Paper is often used, rarely thought of and almost never considered life changing. But for those who work at Kahesa, an organisation that trains and employs mentally challenged Kenyans, paper is an opportunity for a normal life By Alexis Issa
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Gladys making paper on the wall

Kamae swings the machete down onto the banana tree with one swift graceful gesture then cuts the big chunk into small pieces. After considerable time working at it, he is ready to place them into a big pot of boiling water, which will cook for several hours. His colleague Michael then cleans the cooked pieces in a rice sack and obliterates them in a strong blender. Gladys carefully takes the fine pulp through a metal mesh to place on the wall. When dried, the collaborative effort has produced a lovely, silky paper, which will later be used to make a card, a box, a bag, a notebook, a diary or whatever your heart desires.

Kamae Maina, 23 years old, has cerebral palsy. Michael Joseph, 26 years old, has Down syndrome. Gladys Akeyo, 38 years old, has autism. They work at the newly established Kahesa Paper to Empower the Mentally Challenged – a company that has admirably lived up to its name.

“I wanted to show to the world that people with mental challenges can work, so long as you give them appropriate training skills adapted to their abilities, not their disabilities,” says Simia Ahmadi, director of Kahesa.

Starting Kahesa

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“There are so many ways to make paper without harming the environment. These need to be explored and exploited,” says Sharon Rusu, Co- Director of Kahesa..

Simia, who is of Swiss-Iranian origin, though she’s been living in East Africa over 12 years, is also the founder of Kahesa. “I gave up my international human rights career to have more flexibility and independence in starting up Kahesa. I have always loved the arts and music, a medium I used a lot in my previous work to pass messages.” Simia is the mother of a 9-year-old boy, Anouch, with Down syndrome, who is integrated in a mainstream school in Nairobi. Simia received her training in paper-making from Egypt, at El Nafeza Foundation. “My original inspiration behind Kahesa was of course to create jobs for people like Anouch; I would want him to find a job he likes when he grows up. And why shouldn’t he?

After inception, the originality of the concept behind Kahesa quickly struck a chord with the public through its three-pronged approach – socially responsible, environmentally friendly (no chemicals are used to make the paper), and promoting East African art. The company celebrates a uniqueness that is open and welcoming, not exclusive.

John, a young adult with autism and a form of retardation, was hired with high hopes. “It has taken a while to train him, but now he is able to make paper without supervision. And good quality paper. Who would have imagined that?” says John’s mother Grace, with no small dose of pride.

Kamae’s mother is also thrilled that her son has found a job he likes and for which he gets paid like any other qualified adult. “He was just sitting at home, doing nothing. He had no formal education, no qualifications...now he goes to work with a sense of fulfilment,” she says.

Sara Galand, the director of Autism Support Centre (Kenya), says “Kahesa is invaluable to the community of young adults diagnosed with a physical or mental disability.” Most people with mental disability would never have dreamt of obtaining a job and the chance to earn a living for themselves, yet Kahesa’s employees are valuable and contributing members of their communities. “Working for Kahesa will give them the confidence to overcome their disability and teach them the responsibilities they need to live fulfilling lives,” she adds

But has it been an easy journey for Kahesa? “Certainly not,” Simia smiles.

“Recruitment was a serious challenge in the beginning. Many persons with mental disabilities do not have a diagnosis, or if they do, it remains inadequate. The distance to get to work here is not easy for some who cannot travel alone in a matatu, and their parents work.”

And while Simia is not short of ideas for Kahesa, the main challenge is finding a sustainable market that appreciates this form of art. “For instance, mainstream markets are not interested in our products. I doubt Nakumatt would want our products.

The paper is not cheap, and the papermaking process is extremely labour intensive. We have yet to develop a marketing strategy.” Most of their sales have been through word of mouth, wine shops, glass shops, individuals, wedding planners, day-sales at Village Market and Westgate, craft fairs, and through workshops they conduct at Kahesa.

“People like to buy on location, it gives them a sense of how we make the paper and they love meeting the staff. The staff also feel a stronger sense of purpose and confidence when someone buys their products on location.”

But even with the challenges, Kahesa has risen above and beyond Simia’s expectations.

The Current Situation

As far as the production goes, Kahesa is still located at Simia’s home in Garden Estate. “There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night, at the

"Ittakes up to seven hours to cook a medium size banana tree, which will only yield 20 big sheets”

sound of the first rain drop. I throw on a bathrobe and dash out to peel the paper off the walls where they were left to dry!” Though Kahesa can produce paper in a covered corridor, it is limited in quantity and in size. At best it can handle 20 big sheets and 30 small ones.

“We need to move to a proper, bigger location. Right now, the guest room is stocked with rice straw. Do not think you can use the bathroom, there is rice straw up to the door!” she laughs. She begins to panic when a newly engaged couple wants to order 800 cards with flaps, silkscreened on both sides in two different colours, to be ready in four weeks. Her entrance is stocked with products ranging from notebooks with dolphins and baobabs silkscreened in gold, to big boxes ordered by wine shops, and cards with envelops in an ancient East African pattern of green on purple paper with elephants posing majestically.

Other than Simia, who handles all the administration, Kahesa currently has eight employees with mental challenges and four volunteers for design, arts and craft. They work in shifts of three or four and each works three to four times a week.

But Simia has big plans for her company. While she invested her own savings into Kahesa, she’s hoping to obtain donations, internationally and locally, in order to increase production capacity and recruit and train more staff. Donations would also help acquire more blenders and sinks, and create outreach programs and teach women paper-making in rural areas.

She also wants to build up the capacity of the workshops and streamline production. “We are now fair-trading with Switzerland, France, Zanzibar, and soon Canada, but we are so new that we cannot yet handle an order of 500 medium size boxes to be shipped overseas just like that!” A big order can take four to 10 weeks to complete, let alone deliver. But it is Simia’s hope that they’ll get there someday. “We must build little by little and not spread ourselves too thin or get carried away. The main purpose is not commercial, but what realistically will sustain us so long as we are a social enterprise.”

Simia wishes to further develop the East African art of Kahesa. “We have four traditional patterns and a few modern ones, which were designed by Kenyans and Tanzanians. But my dream is to have persons with mental challenges actually do the designs.” Soon Kahesa will launch a design competition and showcase the results, where prizes for the top three winners will be awarded at a gala event. Kahesa also wants to establish artists in Kenya who’ll contribute part of the proceeds of their paintings to the organisation, while Kahesa will prepare the paper for them to paint on.

Paper Production

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Mike and Kamae cleaning cooked banana tree..

“It takes up to seven hours to cook a medium size banana tree, which will only yield 20 big sheets of paper [of size A3],” shares Simia. Everyone is given a chance to take part in the entire production process, from cutting the banana tree, soaking the rice straw, cooking the fibres, cleaning and blending, to coming to the table to cut the paper into bags, boxes or cards. Those with less fine motor skills tend to work outdoors while those with more dexterity can sit at the table to cut and glue the paper. But everyone makes the paper on the wall, it’s a highlight of the job.

“There are so many ways to make paper without harming the environment. These need to be explored and exploited,” says Sharon Rusu, Co- Director of Kahesa. “A banana tree will only give bananas once in their lifetime. By cutting the base, you’re helping to create four to eight baby banana trees which will mature within seven to nine months,” she adds.

This environmental wisdom holds true with rice straw as well. “In Egypt it is a huge problem because the rice straw is usually burnt, creating hazardous fumes,” says Simia, who visited the rice farms in Egypt and in Mwea, Kenya. And this might soon become a problem here as the rice industry grows. “We have to anticipate this problem. Many farmers here also burn the rice straw, and some feed it to their cows not knowing that this type of straw has no nutritional value whatsoever. Kahesa can at least help to provide some income to these farmers.”

Dunia Liewald, designer at Kahesa, tells me she likes the freedom she has to be creative. “We only use the silkscreen process, which is a dying art. You find it less and less in Europe, though it is still possible to obtain the paints here in Kenya.”

Sense of Achievement

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Photographs: Courtesy of Kahesa Paper to Empower.

But what do the staff have to say about their work? “I am working part-time,” says Michael, “but soon I will be fulltime. I like the work because I also go to the craft fairs and can show that I made this paper, which is now a bag or box.” Before Michael joined Kahesa in October 2012, he was lucky if he could land a day job cleaning compounds.

Gladys, a mother of three, was not allowed to complete primary school because she was often withdrawn and temperamental, though she excelled in math and science. She never worked a day in her life while she raised her children. Gladys found the job at Kahesa when a friend, who supplies glue, encouraged her to apply. “I never thought one day I would be making paper in the sun” she says, beaming,

And now I have a job, like anyone else.” Kahesa ensures that it also works with experts in the field of mental disability. “We rely on a volunteer committee of experts who assist us in vocational training,” says Simia. One such professional, Professor John Onala, is an expert on autism who taught at the Special Education Department at Maseno University. “How wonderful it is to see big smiles on the faces of young adults who once couldn’t make it, now celebrating their achievements,” he says with a smile.

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challenges, Kahesa has risen above and beyond Simia’s expectations.

“We have designers, artists, and volunteers who work side-by-side with the mentally challenged staff,” says Kevin Mugambi, a volunteer at Kahesa. “We have a lot of fun at work.”

The team at Kahesa is confident that the road ahead will continue to provide employment for the mentally disabled, all while keeping the smiles on their faces. During a tea break, Simia asks her son to help get the paper from the wall. “No!” he frowns – he would rather play football. Can you blame him? He is only 9. Simia then leans over to John to congratulate him on the green and turquoise paper he just made. John bursts into laughter. “I want to make a box, I want to make a big box.” It’s one of the most difficult products Kahesa makes, but as far as they are concerned, anything is possible.