There’s apparently a proverb that says you can’t wash the dust of Africa off your feet. Looking at my laptop, I realise just how dusty a place Kenya is in October. My camera, my phone, my clothes, my shoes – everything seems to have developed a layer of grime that’s gradually getting permanently worn in.
Nairobi has certainly played its part in this, but it’s on the trips into the ‘field’, trundling along endless, rural dirt roads to meet Kiva borrowers, where I’ve really picked it up. Just like in Zimbabwe, though, any such minor discomforts are quickly forgotten when I get the enormous privilege of coming into these local communities, meeting the individuals who have taken out Kiva loans, and getting to visit the businesses they’ve been able to establish.
I’ve been guided each time by the local staff from Hand in Hand Eastern Africa, the partner organisation that Kiva is working with here in Kenya. The interesting aspect of how HiH operate is that they invest in an upfront 6 month training programme for potential borrowers, establishing strong community groups and teaching core financial and business skills before providing any loans.
I’ve had the chance to sit in on some of these group training sessions, and saw first hand the commitment and skills of the HiH field officers. They work patiently with marginalised communities, who often have low levels of literacy (certainly minimal business and financial literacy), to gradually build individuals’ confidence and give them invaluable, practical skills from which they can build a future. It was evident how strong a bond they had formed with the groups.
And I’ve now been able also to see just how superbly effective the whole approach is. Time after time, I’ve listened to women (sometimes men), explain to me the range of small enterprises they’ve established, the transformational impact the profits from these have had on their own and their families’ lives, and the ambitious plans they have for the future. I’ve had women of all ages (including energetic farmers in their 70s!), explain to me in detail the mechanics of the local market, how they can best capture part of the value chain, and how they’ve diversified to minimise risk.
These are savvy businesswomen, and it’s hard to believe that 6 months ago they were, in their own words, at a loss for something to do, financially illiterate and wholly dependent on their husbands’ meagre incomes. Now I could see flourishing businesses, zero delinquencies or defaults, food security, children being able to attend school and countless stories of lives fundamentally transformed.
Not only that, I listened often to how the strong group structure had provided a psychological support network when an individual was going through illness, financial difficulties or other tough times.
By way of example, I’ve added a few pictures and brief stories from some of the borrowers I’ve met so far. The beautiful smiles you see weren’t just for the camera. Like in Zimbabwe, I’ve constantly been warmly welcomed into homes, introduced to families and treated to delicious meals. However little the family may sometimes have financially, there’s a rich tradition of warmth and hospitality.
Next time I write, chances are I’ll have swapped all the dust for mud (if word on the street is to be believed, the rains are on their way: normally they are ‘short’, but talk this year is all about El Niño). But like I said, it’s most certainly worth it.
And besides, in a way I quite like the fact I’ve got some ingrained Kenyan soil sticking with me wherever I go. As the proverb suggests, maybe it’s a little symbol of how these amazing, inspiring people, and this exciting, dynamic continent have got under my skin in an even deeper way.