WAGOMA VILLAGE, Kenya – Roseline Orwa refuses to let her life be defined by pain, and she has endured more of it than most. At 42, she has been divorced and widowed, has survived cancer and has watched many of her family members die young.
But far from letting her challenges consume her, Orwa has become a mentor and an activist, taking in hundreds of orphans and using her experiences to serve as the voice of widows in Kenya.
“I discovered that my wounds were my gifts,” she says.
Born in the fishing village of Wagoma, on the shores of Lake Victoria, Orwa was lucky to be one of the few people from her village to earn a university degree. But at the age of 26, she had to escape an abusive marriage. After she decided to divorce her husband, both her house and her tailoring business were burned to the ground – police never found the perpetrator.
With her mother’s help, she was able to return her dowry to his family and start a new life. Orwa launched a printing business and entered into a second marriage, this time with a politician working closely with opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Only three years later, in the post-election violence that struck Kenya in 2008, her husband was poisoned in a suspected political assassination. She was left widowed at the age of 32.
“‘Promise me that you will make it for me and for you,’ he kept repeating to me from the hospital bed before he died,” she says of her husband’s final days.
At the age of 37, Orwa was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which has since gone into remission. As an educated, economically independent woman, Orwa wasn’t subjected to the type of stigma around divorces and widowhood that can devastate women’s lives. But she says her combined experiences of divorce, widowhood and illness opened her eyes to the challenges that many less fortunate women around her face every day.
When Orwa looked around her village in Siaya County, she saw a community devastated by HIV/AIDS. Few men in the lakeshore villages in the area live to see their 40s, and according to Kenyan custom, when a man dies, his brother or another male relative inherits his land. That often leaves his widow homeless and struggling to provide for her children.
“I helplessly watched with fear, grief and disbelief as my brothers, cousins and uncles died, leaving young widows and many orphans, uneducated, uncared for and alone to fight it in the world,” Orwa says.
She also saw women who had lost their husbands being subjected to the practice of “widow cleansing” – a ritual in which a widow is “cleansed of the death by having sex with a man in the community.” The act is usually consensual, but the custom can be one of the main drivers of high HIV rates.
The turning point came when her half-brother fell sick and became blind. His young wife couldn’t care for him and all eight of his children, so she gave one of their sons to a relative living on an island in the Ugandan part of Lake Victoria. Then one day, the family heard that the boy had been badly burned, so Orwa brought him back home.
“On his deathbed, [my half-brother] asked that no child ever be allowed to be taken away from the village. I remember his words like it was yesterday,” says Orwa.
In 2012, she founded the Rona Foundation – which stands for Relationships, Opportunities, Networking, Advocacy. Orwa sold her printing business to buy some land in her village and opened the Rona Center to support widows specifically in Wagoma Village, in some cases by building them new homes, and also rescue and educate local orphans.
Funded by public donations and partnerships with organizations such as the Modern Widows Club, the foundation provides widows in remote parts of the country with psycho-social and financial support, training and mentorship.
For widows in Siaya County, as well as places such as Kilifi and West-Pokot, Orwa runs programs that provide loss and grief counseling and teach entrepreneurship skills. Through the Rona Foundation’s advocacy program she pushed for a bill in the Kenyan Parliament to outlaw widow cleansing. The bill was passed in 2015.
The foundation is also trying to reintroduce farming to the area, by building new irrigation systems. Widows can then grow enough food for their families and sell the rest to help make an income.
“Since Rona started, my life has changed,” says Eunice, one of the widow leaders from Wagoma. “They built me a new house and my children are going to school because school fees are paid.” So far, the foundation has built around 50 houses for the widows in the community.
Orwa has also rescued and supported hundreds of orphans in Wagoma Village. Right now, 26 of them live at the Rona Center, which includes a nursery school, dormitory, dispensary and a farm.
Orwa says she sees the Rona Center as her legacy and the protection of Kenya’s widows and orphans as her mission.
“Our work is cut out for us to make dreams a reality for our children and the future generations,” she says. “The orphaned children that we support are the heart of our work. They will become the next changemakers.”