Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (2023)

In Summary

• L'Afrikana was established to help integrate refugees into the host community

• Beneficiaries have gone from despair to contributing positively to the economy


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31 January 2023 - 05:00

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Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (2)

Students listen in during a tailoring session at the L'Afrikana CBO in Kabiria

At Kivuli Centre in Nairobi, I pass by a group of girls laughing and conversing in Luganda.

Little children are running around where the girls are converged at this refugee hub in Kabiria, Dagoretti.

Just by looking at them, I could tell that some of the girls were teens and others in their early twenties.

I learnt that they were speaking Luganda from a friend who was facilitating their just-concluded computer programming class.

Heading to L’Afrikana offices, I am met by the head of programmes at the community-based organisation, Biaba Aoci Bizo.

Bizo, a Congolese national, narrates to me his struggle to resettle in Kenya.

“Being a refugee in a host country is not easy. Many a time, people fail to understand people like us,” he said.

Coming to Kenya in 1996, Bizo said he was rejected for three years when registering to be identified as a refugee in Kenya.

He said when he entered the country, he reported to the Department of Refugee Services (DRS) office and was told that he did not qualify to be registered as one.


“I was told to go back to Tanzania, the first country I fled to after leaving DRC because of clashes,” Bizo said.

When he pleaded his case, they failed to understand him.

Bizo lived in Kenya as an illegal immigrant until when he was finally accepted as a refugee.

“I went to Kituo cha Sheria, which used to take up cases of refugees and defend them, to get mine defended too,” he said.

He said he couldn’t go back to Tanzania because he had no money. He opted to just stay in Kenya and survive.

While languishing in town, Bizo teamed up with three other Congolese nationals and decided to come up with an organisation to support their own who fled from their countries to Kenya.

Resettling in Kenya, he said, was one of the toughest things he ever did.

“Being a refugee is not as huge of a setback as people would think. Kenya is a beautiful country and we were determined to stay and grow ourselves here, but it was not easy.”

Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (3)

L'Afrikana CBO head of programmes Biaba Bizo during the interview


Established in 2013, L’Afrikana is a refugee-led organisation based in Kabiria.

It was formed to help integrate refugees into the host community for better livelihoods.

Bizo said they might have lost properties and family members in their country of origin, but they never lost the skills they gained before coming to Kenya.

With their strong background in cloth making, the four came together and started L’Afrikana.

This was a money-making venture for them that earned them a sustainable living.

“Starting L’Afrikana was a great risk because at the time, there were no clear rules about refugees and what they could do,” Bizo said.

They started off with two sewing machines that they managed to get with assistance from the DRS office.

As they advanced, they opened doors to Kenyans who wanted to learn more about the art of tailoring, and a few joined.

Bizo said this was the first step they took to help Kenyans in their community understand who refugees are.

“Before L’Afrikana, we were never embraced by the community. People would shun us whenever we needed help or wanted to make a contribution, but that slowly started changing,” he said.

Ever since they began their tailoring business, they have received great support from their partners, especially from Brazil.

“They helped us find markets for our clothes in Brazil, and it really helped us grow, make good money and maintain consistency in what we do.”

The money accrued went into paying for the offices where their organisation is located, staff salaries, house rents and paying school fees for their children.

L’Afrikana was later registered as a CBO in 2015.

Bizo said the chief helped them a lot with the registration process.

Art and tailoring are the two pillars that have sustained the organisation thus far.

Bizo said the organisation mainly focuses on streamlining its income-generating activities by finding a market for its products.

L’Afrikana runs four programmes, with 60 per cent refugees and 40 per cent Kenyans.

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This involves the workforce, the beneficiaries, both Kenyans and refugees, interns and volunteers.

The first one is Women and the Youth Alive projects, which are in partnership with the University Service of Canada.

The two-year project ending September aims to train 360 women in art therapy.

Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (4) Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (5)


Another programme is the Accelerated Education Programme.

Here, they enrol schoolchildren who were unable to finish primary school because of various reasons.

“We teach them, register them for KCPE and they get a chance to sit their exams. To us, age doesn’t matter,” Bizo said.

Having started in 2019, the programme has supported more than 160 students, both boys and girls.

Of the 160, 40 are currently in high school.

“We have a partner who recently came on board to support students who score 250 marks and above to join secondary school,” Bizo said.

“We don’t have an alternative yet for students who fail to get 250 marks and below, but we try to make sure that they are incorporated in our other programmes, such as tailoring and craft-making.”

L’Afrikana also runs another programme called Go Girl Kenya.

This programme supports teenage victims of SGBV, early pregnancy and early marriage.

Through this programme, L’Afrikana tries to reach these victims and give them hope in life.

“We talk to them, encourage them and make a safe space for them to open up because most of them are still traumatised.”

Bizo added that they also engage family members and teach them how to handle and care for these girls.

Since December 2021, Go Girls Kenya has reached 113 girls.

The programme also facilitates social awareness gatherings once every three months, for different members of the community.

The girls usually go through psychosocial counselling sessions at the beginning.

Thereafter, they are given options of things they would like to engage in.

“If she wants to further her studies, we send her to school or an institution she is interested in. Alternatively, we absorb some of them in the other programmes we offer,” Bizo said.

The programme is actively facilitating mobile phone repair and computer programming training sessions for the girls.

Bizo said they currently lack funds to manage the programme but they operate with what they have.

Another programme is called Refugees in East Africa Building Urban Innovation for Better Livelihood (Rebuild).

The five-year programme, facilitated in partnership with IRC, aims to transform the lives of both refugees and the host community living in urban areas.

This is supported in various ways. There is vocational training on vocational skills.

They also support through USLAs (Urban Savings and Loans Associations), also referred to as 'chamas'.

“We train them on how the chama should operate. We monitor them for three months and thereafter, we give them a seed fund to help them expand their different ventures,” Bizo said.

He said most of the time, it is difficult for refugee-led chamas to get loans from banks because of their refugee status.

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“We try to address this as much as possible by acting as a link by engaging financial institutions.”

The programme is being run in Uganda and Nairobi and targets to reach 20,000 refugees and locals.

All we need is a chance — Woman defying the odds of refugee life


Thantine Kapela, Congolese, and Augustine Dukuzemungu, Rwandese, are some of those who have benefited from the formation of the organisation.

Born in 1976, Thantine is married with six children.

She fled DRC in 2007 for Kenya due to insecurity. At that time, her husband was a lecturer and was under persecution.

“My husband was the first to flee DRC, leaving me behind with three children,” she said.

“He was being tracked down and since I was still there, they searched for me to reveal his whereabouts.”

Thantine said that coming to Kenya was not easy and life became harder.

“I did not even know where my husband was but I knew he was in Kenya,” she said.

“I was welcomed by a Kenyan who accommodated my children and me wholeheartedly. She helped me find UNHCR offices so I could register as a refugee, even though she did not know where they were located at first."

Thantine registered with the organisation and was referred to a group in Kabiria called Geadeco.

Run by Congolese nationals, the organisation helps women with children and no husbands, as well as orphaned children, registered and cleared to live in Kenya.

“I started living with them and they began helping me. I didn’t know that my husband used to also live in this area as well,” she said.

“I found out that he used to teach a local Rwandese school in this area.”

Thantine was reunited with her husband and moved in with him together with her children.

Still residing in Kabiria, Thantine and her husband were blessed with twins.

After three years of raising the children and being a housewife, Thantine decided to look for employment to help her husband pay bills.

“My husband would earn as much as Sh1,000, and that was too little to support a now-growing family,” she said.

From making beadwork in Karen to making tablemats in Kawangware to making vikoi in Riverside at Amani ya Juu, in 2021, Thantine was called to L’Afrikana to work as a tailoring tutor.

“It is better to work here because my home is just five minutes away. The Sh20,000 pay I get helps my family and me to survive in terms of rent, school fees and even food.”

Thantine’s husband currently tutors another Burundian school on Ngong Road, and they still help each other out to sustain their family.

Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (6)

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Congolese tailoring tutor Thantine Kapela

Augustine, 21, came from Rwanda with his mother and three siblings, two elder sisters and a younger brother in 2011.

An alumnus of Ofafa Jericho Secondary School, he said that after finishing school in 2022, he tried looking for work to keep him busy and away from crime and drugs.

“My sister referred me to L’Afrikana and I talked to Muunga, who accepted me as an intern in the art department,” Augustine said.

Having scored a B- in KCSE, he is still hopeful that he will get an international scholarship to go abroad and complete his university education.

The Covid period was one of the toughest moments for Augustine and his family.

“My mother got laid off and that left my sisters and me to start looking for jobs for she did not get a chance to go to school as we did. She was not well conversant with the local dialect and so we decided to help her so we could sustain ourselves,” he said.

Augustine’s mother currently spins cotton wool at their home, which she sells to a number of customers.

Working at L’Afrikana, Augustine said he has been busy and makes a reasonable living, and he has built his craft skills in banana art making.

In his first three months, Augustine said he used to make as much as Sh6,000-8,000 depending on the orders made.

L'Afrikana's craft programme involves using banana leaves to make different art products.

Art department head Munnga Luhangela, also one of the four founders of L’Afrikana, said their projects are usually made out of dried banana leaves, sisal and raffia.

They get the raffia material from DRC, while they buy the sisal and banana leaves.

Bizo said the banana artefacts are their most sold products which are brought by their biggest buyers, the Salvation Army.

“Banana art gives us money. For the past four years, before establishing the programmes we offer, we made close to Sh7 million from orders,” he said.

He also said they aim to teach different artistes to make banana art projects using these different materials to boost creativity and generate income for them.

Apart from arts and crafts, L’Afrikana also offers free tailoring classes for locals in Kabiria, Jamhuri, Ndonyo, Kibera and its environs.

Officially started in October 2021, the tailoring training has benefited more than 120 women.

In a day, there are three classes with 20 students for each two-and-a-half-hour session.

They have adopted new ways of making dyed clothes using dye they make from onion skin, cinnamon and eucalyptus.

L’Afrikana is determined to prove to their community as well as other Kenyans that refugees can positively contribute to the economy.

Kabiria refugees set out to make life worth living (7)

L'Afrikana art department head Munnga Luhangela demonstrates a representation of the birth of Jesus Christ using a banana art sample

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