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/ Founder of Merry-Go-Strong



Aniceta Kiriga and Lesley Sager

MGS Role

As the founder of MGS, Lesley oversees all projects related to MGS. She manages the purchasing and selling of the baskets, as well as providing supplies needed to support the women. These supplies range from crochet needles to solar lamps to water tanks and food. Lesley also handles all sales and marketing within the U.S. 

Personal Statement

I considered my first visit to Kenya to be one of discovery. I was deeply interested in learning about the people of Kenya. During this 2013 trip to Kenya, I was able to visit Gatunga, a small village in Tharaka Nithi County. It was in Gatunga that I met Aniceta Kiriga, the founder of the Tharaka Women’s Welfare Program (TWWP) and the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP). In 1995 she learned that 99.5% of the girls in her county go through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). When a neighbor came asking for a wheelbarrow to carry her dying daughter to the clinic after she underwent FGM, Aniceta had had enough. She gathered like-minded mothers of girls who were at the age to go through FGM and suggested an alternative rite of passage. In 1996, 29 girls attended the first ARP, and the TWWP was born. Currently, up to 250 girls attend the ARP each year.

I had the good fortune of meeting eighty of these girls. I asked them what they wanted to be and was impressed by their aspirations. Many wanted to be nurses, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. I also asked the girls what kinds of things they and their mothers made, since I was interested in learning about their traditional crafts. This question was greeted with silence. After all, who has time for making things when they are busy farming, fetching water, attending school, or raising children?  If they do have the time, they certainly do not have the resources for the materials, since the average family earns $24 a month.

At the same time, I also learned that most of the girls will not make it to high school due to lack of school fees and will marry early and remain in poverty.  It seemed to me that there could be other income-generating options for the girls and their families that they could be passionate about.  Perhaps they simply need the resources to learn new skills or to value traditional skills.  Perhaps they needed a learning center and maker space?

During the winter of 2015, I traveled there with seven passionate students, from UW Madison, ready to test several of the ideas that the students had come up with. Of the most successful were, creating biomass briquettes out of farm waste, ways to promote their traditional baskets (Kiondo or Viondo for more than one), and ways to extract oil from local plants.

While many big ideas are still brewing, without a doubt, basket-making has been the most successful. Aniceta and I have identified forty-nine women willing and able to produce bags (Viondos). We provided them with the supplies to get started, however, it became immediately evident that while the interest was there, the time was not. These women are farmers. They spend their days farming, fetching water, and cooking. It takes them a month to make one bag because, by the time they can sit down, it is dark. They need light! Winter of 2016, UW-Madison students developed a low-cost way to produce solar-powered lamps which were successfully tested in Kenya. 

Because I believe in building strong relationships, in the value of good design, and in the importance of expanding opportunities for all, this story doesn’t end here, it will continue for many years to come. For example, the current project involves the design of a center called Kumbana Marketspace


Thank you for reading. Now let’s go and design.

Education &

Professional career

I took the long way to find my true passion. 

My educational journey from photography to social work, to interior design, has shaped who I am as a person and a teacher.  I am passionate about design and how powerful the design process can be to help change how we live.  As a teacher, I love watching and guiding the students on their path to becoming inspired, innovative designers to make the world a better place to live.  I am honored to be able to provide students with design opportunities both large and small.  They get to design everything from light fixtures, to furniture, to homes, to offices, to a women’s maker studio in Kenya! I believe that education is a powerful toolbox that can open up many doors, but passion, motivation, and perseverance are the tools to get you to where you need to be. 

One might wonder how an undergraduate degree in Social Work and a Master’s degree in Interior Design might relate to each other. I say perfectly. Both can change people’s lives. Both impact our mental and physical health. Both have molded how I teach, what I hope students learn, and my strong belief that design can empower people to change their lives.



3562 Tally Ho Lane, 

Madison, WI 53705

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