but Grazia felt there was a need to assist especially those who had not made the grades required to continue with a tertiary education by giving them practical skills that would help them earn a living.
She shared the idea with a friend, Italian stylist Roberta Vincenzi, and together with Anita’s Home they launched the project in February 2010.
Roberta spent two week s in Kenya in February 2010, teaching the girls how to use sewing machines, make designs, cut cloth, creativity with patterns, take measurements and how to sew straight without weaving off course.
“They learned very fast even though most of them had never even touched a sewing machine before,” Grazia said proudly.
Today the girls are designing and producing fashionable clothes for women both in Kenyan and for the global market. All their products are handmade, covering all body sizes and using materials that range from African patterned cloth to Western oriented material.
Some of the girls were young mothers, others had graduated from high and were still scratching their heads about the future. Two of them want to study design and are currently looking for a school in Nairobi, although Roberta might invite them to Italy after G2G gets grounded in Kenya
Grazia sees G2G as a social enterprise, with a business edge. At the moment, she sustains its operations from her own personal reserves and she pays the girls Ksh 300 a day. They operate from a room at Anita’s Home, equipped with four manual sewing machines and four electric ones. Every morning they start work every morning at nine in the morning and end at three in the afternoon, five days a week.
A professional in administration, Grazia has spent 13 working with Pirelli as a Customer Administration Manager in Milan.
“My motivation is to assist the girls get employment, that is why I am volunteering. I could always go back home to Italy and get a good job,” she explains.
But Grazia hopes to ensure G2G is firmly founded on the Kenyan market before she goes back to Italy, from where she will make efforts to help expand their products into the European and American fashion markets.
“In Africa, our target is the middle class and we use African materials such as the kitenge,” Grazia explains.
Already, Grazia says the originality of the G2G designs has drawn some attention. A local company, Spin Knit, is interested in stocking G2G’s products, and the group has also received some orders from Italy through their website.
“My dream is to achieve a fashion centre, a sort of complex where production, training and selling all go on, hopefully along Ngong Road,” Grazia muses when asked about the future of G2G.
“I hope that by then the girls will have gained the ability to run everything on their own, including the administration and marketing aspects. We are planning to give them some management training in the future,” She adds.
Despite having existed for just about half a year, the project is already touching lives. One of the girls, Monica Nzembi, had dropped out of Anita’s Home at age and left high school in form three to marry her boyfriend at the age of 17.
One day, while she was with child, he left for the Nairobi City Centre and never retuned. Soon realizing that he had gone missing, Monica and his family began a frantic search for him and it appeared he had disappeared without a trace. His sister found him at a public morgue after two weeks of looking, apparently murdered in circumstances that have since remained unclear.
It is barely one year after this happened, and G2G has become Monica’s sole hope for her future and that of her little baby girl.
“From my earnings I have my own place, I can afford a babysitter, and G2G has reunited me with so many friends I had left behind at Anita’s Home. I feel less lonely because we lean on each other”, Monica says with a sigh.

The busy stand of GtoG - L'affollato stand di GtoG

Grazia bows to the crowd - Grazia accetta l'applauso della folla

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