Jane Ngoiri

Jane Ngoiri is featured in the second night of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.


Jane Ngoiri is a 38-year-old single mom who grew up in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, and dropped out of school after the eighth grade. She married at age 18, but when she was pregnant with her second child, her husband informally took a second wife and she was nudged out. Ngoiri soon found herself with small children, no home and no money.

To survive, she became a commercial sex worker for the next five years. It was a perilous existence in Mathare, a collection of dangerous slums in Nairobi. The area, a warren of winding, muddy alleys, is consumed by crime and despair.

Then in 1999, Ngoiri joined an antipoverty organization called Jamii Bora, which means “good families” in Swahili. In Jamii Bora, Ngoiri was pushed to save for the future, to lean forward. She learned to sew, left prostitution and used her savings and a small loan to buy a sewing machine. She began buying secondhand wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses for about $7 each and then cut them up to make two or three smaller dresses.

Her business flourished and she used the profits to buy a small home in a safe suburb and to keep her children in school. Her eldest daughter, Caroline, became the first child in the family to graduate from high school and is now taking computer classes. Her second child, Anthony, is ranked No. 1 in his class of 138 pupils at a good boarding school with much richer students. He says that when he gets his first paycheck, he’s going to buy something beautiful for his mom. Another child, Cynthia, a seventh grader, has just been chosen by teachers to become head girl of her school next year, a tribute to her grades and leadership. Ngoiri hopes to send Cynthia, who dreams of being a lawyer, to a good boarding school as well, but it’s difficult to see how she will pay all these tuition costs.

Ngoiri’s life reflects what mountains of data have shown: overcoming poverty is a tumultuous and uncertain task, but it can be done.