On the opening day of the HMN Accelerator retreat, the energy permeating Dubai’s light-flooded office room had been tangible from the very start: the conjunction of both depth of humility and fierce courage. Each of the women present had a story to tell, disclosed through a dignified bearing, the sunshine of a smile, or the sharpness of gaze. I have been fortunate to have had a candid conversation with them on the last day of the retreat, and here are their stories.
Linda Sigila is the founder of Tuwe Bora, a social enterprise creating employment opportunities by providing skills training for formerly imprisoned women and unemployed youth in the local community in Kajiado county, Kenya.
Can you tell us about that moment when the idea for your SE first emerged?
Yes, I think there was a trigger… We were doing a little bit of reflection the other day in a workshop (during the retreat) about our past and present selves, and I realized it wasn't just a moment: it had been an entire journey. Growing up, my parents would always try to solve people’s problems. They were constantly looking out for other people. I was brought up knowing that you just can't see someone struggle and leave them in this position. No, you have to look for a way to intervene and sort it out. But then, when I was old enough and I left home, I disconnected from that. I was like, “No, it's time I minded my own business”.
However, when I got a baby in 2018, something snapped. All of a sudden, I could see the world so clearly; I could see issues all around me. In a way, it’s like I went back to being who my parents were. And I think it took another baby to implement it (smiles). Actually, it took me having two babies to first realize things and then materialize the result of this awareness, as I then became very emotionally aware of other people, and what they were going through.
Why did you choose to apply to HerMeNow specifically?
A friend of mine saw it, and she thought I would be a good fit. She told me “This is for women who have a social impact, and you do have a social impact.” At that point, and even when starting the program, I always doubted what I was doing… I thought it was so little while other people are doing so much — which is what we tell ourselves mostly as women. But then she's a friend, and she told me: “The deadline is tomorrow. Please go and apply for it.”
What keeps you going everyday?
Something that this story would aptly illustrate: the very first person that we brought into Tuwe Bora was a lady who had been in prison for 13 1/2 years. When she stepped out of prison, her whole life was nowhere. She didn't have connections to her children. She didn't have a house. She had nothing to come back to. And of course, the whole stigma thing: people don't employ people who have been in prison. It's just a whole thing. So when she left prison, an organization that I had been in contact with recommended her to me. She called me and I told her, “Okay, you can come in a week's time”. When the week was over, she didn't come on that day. I was like, No. You say you want things to be done for you, but you're never sure. But then she called that evening and she told me, My daughter just gave birth and I'm just reconnecting back in their life, so I have to be there for her. I was not sure if she was saying the truth or not, but then I told her, “ Okay, take time off, do what you need to do then when you're ready, come to us.”
And I really didn't know that just by allowing someone into your space, you can change so much about them. And I remember there was a time when she had stayed with us long enough and she wanted to grow more than what we were providing. We agreed and bought her a machine and helped her start her own business. And right now, she has employed four more people. She caters to her whole family; her children talk to us. She talks to us. And she keeps telling us how if we had never been part of her story, this would not have been her story. And because she has five children, I know that I am not just touching her life but so many: she has employed four people who have several other people that they are supporting. So by just allowing one person into my business, I have helped 10 people.
Can you tell us what brings you the most joy in being a social entrepreneur?
I feel a lot of joy when I see what I did, and also getting recognition is important because, to me, it means I have conquered myself. Sometimes, we don't give ourselves enough credit. But I have conquered myself because I'm not the only person who has ideas — anyone can have ideas — but I actually managed to implement them. The joy that it gives me to be like, “Okay, I actually did it” is quite powerful. And then I'm creating jobs for people! There are people who actually look to me and expect to get money at the end of the day. It's really intimidating. It is. But then it gives you so much joy because you're like, “If I didn't actually do this, there would be X number of people who would have never got the chance to be where they are or where they needed to be.” So that really gives me joy.
Conversely, what are the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenge is having dreams that you're not sure will ever be fulfilled.
What legacy do you wish to leave in your community?
I would want to leave a community of people. I'll start with myself because I'm raising children. I want to have children who are more socially empowered, people who think about others. There's this individualistic thing that is happening a lot in our communities. I would want my children not to look at themselves, but look at others and be like, “How can I be my brother’s, my sister’s keeper?”. I would want to leave that legacy because a lot of people are departing from that. In Africa, we have something called Unbutu*. Ubuntu is what affects you, affects me. It's something that was there in our past a lot, but it's something that has disappeared in the last decades I suppose. I would want that to be my legacy: that there is a sense of caring about each other, not just myself. I would want to teach that to my children. I would want to teach that to the people that I work with. I would want them to teach that to others because it's something that we have just ignored, but if we did have it, the world would be a better place.
What does "women’s empowerment" mean to you personally?
Being truly heard. We talk a lot about women's empowerment but what people see as women’s empowerment is what the law should enforce. But have you really actually talked to a woman and asked her, “Linda, what's your actual problem at this point in time? What does help look like to you? How can I be of help to you?” Each woman has unique needs that have to be met. You don't have to reach 100 women. You can just go with 10, and they will actually reach 1,000 more. But just concentrate on those 10, and find out how can you help them at this point in their lives, at this specific point in time.
*Unbutu has many translations, but the most encompassing one has been given by the African Journal of Social Work : “A collection of values and practices that people of Africa or of African origin view as making people authentic human beings. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world.” Mugumbate, Jacob Rugare; Chereni, Admire (23 April 2020). "Editorial: Now, the theory of Ubuntu has its space in social work". African Journal of Social Work.