Professionally, Georgie Vander Werp Disselkoen ’74 still sees herself as a teacher. But responding to the circumstances of her life as a mother and wife, she’s become a businesswoman—twice. “I just did what worked for our family’s unique situation,” she said.
And what worked for Disselkoen has created good work for scores of Kenyans.
In the fall of 1991, Disselkoen was newly arrived in Nairobi. Her husband, Keith ’71, was the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee’s new country director in Kenya. “I’ll never forget the day we left our daughter and son at their day school,” Georgie recalled. “Keith went off to his exciting new job, and all of a sudden there I was, alone in this huge, completely strange city where I knew no one and had no car. What was I supposed to do?”
Disselkoen decided to throw herself into the study of Swahili, which, along with English, is Kenya’s language of trade. Six months into her study, Disselkoen’s instructor told her he suspected the language service he worked for was about to close. She wanted to help him in some way.
“Keith said, ‘Why don’t you start a business?’” Disselkoen laughed. “That wasn’t what I had in mind!”
Within a few months, Disselkoen and her instructor, joined by two other Kenyan language instructors, had formed Hekima Language Services. Hekima (pronounced “he-KEE-ma”) means wisdom or knowledge in Swahili. “We really didn’t know what we were doing,” Disselkoen said. “We were all teachers, not businesspeople.”
But they learned and the business grew—“and grew and grew,” Disselkoen said. Operating out of the Disselkoen family compound, Hekima at first taught Swahili to expatriates, then expanded to offer classes in Kenyan culture and English, too.
Five hundred students a year now take classes at Hekima Language Services, employing 15 staff in a country where unemployment is roughly 60 percent. With an eye to the long-term stability of their employment, in 1998 Disselkoen began to extricate herself from the role she had played from the beginning—that of business manager. “I still sit on the board of directors,” she said. “But I knew I wouldn’t be in Kenya permanently, and it was better if Kenyans took over my responsibilities.”
By that time, however, Disselkoen’s family situation drew her into another business. “Once the kids left Kenya for college, I had to find a way to get back to the States more often, to be with them,” she said.
She had always enjoyed going to the markets and often had artisans ask her to find sales outlets for their work. So she bought some earrings and necklaces, packed them in her suitcase, then sold them to small stores when she got to west Michigan.
“It was hard, because I’m not a saleswoman at all,” Disselkoen said. “But I got such a good reception. People asked for more. That allowed me to return to the U.S. more often to see my family.”
She now buys from 30 different artisans and small workshops. “They tell me they’re feeding their kids and keeping them in school and buying medicines because of this business,” Disselkoen said.
Her import/export business is now located in her home in Zeeland, Mich. Disselkoen moved there in 2005. By that time her children had settled in the United States, her parents were aging and Keith was working for U.S. AID in multiple countries.
Though she sometimes sees it as “a weakness,” Disselkoen has purposely kept the business small, manageable. “I’ve always operated my businesses at a level that allows me to be available to my family,” she said.
Contact Georgie Disselkoen about Hekima Language Services or her Kenyan handcrafts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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