She chooses to abandon comfort and business to work with those with disabilities, unhappy with their begging mission as a way of earning a living.
Despite the struggles of life and her disability, the self-made small scale tailoring college proprietor Sophie Burns Chokwe, is today a member of the Kilifi County Assembly courtesy of nomination.
While she is now a politician Chokwe has been a tailor, a choice she found herself into by default as she lacked something better to occupy herself with after her father refused to hand over her employment letter from Prisons Department.
Chokwe’s father felt that given her physical challenge, it was not appropriate for her to relocate to Nairobi. It is through this action that she decided to make a life out for herself through tailoring.
During her childhood, Chokwe recalls being treated like a stranger at her village school attracting glances and weird comments about her condition just because she had a physical disability.
“I started primary school at the age of 10 due to an early childhood of ailments as a result of a bout of polio which nearly rendered both my legs useless,” explains Chokwe.
However, her nomination as a member of the Kilifi County Assembly has sparked an outpouring of emotional appreciation from people from all walks of life.
Most of the people, who commented on her nomination noted her choice as perhaps one of the fairest at the County level and across the Coast region. They felt that it was a successful embracement of those with disabilities and a show of respect to the gender balance rule as stipulated in the constitution.
However, even with that, Chokwe is widely recognised as being full of willpower and resilience having frequently struggled to succeed in various spheres of life against many odds.
“I have helped mobilise the physically challenged into forming a selfhelp group and starting an open air centre as a workshop for handmade items for sale,” she discloses.
To date she has remained the unifying factor for the Haki Disabled Self-Help Group, even when the group got into problems.
However, after struggling for years to seek the recognition of the physically handicapped and especially women against the many traditional and cultural norms that deter them from promotion, a number of women have managed to rise.
Even after being nominated into the assembly, she has not abandoned her mission to see to it those with disabilities work under a conducive environment and also help them start income generating projects for selfsustenance.
When the Kenyan Woman visited Chokwe, she was busy inspecting bead decorated baskets and leather sandals to satisfy an order secured in Mombasa while doing final touches on various mats and leather sandals.
Chokwe was born on October 15, 1957 within a family of 15 children. Unlike in other families where polio stricken children would be abandoned to diein secrecy, she confesses happily that her parents took great care supporting her drive to grow up as a normal child.
“The start of my schooling was delayed for long and after I underwent several surgical operations at the King George National Hospital among other health facilities in Nairobi and Mombasa,” explains Chokwe. She adds: “I finally started class one at Mary Cliff Chunda Primary School in Mombasa.”
Chokwe remained at Chunda until Standard Four when she was transferred to join Standard Five at Malindi Primary School where she completed her primary education in 1973.
Although her grades were not good, her parents encouraged her to repeat and make an attempt at better grades. After a second attempt in Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) examinations, Chokwe joined Form One at the Mau Mau Secondary School in Hola town, Tana River District.
After studying between 1980-1981, Chokwe could not attain good grades as she scored a Division Four with 42 points which she and her parents were dissatisfied with.
With the support of her parents and especially her mother, Chokwe felt that she still had the drive to achieve her best academically and she easily accepted to go back to school and successfully secured a place at Ribe High School, this time right from Form Three.
Chokwe recalls that although she had great interest in handwork and had shown skill in making handmade items, most attractive and marketable at primary school, she lacked passion for tailoring and dress making, a course her parents and teachers wanted her to take up as a career.
Chokwe admits that although she had always been strong hearted, the only moment she nearly collapsed with depression was when her dad hid her letter of employment as an assistant at the children’s prison in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
She is not bitter over her father’s action but still insists that, despite being sympathetic, perhaps her father should have been empathetic and encouraged her to gain self-confidence as a woman instead of holding the strong position that it was not secure for her to work in the civil service.
“On realizing my disappointment, my father made attempts to console and he bought me a Kanga with the inscription “Kukutoa Moyoni Siwezo” (I cannot remove your from my heart) as a gift to soften her,” she says.
Out of bitterness, she never worn the dress and instead gave it away in a bid to ensure that she forgot the incident.
Although she cherished good education which would have helped her secure employment in many places, her disability ruled her out from many employers.
Chokwe joined Bura Rehabilitation Centre in 1984 for two years where she trained in dress making. Armed with her new skill, she returned to her Kisumu Ndogo home in Malindi determined to do her best.
She launched an outfit at building near her home after her parents assisted her secure space and textile materials. She had a sewing machine donated to her from college.
She progressed and managed to acquire additional new machines and apart from tailoring contracts, she also ventured into offering training to a cross section of people mainly young and mature women.
“The fee per trainee per month was then a mere KSh40 per month, but it was good income and I managed to expand and gain popularity among many young women and especially female school drop-outs seeking some skills in training,” she explains.
With success and comfort, Chokwe now felt she needed to conquer another hurdle in life and that is to settle down into marriage and start a family.
Against her father’s wishes, she got married to her friend of many years Jacob Tsofa, an hotelier in 1992.
She attributes her success to her mother’s determination to see her grow like any other child who actively participates in household chores.
This article was originally published in the Kenyan Woman newspaper, Issue 42