Helping Kenyan Widows to Thrive
Helping Kenyan Widows to Thrive
When Jackline Odhiambo ’13 first flew from her home in Kenya to the U.S.—to enroll at Williams—she prayed from her airplane seat that the work she would do in college would make her mother proud. “As the child of a widowed woman, I saw how much she had to labor, how much she sacrificed, to get me to school and have food,” says Odhiambo. “And yet she always found a way to take care of my needs.”
That firsthand experience of widowhood informs her work now as the founder and director of Nyanam International, an organization that, according to its website, “prepares widows to lead positive social transformation in their communities.”
But widowhood was not on Odhiambo’s radar in college. She was here to study the life sciences and go on to become a doctor. Three things happened to change her course—and she’s never looked back.
The first was when Odhiambo enrolled in a history class called Movers and Shakers in the Middle East with Magnús Bernhardsson. “I realized history was more than just dates that had to be memorized, and I fell in love with it,” she says. The second is when she conducted health education research on the college’s Robert G. Wilmers Jr. 1990 Memorial Student Travel Abroad Fellowship. “I started to understand that health is not just a function of medical care but of socioeconomic status, social relationships and so much more.”
Odhiambo stepped away from the pre-med track and majored in international studies with a focus on global health. After graduation, she joined the Global Health Research Core at Harvard Medical School, where she supported research initiatives in Rwanda. She later earned a master’s degree in international public health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
The third thing that changed her course was a fundraiser held her sophomore year at Williams, called the Alternative Gift Fair. Students donated to various charitable causes and received a small gift in return. She and a group of friends organized a fundraiser to help start a primary school in Odhiambo’s home village in Kenya, and in exchange for their contributions, donors received crafts from the area.
The Mboto Sunrise Primary School wasn’t entirely funded through the Alternative Gift Fair, but funds from it sparked a larger movement. The school now serves more than 300 students in the Lake Victoria region of western Kenya. Odhiambo moved back home to see the project through and quickly realized another need in the community: access to clean water. She helped organize a community borehole that now serves 3,000 households and Mboto Sunrise.
“Throughout this engagement with the community, I saw how widows were mistreated,” Odhiambo says, describing one woman who lived alone and in poverty who was scapegoated when something went wrong with the borehole project. “She was vulnerable to that mistreatment because she was a widow, and people knew she couldn’t protect herself.”
Odhiambo describes some of the challenges widows face in rural Kenya. Property rights are traditionally held by men. When husbands die, their brothers or fathers inherit the land, not their wives. “Oftentimes, women maintain the land growing vegetables and keeping cattle, but their ownership would be disputed,” she says. Widows are often forced to marry their deceased husband’s relatives, and when that doesn’t happen, they’re seen as a threat. “They are thought of as people who are trying to steal other women’s husbands, or they’re perceived as helpless, people who are coming to beg, not to offer.”
Odhiambo knows just how much these women have to offer. Nyanam International (the name means “Daughter of the Lake”) provides widows in the Lake Victoria region with leadership education and personal and professional development. Founded in 2017, Nyanam has helped 148 widows begin micro-enterprises and small businesses and educated 30 widows about property rights, helping them reclaim what’s theirs. They have built a home for one widow whose safety was threatened, and nearly 1,000 children have benefitted from Nyanam youth camps and mentoring programs. Hundreds of widows gather for monthly meetings, providing them with a sense of community.
“The women we work with are able to tackle oppressive cultural, economic and social practices that undermine their dignity and limit their agency,” she says. When asked if she thinks her mother—who volunteers with Nyanam today—is proud of this work, Odhiambo smiles broadly and nods. “She recently told me she is so proud to be my mother,” Odhiambo says. “At that point, I felt I did it—I accomplished my goal.”
Visit Nyanam International to learn more.
Top: Jackline Odiambo ’13, seated at center, in the turquoise shirt, is the founder and director of Nyanam International.