World-class fashion in the heart of Kakuma Refugee Camp
Samir Maombi is a symbol of resilience and triumph. Leaving his war-torn homeland behind, he embarked on a treacherous journey, seeking refuge and safety in a foreign land. In the face of adversity, he refused to surrender to despair. Instead, he channelled his energy into skill development defying expectations and empowering his community. He reminds us that regardless of our circumstances, we can rise above adversity and shape our destinies.
A scene of a plethora of exhibitions from different creatives welcomes me to Nairobi Design Week. This is taking place at Opportunity Factory in Karen, Nairobi Kenya. From fashion to architecture, furniture to interiors, the week-long event has brought together some of the most inspiring and cutting-edge design professionals from around the world.
Started in 2015, Nairobi Design is a community-driven event that showcases Kenyan artists and designers’ creativity and ingenuity across different mediums. As I view the work of different creatives and innovators from one exhibition booth to another, I meet Samir Maombi, a 27-year-old fashion designer and founder of Kolakisa. It is a fashion brand specializing in designing both men’s and women’s wear. He uses kitenge and cotton to produce tailor-made quality clothes for a variety of clientele. He displays exceptional outfits that give one an unconventional experience. “I am a fashion enthusiast who loves design. Being here today among some of Kenya’s brightest, most promising and most creative individuals is quite fulfilling. I never thought I would be in such a space some years back.” Our conversation begins as he takes me through his collections.
Samir is Congolese by birth and resided with his family in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unfortunately, 2011 post-election violence rendered him homeless. “Growing up in Goma, life was not easy,” he recalls. “My dad died when I was seven years old leaving us under my mum’s care. I am the firstborn in a family of three. My mum struggled to raise us. She was a tailor but never earned much. The struggles in day-to-day life forced me to withdraw from class 5 because of hardship. Spending more time with my mother made me curious about sewing and that is how my desire to learn started.”
Life was tough for Samir and his family. But never in his wildest dreams did he imagine it would make him lose everything in the twinkle of an eye. The relentless thirst for war in Congo has left many, like Samir with scars and wounds past and present. “When the war began, there was tension. Armed people broke into our house in the middle of the night. My mother sneaked us through the window in the dark and we ran into the unknown. We spent the cold night in the streets and when morning came, we returned home only to find Mum had been killed. In a state of tension and confusion, everyone took to their heels to find safety, unable to wait for death to find them. By moving in different directions, I lost my siblings too.”
Samir found himself in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, bordering the Eastern Congo. “I stayed in Kampala for a year before I learned about the Kakuma Refugee Camp. I was doing minion jobs in some hotel when I met an old man customer who frequented that and we became close. He was fabric trading in Kenya at the time. I shared with him my predicament and he helped me get to Kakuma.”
Traversing a long and difficult journey to heal and grow, Samir came to Kakuma refugee camp fleeing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013. He was 17 at the time.
The refugee camp at Kakuma on the Kenya-Sudan border remains a constant reminder of the colossal cost of conflicts that have rocked most countries in Africa. It houses more than 170,000 multi-ethnic refugees.
“All my dreams were forgotten. Relying on relief food and sleeping in tents felt like death. Life’s pinch was too much. With my limited tailoring skills, I looked for a job, where I assisted with school uniforms. The pay was small, KES.3000 per month. I did this for a year as I served and secured a sewing machine.” This is how Samir’s journey into the fashion industry began.
KALOKISA Fashion Brand
Borrowing ideas from the multicultural community, Samir has established a fashion brand in Kakuma like no other. “My inspiration comes from the different cultures I see here. I began by modifying second-hand clothes with a touch of Kitenge. They sold like hotcakes. My breakthrough came during the 2017 Kakuma Talent Search. I registered out of curiosity and showcased my designs. It was beyond belief when I was announced as the winner.
Since then, Samir has graced many fashion events both local and international. He founded the Kalokisa fashion brand which works with local tailors. It gives back to the community by training vulnerable refugees and high school drop-outs who use these skills to attain financial independence. “Kakuma has become my second home. I have been here for ten years now. All the mothers I see here remind me of mine. Recently, I began working with single mothers to empower them financially. I do this as a constant reminder of what my mother means to me. My dream is to have a big fashion and design training centre for single mothers in Kakuma,” he says with optimism.
KALOKISA fashion brand made it to Fashion Scout, an award-winning international consultancy and platform. It is renowned for empowering and showcasing the future of fashion and scouts the world for pioneering talent. Its showcase events at London and Paris Fashion Weeks have presented over 1,000 designers to international media, buyers and influencers.
As a household name, Samir has reconnected with his siblings through social media. They live in Malawi and he has supported them since. According to him, being a refugee is a status and does not limit one from exploring their full potential.
Very inspiring. A Social Entrepreneur empowering the vulnerable at Kakuma refugee camp. We rise by lifting others.
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