Impoverished children, war-torn homes, towns ravaged by epidemics, land devastated by floods and droughts — these are some of the most powerful images of Africa, and also the most commonly used to encourage charity donations. But, organizers of a fundraising event for Kenyan children late last month decided to paint a different picture by putting the country’s exuberant culture under the spotlight — at a fashion show.
Held at the Kenyan Embassy in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, the show showcased more than 20 outfits of traditional Kenyan clothing and accessories and put them up for auction.
Entitled “Kenya Yetu” or “Our Kenya” in Swahili, the republic’s national language, the event was attended by representatives of non-governmental organizations, businesses and students.
“We wanted to introduce Kenyan culture to those who see opportunities to do aid work or business,” said Tomoko Ikawa, development training coordinator at Impact Japan Ltd., the company that organized the event with the embassy.
“Volunteers often go to developing countries for only a short period and return satisfied with their contribution. But we need a more sustainable system in Africa, involving people savvy about the local culture,” she said.
More than 60 guests crowded the warmly lit rooms of the embassy and committed to the icebreaker Swahili greeting game with so much gusto that when the time came for a toast with the Kenyan beer Tusker, there were cries of “How do you say ‘cheers’ in Swahili?”
The evening was homemade and handmade in every sense. The clothes and accessories were crafted by women in Kenya and worn by volunteers on the catwalk, while embassy chef Robert Osogo turned out a sumptious buffet of Kenyan cuisine.
“This event is great because it celebrates the positive Africa, and we can learn from their culture how to live life to the full,” said Eriko Mukoyama, who became the world’s first woman to play the nyatiti, an eight-stringed folk instrument traditionally only played by men in the Luo tribe in western Kenya.
Other devoted fans of Kenya included university student Makoto Ishihara, who displayed his enthusiasm by wearing a tie of black, red and green, the colors of the Kenyan national banner.
“In the future I want to be a farmer in Africa. I love the strong sun there, and the people always welcome the Japanese,” said Ishihara, a third-year international development student at the Nihon University College of Bioresource Sciences and a member of the Japan Kenya Student Conference.
The guests tucked into a spread that included Kenyan beef stew, sukuma wiki (green vegetables), and ugali (maized porridge) which, according to chef Osogo, is the most popular Kenyan food among many Japanese because it is “healthful and fat-free.”
Once the guests were fully fed and faintly flushed, they were ushered into a long room covered in drapes of vibrant colors. As they clapped in time to the Kenyan folk tune “Jambo, Bwana” (“Hello, Mister”), friends and relatives of the organizers strutted their stuff in intricately embroidered, brilliantly colored clothes and accessories originating from a variety of Kenyan ethnic groups.
One participant who literally stood out in the crowd was the ambassador’s 19-year-old son, Jeremy Awori.
“It was more fun than I thought it would be, it made me feel like a celebrity,” said Awori, who modeled a shuka, a wrap traditionally worn by the Masai tribe. The clothes, made to order for Japanese and paid for by the event entrance fees, sold out and raised almost ¥200,000 together with accessories, Ikawa said.
The money will contribute to a sustainable program at St. Clare’s Orphanage for children with HIV in western Kenya, according to the ambassador’s wife, Violet. “Their most urgent problem is that they do not have water on the compound, so the little money that they have is spent buying water from local water vendors,” she said. “So we decided to build a well so that the children can source their own water, as well as grow their own vegetables and learn to feed themselves.”
The event was an opportunity to network for Erin Gonzalez-Hicks-Amaya, director for Beads for Education, a nonprofit organization that supports the businesses and education of Kenyan women.
“We support illiterate mothers who make beads for a living, and we provide schooling for girls. We’re looking for sponsors in Japan,” she said.
The evening was also a hit with representatives of other African countries, who said they would consider holding similar events at their own embassies. “I like the event — it’s relaxed, it’s Kenya!” said Kopano Motswagae, wife of the ambassador for the Republic of Botswana.
“We all have something to sell, and this is the easiest way to promote it,” she said.
Other guests saw the show as a springboard to learn more about Kenya.
“This event is great for letting people know about Kenya firsthand,” said Toyomi Maruyama, director of Maeji Co., an agency that imports Kenyan goods to Japan.
“I hope people will want to learn more about the rich history behind what they saw today.”