Catherine Wanjohi started Life Bloom Services to give women training, counselling and tools to make a living and gain financial independence.
“Women were out in the streets, not really because they had made a choice,
but because the opportunities were limited.”
It was while Catherine Wanjohi was a principal of a girls’ secondary school that her turning point came. School isn’t free in Kenya, and Catherine was following up with parents who hadn’t paid fees. A mother pleaded with Catherine to allow her daughter to remain at school until she was able to pay the fees.
She said, “If my daughter comes back home, then she would join me in the work that I do.” Catherine asked her what she did for a living and she replied, “I sell my body to keep my child in school.”
Catherine soon learned that this lady wasn’t the only mother in this desperate situation, and the discovery changed everything for her.
“I of course did not ask the girl to go back home. Instead, I called upon the teachers and we raised some money and we paid the money for that girl and a couple of other girls. But I knew deep inside of me that something had happened. There was a shift.”
At the time, Catherine was taking her masters and went to the UK for a summer class. But while away, she could not stop thinking about these mothers who longed for their daughters to have better lives – so much so that they were willing to put themselves at risk to give their daughters an education.
A choice that wasn’t theirs
In Kenya, there’s a great deal of stigma associated with being a single mother and with sex work. With minimal to no education, often still teenagers when they first become mothers, and far from the support network in the villages they grew up in, these women are living in abject poverty and have very few employment options. Many end up in sex work through sexual exploitation, not because they chose to. This work puts them and their children in harm’s way – of physical violence, sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, and human trafficking.
So when Catherine returned from the UK, she resigned from her well-paid, prestigious job as school principal – with no other plan than to find a way to help these women achieve financial independence in jobs that would ensure their dignity and wellbeing. She was at the peak of her career, one of the youngest school principals in the country, and with an exciting professional future ahead of her. Her family and friends didn’t understand how she could make such a life-changing decision at this point in her life.
“I didn’t think about it. And so when I am asked, did you make a choice? How did you make a choice? I say there was no choice to be made. I think there’s totally a moment when my mind does not rationalise and I love it when I do things that way,” Catherine says.
Meeting them right where they are
Catherine went to meet the women she wanted to help wherever they were – in the bars, streets and slums. And she listened to them. Little by little, trust began to grow, word began to spread and women began to come to her for help. At first, they were hoping to be given money to pay school fees and purchase school uniforms and books. But Catherine’s vision was far bigger than that. She wanted to give these women the tools they needed to lift themselves out of their desperate poverty, not just provide a bandaid solution through financial aid. So she began by teaching basic life skills, such as financial literacy.
“And I saw, and I still continue to see, that when they have been empowered, when the capacity is built, when they are accepted without judgement, when they receive the training that they need,” Catherine says, they can begin to change their lives. Their sense of dignity is restored and they gain the self-confidence to seek better jobs.
Catherine opened an office and called her organisation Life Bloom Services. Some days, the tiny room would be so crammed with women that they’d almost be sitting on top of each other. They would share their stories and cry together over the heartbreaking circumstances they were in. Catherine says, “Even today, any time I meet some of these women, we speak about the time we cried together because their story was my story and my story was their story.”
Peer mentorship and education are key to a better future
Peer mentorship is a big part of what Life Bloom Services does. Women who don’t know how to read or write can easily be trained to be community counsellors. They’re proof that a lack of education is not a blocker to a good job or from gaining an education later in life. Because they are peers of the women and girls they are trying to reach, they can be far more effective.
When it comes to education, Life Bloom Services has recently begun assisting women to attend online courses with the European Business University. Just a few years ago, three women dared each other to complete a course. They had never used a laptop, let alone a smartphone, so Catherine’s colleague Nancy sat with them around a shared laptop as they listened to lectures to answer their questions and guide them through. Catherine says, “They probably never imagined that they could go and study such a thing in their lives, but then they went and did it.” Their achievement encouraged others, and seven more women graduated in early 2021. This is truly incredible for women who have received such little education!
Life Bloom Services also trains women in leadership. Catherine, who is herself a leadership coach, says, “We incorporated integrated leadership coaching from 2009 for the mentors who were trained and who committed to support their peers. Some of them are still with us and are still bringing in other women and children. And one of them is actually a member of our board.”
An impact that reaches far beyond what can be counted
Never did Catherine imagine that her tiny not-for-profit organisation, training sixteen women in 2004, would serve over 10,000 women and girls by 2022. Over the past 18 years, Life Bloom Services has sought to restore the dignity, safety and wellbeing of women and girls in many critical ways. As well as providing life skills and vocational training to women, Life Bloom Services provides sex education to young people, condoms to sex workers, and sanitary products to girls – to keep them at school and from being trafficked into domestic servitude.
Catherine says, “We’ll never be able to tell just how much effect this has out there. How much the ripple effect goes further and further, back to the villages and back to families. Even the numbers that we talk about are the direct numbers of the women and girls who have come here. We don’t know how many others out there have been impacted.”
The need in Kenya is great but in the last 18 years, Catherine has seen enormous transformation throughout the community. Many more girls now complete school, teen pregnancies have decreased, and fewer girls and women are turning to sex work to survive. But the impact of the pandemic in the last two years has been devastating and reversed many of the positive changes. Today, Life Bloom Services is more critical than ever and Catherine, with her determination, energy and passion, has a huge vision for the future and the drive to bring transformation to her community.
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