11 years ago, at the young age of 26, Evelyn Munisi lost her husband. The grief that followed was devastating in many forms.
Life had taken a different turn - a turn for the worse and as she says nothing made sense to her at that point.
She had three children aged between six and two, and was also two months pregnant. The devastating grief was a blow that she has struggled to come to terms with to date.
“Everything changes after the loss of a spouse or partner. This was the person I spent most of my time with. This is who I made plans with…the one who shared my worries. Every part of my past, present, and future revolved around this person, and to be without him is harder, sadder, and lonelier,” she says.
She adds, “Not only is it harder than I could have thought; the people we spend time with in most cases don’t always seem to recognise the depth and duration of this loss.”
With three children to feed and another on the way, her in-laws, who were at one point very close to the family abandoned her and she never heard from them.
Left with no choice she had to seek help from her parents who were retirees already with not much income at their disposal.
“My husband left me penniless and stranded,” says Evelyn.
Just like many widows admit, this was her most vulnerable time; she had to make choices that could have an enduring impact on her wellbeing and that of her children.
“It was not until one year later when my brother came to the rescue with some small capital that helped me to start a poultry project,” she says.
She learnt the lessons of being a widow the hard way, and as they say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
Today she is stronger and empowered; the frailties that she faced in the early days after that tragic loss have turned her into a hardworking woman who is helping other women [widows] achieve their dreams.
“Back then I could not imagine doing anything on my own but the years have made me grow and now I can stand on my own feet,” says Evelyn.
In 2015, she completed the registration of her foundation, Evelyn Munisi Foundation (EMF), which is based in Dar es Salaam with the objective of empowering widows.
“EMF deals with different aspects including empowering widows and orphans, we also sensitise the youth on the different economic opportunities that are available in the country,” says Evelyn.
The EMF has over 1500 widows who are registered and who meet regularly to discuss on some of the issues affecting them including learning about entrepreneurial skills.
“We have members from across the country whom we engage and share ideas on how to break even,” says Evelyn.
The decision to start the foundation was laid on personal experiences and she realised that just like in her case several widows often go through similar experiences in Tanzania today.
“At that moment the world comes to a standstill and like I said, nothing makes sense. Usually in our communities this is the time when one is most vulnerable because there is plenty of advise, most of it in many cases, bad,” she says.
According to her, some [widows] even lose the little property that they are left with due to primitive customs that don’t regard women as custodians of properties after the death of their husband.
“I decided to set up this foundation and start straight with the widows after seeing the challenges they face, especially young widows,” she says
She adds, “I have encountered many widows who’ve been through different adversities, often humiliated, abused, disgraced and rejected or completely excluded.”
She further speaks, “After I had dusted myself I realised that it was time to gather fellow widows and begin to educate them about their rights and give them knowledge about entrepreneurship and empower them so that they can stand on their own.”
Her first step was to set up a Facebook page where she would post regularly on some of the critical issues that affected their livelihood.
“One of the issues that I tried to put forward was the fact that despite being bereaved they are still the family head, therefore with a great responsibility maintaining the family values which include eradicating poverty because no one was going to do it for them,” says Evelyn.
She believes that in order to drive the point home, young girls have to be taught at an early age certain basic entrepreneurial skills that make them competitive in their later lives.
“The foundation now runs an initiative which has been christened Elimisha binti okoa jamii (Educate a girl, rescue society), where the girls are taught to see themselves as better people and build confidence in everything that they do,” says the mother of four.
Through the foundation, Evelyn has started an industrialisation initiative calling on women to start up small scale industries of their own.
“The tag line out there is that of industrialisation and we don’t want to be left out in any way and so far all has gone well because we have received maximum cooperation from the relevant authorities such as Tanzania Bureau of Standards (TBS), Small Industries Development Organisation (SIDO) and Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority (TFDA),” she says.
Through the help of these institutions, the women groups have started producing goods which are of the required standards as prescribed by the relevant authorities.
Sakina Mohammed, Aisha Kimaya and Jane John are all widows who are registered with the foundation and they have glowing testimonies on how their families took a turn for the better.
Jane John is now involved in making petroleum jelly after the skills she received during the training sessions. Apart from that she also makes detergents and lip shine.
“I was on the brink of despair when I first met Evelyn, everything around me was falling apart and nothing made sense to me no more but now I’m optimistic about the future. I have learnt there is always a new beginning,” says Jane.
Sakina Mohammed on the other hand has a variety of things that she is putting her hands onto, such as making and selling of chili sauce.
Her testimony isn’t different from that of Jane, she is glad that she can now pay her children’s school fees and take care of their daily needs.
“It is very important to meet their needs because when they smile it feeds me with great joy for they are is all I have,” says Sakina.
Aisha Kimaya on the other hand cans ginger and garlic and she says her products are unique because of the training that she received at the foundation.
“Though I continue to learn, branding and packaging are key features that one cannot do without in the market place. I learnt all these at the foundation,” says Aisha.
“Our campaign continues to be very effective because women are able to increase their income and they hope to reach their dreams and change their lives and that of their families,” adds Evelyn.
Some of the women are in agriculture, others in poultry whereas others are in small scale manufacturing.
Such endeavours have not been without challenges, but Evelyn believes it is just part of the growth process that every institution that tries to challenge the status quo has to go through.
“The determination and the positive energy that I see among these women tell me something about unity and the strength that comes with it. We have challenges but that was well anticipated because we never expected it to be a walk in the park whatsoever,” she says.