by Megan Montgomery
Sometimes life takes you in places that you never expected but when you look back you can see how you were being prepared for it all along.
As the daughter of a wildlife researcher, Kemi Kalikawe was born in Tanzania and grew up in the game parks of Botswana. When her mother wasn’t studying wildlife, she made extra income by sewing clothes for people in the areas where they lived. Kemi learned how to sew by watching her mother and then she would borrow the sewing machine to make outfits for her Barbie dolls.
It wasn’t long before Kemi was accepted to an interior design program in England. While she had moved around a lot as a child, England was a bit of a culture shock for her. Not only did she have to learn to adjust to living in the city but she soon found out that the program was canceled due to lack of enrollment.
She had left everything behind and was now stuck in England, plus returning to Tanzania so soon was daunting. Kemi worked to make the most of her situation and enrolled in a marketing course instead. However, she soon realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do and transferred to an interior design program in Kenya as soon as she was able. As a university student, funds were tight, so, she asked her mom to send the sewing machine. Her mom sent the sewing machine on a bus and soon Kemi was figuring out how to make clothes for herself through trial and error. She also got involved in volunteering with a nearby orphanage and wanted to do something to help them. There was a fashion school next to the interior design program so she helped organize a fashion show to raise money for the orphanage.
“If you go somewhere, you want to always leave something behind and impact those people in the place that you are,” says Kemi. The impact of the fashion show was far-reaching and it not only helped the orphanage but also helped connect Kemi to the fashion world.
When Kemi returned to Tanzania, she started volunteering for the British Council leading their fashion section for arts program, called Words and Pictures (WaPi). Her job was to look for fashion talent and as she connected with different people across the industry, everyone kept complimenting her on the clothes she was wearing. They suggested that she start selling her work and that’s how her fashion design career started. She started mixing traditional dress with styles that she was exposed to abroad. Her clothes continued to grow in popularity and her reputation as a designer was spreading, as was her desire to give back to others.
Kemi noticed that many people who made clothes in the country would make similar designs since they had limited exposure to different styles, which limited the marketability of their clothing. She was grateful for some of the experiences she had as they had helped her to dream and think outside the box so she wanted to help others learn how to be creative in their designs and also increase the quality of their clothing. Kemi opened a fashion school in 2011 and put everything she had earned into it.
“When you see something that needs to be done, you need to act,” Kemi says. When she started running out of money to pay the teachers at the school, Kemi began to teach all of the classes herself and eventually had to close the school once all of the money ran out. “It was worth it,” she says. “ The students had learned a lot and I learned quite a bit in the process as well.” She returned to designing but the burden was still there.
Things continued to take off in her fashion career and in 2017, at the Swahili Fashion Awards for designers across Africa, Kemi was awarded the Innovative Designer of the Year award. She also was selected for several programs where she got to travel to different fashion hubs around the world such as New York and showcase her brand in fashion shows in multiple nations. She felt blessed by the opportunities but also felt that she had a responsibility to use her skills and knowledge to help others in her country. She opened up the Naledi Dream Center in 2019 for aspiring fashion designers and investing in empowering others to pursue their dreams.
Kemi believes it’s important to be a good steward of everything you have – be a good neighbor, be a good friend, and be intentional in every conversation. Her relationship with her students goes beyond being a teacher – she tries to really walk through life with them and be there for them.
Kemi credits her faith in God in giving her the courage to step out. “The only difference between me and someone else, is that I said yes,” she says. “Sometimes I feel that Christians can sometimes use prayer as an excuse to procrastinate. While it’s important to pray, sometimes you just need to step out in faith with the gifts God has given you. You can’t always wait for all the provision before you step out and God’s not always going to show you a five-year plan. Sometimes you need to just take steps of faith.”
Kemi has big dreams to continue to impact her nation and beyond but is taking it one day at a time, being faithful with everything she has been given and with a heart full of gratitude.