February 23, 2010

Joanne arrives at 2pm to take me from KADET’s head office to the Kibera slums, where a large portion of her borrower portfolio resides.  This is the only borrower visit that I specifically requested and for which I had to convince the protective KADET staff that I could handle. Hilda, Alice, Makanga, Joshua and Machira (most of the Operations Department at head office) finally acquiesced– on the condition that I go under the careful supervision of a special credit officer, Joanne, who also happens to be Machira’s wife. (I am constantly grateful for the extent to which KADET’s staff looks out for me. Their insight, guidance and invitations to experience Kenyan life with them make me feel like a member of their family.)

With one final promise to be careful, I tuck my money into my bra (I’m told not to carry a bag with me) and Joanne and I wave goodbye. We descend the three flights of steps and exit the building to the street outside. We walk up a hill, past the Kenyan Ministry of Health, to the nearest matatu stand. I can feel my skin burning under the intense glare of the Kenyan sun. Joanne uses a handkerchief to wipe at the moisture gathering on her forehead. Within five minutes, however, a #33 matatu pulls up and Joanne tells me it’s one of the many making their way to Kibera.

We climb in. This matatu has blue and pink seats, an orange and white vinyl ceiling and photos of Rihanna, Chris Brown and Destiny’s Child plastered to its windows. We take our seats in the third row. As we gain speed down the busy Nairobi streets, the driver increases the volume of the car’s speakers and the R&B music blasting overpowers  Joanne’s and my ability to converse with one another.

The ride isn’t long. Kibera is located less than three miles southwest of Nairobi’s Central Business District. It is just 2.5 square kilometers, accounting for less than 1% of Nairobi’s total area, yet holds more than 25% of its population. Estimates of the population vary due to the difficulties of collecting accurate statistics in shanty towns, but most think that over 1.5 million individuals reside in the slums of Kibera. The population density is said to be 30 times that of New York City, and Kibera does not have multi-level housing. This makes Kibera Africa’s largest slum, second in size only to Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Kibera, which is derived from the Nubian word kibra meaning forest, is a sprawling urban jungle of shanty town housing. The neighborhood was thrust into the Western imagination when it was featured prominently in The Constant Gardener, a film based on the book by John le Carré.

The British established Kibera as a Nubian soldier’s settlement in a forest outside Nairobi in 1918, allocating plots to soldiers as a reward for service in WWI. At the time, the British colonial government also felt indebted to the Nubians (Sudanese Muslims) because of their former status as servants of the British crown, and therefore permitted the settlement to grow informally. After Kenyan independence in 1963, the government rendered housing in Kibera illegal on the basis of land tenure. But, this new legislation inadvertently allowed Nubians to rent out their property to a significantly greater number of tenants than legally permitted.  Kibera’s tenants are highly impoverished and are unable to afford legal rental housing. Joanne told me that a typical family home, a one room earthen house with a corrugated tin roof, no water or electricity, is rented for about 700 Kenya Shillings a month (~$9). On average, more than seven individuals reside in such a home. The number of Kibera residents therefore has increased accordingly despite its unauthorized nature.

An emaciated dog saunters by near one of Kibera's main entrances

The Kenyan government still technically owns all the land upon which Kibera stands. The government’s official stance is not to acknowledge the settlement. Its map of Nairobi still depicts the vast slum as a wooded forest. No basic services are provided; schools, clinics, and other services that do exist are all privately owned. The Kenyan government has the perfect excuse for not providing such services – after all, the slum is illegal.

Like Mathare (Nairobi’s second largest slum, which I described in an earlier blog post),  Kibera is a microcosm of many of the world’s most vexing issues: poverty, poor healthcare, high transmission of HIV infection, lack of women’s rights, ethnic conflict between tribes, severe food shortage, little or no access to electricity, clean water, and sewage disposal.

A song about President Barack Obama sends vibrations through the matatu, and as I’m thinking about its lyrics –Obama will save Africa– Joanne pats my arm and motions to the door. We’ve arrived. I step out of the vehicle and am hit with the smells of fried food mixed with diesel, pollution and human waste. Next I take in the sounds around me: the blasts of honking matatus and their conductors calling to prospective passengers, a man honing knives on a foot-pedal powered sharpener, children giggling as they kick around an empty soda can, and the shouts of people selling their wares. To my left, a woman sits with a wooden board covered in illegal DVDs imported from China and used books. I glance at the titles: Junior Mathematics, Primary English, Arts and Crafts for Kids. The cover of this last title depicts four Caucasian children building a home from popsicle sticks. It seems unlikely that the little money these individuals have will be spent purchasing a book whose cover boasts a toy house much bigger than any that exists in Kibera. Which Kibera child has the luxury of using markers, glue, and pipe cleaners to create for the sake of creating?

Knowledge of the intricacies of Kibera’s endless trenches, alleyways and open sewers seems a privilege accessible only to those that live in the slum. Even Joanne relies on her borrowers to greet her on the outskirts and navigate the confusing twists and turns to their business sites. As we wait for our first borrower to find us, I continue to absorb the busy scene surrounding me. An elderly woman sells bunches of kale from the top of a pile of rubber tread stripped from old tires. Vegetable stands add splashes of bright yellows, reds and oranges to the dusty air and rusted tin rooftops. Used clothing is spread out on dozens of blankets and their owners call to passerbys to purchase an additional skirt or pair of shoes. Slabs of deep red meat hang from the ceiling of tin kiosks, pools of blood gathering underneath. Heaps of black charcoal are sold in large tin paint cans. Women braid one another’s hair and paint each others’ nails with pink polish underneath a wooden sign that reads Mary’s Salon.

Joanne turns to her right and shakes hands with a woman wearing a sleeveless brown, green and yellow top. Ruffles adorn the edges and her long navy skirt reaches down to her ankles. I introduce myself to our borrower, Margaret Kaloki, in Kiswahili. She speaks no English.

With Margaret leading the way, we head towards her shop. One alley turns into another and then another and another. The route is extensive, a seemingly endless marketplace filled with the sounds of giggling children and bustling business. Goods are sold everywhere: sacks of lentils, beans and maize serve as roadblocks, their owners requiring a brief stop to pause and perhaps purchase some for dinner. A crowd gathers in front of a video-cinema shop, where a small television displays the latest Nigerian drama. Hundreds of structures comprised of cow-dung walls with corrugated tin roofs lie in every direction. Thick mud coats the road, a result of the recent rain, and I stop several times to tug my feet free from its sticky grips. A railway line (heading to Kisumu) intersects Kibera and the tracks serve as a main thoroughfare. Hundreds of individuals sell basic provisions along the tracks. I’m told when a train comes, everyone grabs their goods and jumps out of the way.

Finally, we step off the loud, crazy street and cross over a bridge that leads directly to Margaret’s shop.

Kibera's landfill takes the form of a stream running through the slum

Under the bridge, a muddy  trash filled river slowly meanders towards the center of the slum. I hear pigs snorting and realize there are several walking through the shallow stream. Discarded plastic bags and old banana peels hang from their mouths. I’m told these pigs will be slaughtered and eaten in the near future. A man unzips his pants and relieves himself to my left, completely ignoring my presence. A crowd of children is following me, calling out “Mzungu, Mzungu, how are you!”

Margaret smiles with pride as we step up to her shop. She motions for us to sit down on two overturned buckets. Her shop is made from wooden poles and a burlap ceiling, its back rests against the mud wall of someone else’s home. A long table holds her wares: charcoal, bananas, oranges, eggs and matches. During the week she also makes githeri (made from beans, maize and onions) to sell to casual workers. I lean back against the mud wall and it crumbles. I immediately sit up as not to disturb the wet clay again.

The interview is conducted in Kiswahili and Joanne translates for me. Margaret started her business in 2006 and selected these items to sell because she anticipated they would have the quickest turnover, therefore providing her with a continuous cash flow. Three years later, she still isn’t able to hold on to her merchandise for long. Although many borrowers I meet have several sources of income, this is Margaret’s only business. She is taking out her first loan, worth 20,000 Kenya Shillings (~$260), in order to add to her stock of charcoal, fruit and eggs. With the anticipated extra profits, Margaret wants to include kerosene in her customer offerings. “There is high demand for kerosene,” she tells Joanne in Kiswahili, “many people use kerosene to heat their stoves and do their cooking.”

Margaret and her shop

Margaret is married with three children who are 8, 16 and 19 years old. None of her children were born in a hospital or with the assistance of a medical professional. Her husband is “a handyman that mtu wa mjengo builder pays on a daily basis.” In addition to her own three children, Margaret tells us that she cares for four orphans. Later in the conversation we learn that these orphans are in fact her husband’s children from his previous marriage. Their mother died from a health issue that Margaret doesn’t want to discuss, and now Margaret pays for their schooling from the profits from this business.

I ask Margaret why she moved to Kibera. She tells me she lived upcountry in a small village and moved to Kibera 12 years ago in order to earn a living. I ask if moving here met her expectations. She laughs, a great deep belly laugh. “I miss my family upcountry. I miss the life there,” she says.

A small crowd has gathered as we conduct Margaret’s interview and photograph her business. The woman whose kiosk lies directly opposite from Margaret’s on the narrow street, however, completely ignores our presence. She is digging through thick waste with a shovel to create a passageway for stagnant sewage to continue flowing towards the stream under the bridge.

The woman whose shop is across the narrow street from Margaret's sells almost the exact same items. I purchased bananas from both of them.

We wrap up the interview and Margaret guides us back to the main area, where we were dropped off by the matatu. Joanne makes a series of phone calls and then tells me we are going to go back to head office. Our other borrowers are busy with customers and Joanne is unable to find their businesses without their help. Directions are impossible; there is no such thing as a map for Kibera.

Concluding Thoughts –

The residents of Kibera face deep challenges. Up to 20% suffer from HIV/AIDS,  four out of five individuals are unemployed, and a violent history of bloody ethnic and religious conflict continues to plague Kibera’s population. In each case of collective violence in Kibera, the combatants are predominantly unemployed youth between the ages of 16-30 years old. Education is a luxury afforded to less than 40% of Kibera’s youth, and even the most promising lack opportunities to receive a decent education and live healthy lives.

Arriving back at head office, I step off the elevator on KADET’s floor to the reliable smile and warm greeting from Joash, KADET’s security guard. “Hello Madame,” he says, “How are you this afternoon?” I tell him that I just visited his neighborhood. We chat for awhile before I head inside.

Kibera is filled with insightful, hard working individuals like Margaret and Joash. I am confident that armed with the right resources, Kibera residents can increase the chance for a better life for themselves and their neighbors.


Livin’ La Vida Mocha

November 12, 2009

Twelve hours after posting my Kenyan tea blog, I drove the 30 minute distance from Nairobi to the suburb of Kiambu to conduct a Kiva training for credit officers. As we passed fields of squat green trees growing in hundreds of straight lines, I noticed flashes of bright colored fabric peeking through the thin branches. “That is coffee,” Sam (KADET’s driver) told me, “and those are women picking the coffee fruit for harvest.”

Woman picking coffee fruit

A field worker picking coffee cherries in Kiambu

Sam was kind enough to stop the car so I could get out and take a closer look. I have never seen coffee plants before and had no idea that the crimson and yellow berries covering the bark could somehow be transformed into the rich black liquid that provides me with my morning energy. I worked my way around the barbed wire fence surrounding the edge of the coffee trees and found several women staggered throughout the field’s neat rows, a tin paint can slung over each of their shoulders. Mesmerized, I watched as the women gently wriggled the fruit free, careful not to bruise the skin, and placed the detached cherries in the bucket resting at their hips.

Fruit on the coffee tree

Fruit on the coffee tree

bucket of coffee fruit

One of the field worker's collected coffee fruit

Although I have read that coffee is a major crop in Kenya, I have yet to see a non-American or Canadian drink it. In fact, the coffee that KADET keeps on its beverage cart is actually a small Nescafé tin of instant coffee complete with a “Made in Tanzania” label on the back.

A quick Google search revealed that despite its proximity to Ethiopia (believed to be the region from which coffee originated), coffee was not cultivated in Kenya until 1893. Each year, coffee is harvested during the dry season, when the coffee cherries are bright red, firm and glossy. About 50,000 tons of coffee is produced in a given year and is traded weekly at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. This practice has apparently generated fierce price wars for the best coffee crops.

Me in the coffee field

Standing in a Kiambu coffee field

On another note, after getting back into the car and re-entering the unruly chaos of Nairobi traffic, an especially crazy matatu driver pulled out in front of our KADET van. Sam swerved, avoiding an accident, and I laughed as I saw the decaled image pasted on this specific matatu.

duke 2

Matatu, featuring the Duke Blue Devil. More common decals found are images of Barack Obama, Rihanna, Kanye, and several other rap stars that I cannot identify

Four Cups of Tea (everyday in Kenya)

November 10, 2009

I was told to arrive at 10am on my first day of work. As I neared the top of the third flight of stairs, a large green and white sign reading “KADET, Ltd.” came into view. I readjusted my skirt, paused to catch my breath, and walked through the door.

After introducing myself to the receptionist, I took a seat in one of the dark cloth chairs assembled around a table filled with newspapers in the waiting room. A few minutes later Alice, the Kiva Coordinator, came out and greeted me with a big smile. She led me down a narrow green hallway and through an ochre door with a sign that said “Operations.” “Wait here and take tea,” she said. “When you are through, we will talk.”

And so I sat in the Operations room and had my first cup of Kenyan tea.

I’ve been in Kenya for almost a month now, and on any given day have been known to drink up to six cups of tea. As children in school we were taught that a healthy diet consists of eight glasses of water a day; Kenyans have extrapolated this concept and applied it to tea. Every office I’ve visited has an employee whose sole responsibility is to make tea which is to be served at 10am and 4pm. KADET’s headquarters is no exception, and Doris – our tea lady – has won a special place in my heart. She is always smiling, has a flair for interesting conversation, and an amazing hand for brewing tea. She gives me the special treatment, sometimes serving me a treat on the side (sweet potato, mandazi, chapati) and even allowing me to take tea during off hours.


Doris, in the KADET mini-kitchen, making afternoon tea for the office


Vats of tea brewing in the KADET mini-kitchen

Many of the Kiva borrowers I meet offer me a cup of tea, thereby establishing a friendship before proceeding with the discussion of loans, repayments and other business.

This custom persists beyond the confines of the office. Visit any home in Kenya and you are sure to be offered tea. It is served very hot all day long, regardless of the often scorching temperatures outside. The average Kenyan consumes four cups of tea a day: at breakfast, at ten o’clock, at four o’clock and after dinner. My roommate Tony adds an extra cup after work to this daily routine.

On a recent trip to Tseikuru, I discovered that although skipping lunch is not out of the ordinary, Kenyans never miss tea time. Hilda, Makanga, and I left Nairobi at 7am, and by 10am we still had a six hour drive ahead of us. We were in a hurry to get to our destination, yet at 9:30 discussions began around where we would take our morning tea. Our driver, Nicholas, stopped the car in a tiny, one-street town and shut off the engine. There may not have been a grocery store or a gas station, but there was definitely somewhere that would serve the expected tea.


Hilda, Makanga and me later that day with lunch and a cup of tea

How to make Kenyan tea:

Recently, I asked Doris to show me how she makes tea. It is a combination of whole milk, sugar, tea leaves, ginger and masala spice (cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and nutmeg). She combines an equal ratio of whole milk and water, adds the tea leaves and spices, and brings the entire mixture to a boil. She lets it simmer for an hour before serving hot with three spoonfuls of sugar per cup. For someone who drinks her coffee black, I must say that this sugary Starbucks-like treat is very difficult to resist.


Jorum and Hilda with their 10am tea


With Machira, drinking our 4pm tea with a side of sweet potato

A short history and other information:

Kenya is one of Africa’s oldest tea-producing countries. The earliest reference to tea growing dates back a hundred years to 1903. It is believed that a British settler living in Kenya’s western highlands imported the first Camellia Sinensis seedlings from India and planted them on a two-acre farm on an experimental basis. By 1928, Kenya’s teas were being sold at the London Tea Auction and by the 1950s, Kenya had become a significant player in the international tea market. A hundred years later tea continues to flourish in Kenya, making the East African nation the world’s fourth largest producer of black tea (after India, China and Sri Lanka) and second only to Sri Lanka as the world’s leading tea exporter. Kenya’s annual tea production of approximately 295,000 tons contributes up to 28% of Kenya’s export earnings.

Tea farming represents a significant livelihood for more than 315,000 Kenyan tea farmers. Mature bushes are picked every 17 days, and a good employee can collect almost double his or her own body weight in tea each day. The Kenyan tea industry is unique in that its small landholders produce the bulk of the country’s tea. These small scale farmers grow over 60% of the tea to be sold at market; they own their land and have tea licenses permitting them to grow and pluck the green leaves and deliver it to buying stations run by the Kenya Tea Development Authority (KTDA). KTDA acts as managing agent to the smallholder tea sector and is technically owned by all of Kenya’s small-scale tea farmers.

The main tea growing districts are situated in or around the highland areas on either side of the Rift Valley. At altitudes ranging from 5000-7000 feet above sea level, evaporating water from Lake Victoria supplies much of the needed moisture for tea plants.

On my recent drive back to Nairobi from Kisumu, I was able to take in the beautiful expanse of bright, shamrock green tea fields lining the main road.


Tea plantation near the Rift Valley


My roommate Tony was kind enough to stop the car on the drive back from Kisumu so I could get a closer look at the tea plants


Tea plantations in central Kenya

In the Field: Stories of KADET Borrowers

November 10, 2009

My field partner for the day, a credit officer named Joshua, is already in the field when I arrive in Baba Mdogo, and I must navigate his descriptive map to find him in the slum. Turn left at the butchery and enter a narrow strip of shops. Take a right at the tomato stand. When a blue sign reading “Obama’s Barber Shop” is visible, turn right again. From there, exit the car and walk through the tight space formed by the tin shacks on the left. Walk through the second-hand shoe store and exit the back.

There, I find several hanging clotheslines, and Joshua is standing between drying towels and skirts speaking to a tall borrower wearing a bucket hat and jeans. I’m introduced to Michael Otieno, a tailor. When the borrower profile form is complete, we enter Michael’s shop on the other side of the clotheslines. I slip on the wet dirt as we enter, and am steadied by a man holding several scraps of muted fabric.

Michael Otieno

Michael Otieno, in his shop, using one of the three sewing machines he owns for his tailoring business

Michael proudly tells me, in English, that this is one of his three employees. Michael is 40 years old, married and has six children. He took out his first loan from KADET three years ago and has since multiplied his income several fold, expanded into a bigger location and created jobs for young tailors in his community. With his third loan from KADET, Michale says he will purchase more fabric for waiting customers as well as pay for his children’s school fees. “My life goal,” Michael says, “is to do real estate business. I bought a plot already and hope to have the capital to develop it in the next few years.”

We exit Michael’s shop and make our way back to the main street. The morning rain filled the pot holes with deep sticky puddles, and it’s impossible to avoid being splashed by moving bicycle tires, hand carts and roving animals. It is the first time I’ve seen pigs added into the mix of wandering cows, goats and chickens. The only pink visible on their mud-soaked bodies is behind their ears. After a few minutes trudging through the muddy road, we duck under a corrugated tin roof and step into the wooden structure it covers. Three light bulbs bathe the room in a pale glow, and I’m surprised to be standing on damp straw in a small room full of chickens. A single chair sits in the 8’ x 8’ space, its blue vinyl seat barely visible beneath the white chicken droppings.

George Otieno with his chickens

George Otieno standing among his chickens

George, whose second name is also Otieno, is 41-years-old and has been in the chicken rearing business for two years.  He purchases chicks when they are a day old, feeds them for six weeks, and then sells them to butchers and farmers. “There must be 50 in here,” I say to George. “Actually,” he responds in Kiswahili, “there are 98. I bought 100 but two of them died despite my investment in body strengthening food. It was sad for me.”

With the help of his wife, Mercy, George also runs two other businesses: a general retail store that sells items like maize and sugar, and a hotel (café) in the room attached to the chicken coop.

Chicken rearing is George’s most recent venture. I ask him why he chose to enter this seemingly unrelated area of business.  “My hotel always has leftovers and I did not want to waste them,” George says in his deep scratchy voice, “I thought maybe I could feed these leftovers to livestock, like pigs. But then I noticed that pigs are too dirty and preferred to raise chickens instead. Now I never waste anything from the hotel and I can feed my chickens without really having to purchase additional food.”

George is a KADET success story. His first loan, disbursed just four years ago, was worth KSh 10,000 (~$135). At the time, George had been running his retail shop for six years and was not making enough money to care for his family’s basic needs. When one of George and Mercy’s two sons got sick, they could not afford to take him to a doctor. “He died of normal sickness in the stomach,” George tells me. I’m left wondering if this was a preventable death.

With the motivation of better providing for his remaining son and wife, George took out his first loan with KADET and opened his café. Now on his 7th loan, worth KSh 80,000 (~$1070), George plans to purchase stock for his retail shop and meat to serve in his café. A foray into the world of real estate is George’s next venture, which he will begin next year with the extra profits he anticipates from this loan combined with another loan from KADET.

George wears a gray jacket over a white button-up shirt, black pants and a matching baseball cap. As he prepares for his photo, he bends down to arrange the healthiest looking chickens around him. Joshua snaps his picture. “One more,” George says. Picking up a particularly plump bird, George laughs as he shoves it into my hands. “Smile” he says in English.

With George Otieno

With George and one of his chickens.

Joshua and I climb back into the van and head to our next borrower. On the way, Joshua waves at a child wearing a red jacket. “That is George’s son,” Joshua tells me. I take a closer look at the healthy boy laughing with his friends and wave.

We head down yet another narrow, muddy street to find our next borrower: Edward Abisalom Obongo Olero. Dozens of kids surround me as we walk, grabbing to clasp my hand or touch my leg. The now familiar chorus of “Hi, how are you?” trails me down the road; it’s the first English phrase they are taught in school. I am a novelty; most of these children have never seen a mzungu before.  We take a sharp right down a tiny alley, dodging a young woman carrying a massive yellow bucket of water on her head, and step into Edward’s retail store. The shelves are filled with coffee, tea, sugar, toilet paper, batteries, detergent and other general merchandise. A tall refrigerator sits in the middle of the room stocked with a variety of sodas. Edward offers one to me and I accept, handing him KSh 40. A window opens to the crowded main road, and while Joshua and I interview Edward for his borrower profile, four women stick their heads in to purchase various items.


Edward pulls a green vest over his black t-shirt for his picture. He says he wants to look his best.

Edward will be 40 years-old this year and is married to Maureen Akiny, who is 21. Maureen lives upcountry with Edward’ parents and he sees her only once or twice a year. They have one child together, and although Edward would love to see his daughter on a daily basis, the business opportunities near Nairobi are much better than upcountry. Five years ago Edward decided to quit earning money as a casual laborer and open his own shop. When he first started his business, Edward did not have an actual store; he carried his merchandise from market to market selling items from a blanket. With a KADET loan he opened a kiosk; with a subsequent loan he opened a shop; and with yet another loan he relocated to his current location.  Now applying for his eighth loan with KADET, Edward wants to open another store that will specialize in both wholesale and retail supply. He plans to hire someone to run one of his shops. “I’m proud to be creating a job for someone else that might just be getting started,” Edward tells me. “I want to hire someone like who I was five years ago. To give someone their first start at making consistent money.”


Emma, standing in her shop

Emma Akinyi Mugwanga: It is obvious the moment we arrive that the residents of Lucky Summer generate a higher income than those we visited this morning. Emma Akinyi Mugwanga owns a weaving business called Ragwanda. With a cement floor and walls and a tin roof, Ragwanda is a cheery shop filled with weavings of yellow, blue, green and purple. They hang across the length of the store on two clotheslines. A loom, half filled with yellow and white yarn, is pushed against the center wall. Emma’s customers purchase her weavings to use as decoration on dining tables, chairs and in their bathrooms. It is clear that her customers are those that can afford to spend money on aesthetics. Emma started her weaving and embroidery business four years ago and has since built up her income to 25,000 Kenya Shillings a month. She never took formal classes, but always had an interest in learning how to embroider and weave. Emma sought out a knowledgeable friend and learned the basics from her. Through her own practice and dedication, Emma became an advanced weaver. She now wants to diversify her income by entering the fish distribution market. This is Emma’s third loan from KADET, but the first which she will use for a brand new business. Emma’s dream is to go to college and conduct training in interior design. She is hoping that her fish distribution business will provide her with the money she needs for tuition.

Behind a squat red door is Francis Kamau Kaniuki’s home. We conduct our meeting in the living room, a spacious area filled with two armchairs, a long couch and a television set. The walls display a map of Africa, family photos and a picture of Kenya’s President. Francis is poised and confident, speaking in an animated accented English. He offers Joshua and me tea and tells us to relax on his couch, gesturing to the embroidered decorations covering the red couch cushions. Francis is married and has eight children, ranging in age from 21 to 40. He purchased his plot of land 21 years ago and started building rental homes shortly after. With this loan from KADET, his sixth, Francis will purchase cement, sand, stones and labor to complete the building he rents to tenants. “My next business,” Francis tells me, “will be to enter the transport industry. I want to own a truck and carry greens and cereals from upcountry to sell in Nairobi. My wife has diabetes and I want to be able to pay for her medicines for the rest of our lives. I am certain I will accomplish this.”

With Francis in front of his rental building

With Francis in front of his rental building

It takes almost two hours to drive the six kilometers back to the KADET head office. My experience with traffic and moving vehicles in Nairobi has made me forever grateful to live in a society where stop lights aren’t optional, distinct lanes exist and exhaust fumes aren’t a constant source of nausea.


October 27, 2009

Our next stop: Mathare. When I first arrived in Nairobi, I mentioned to Stephanie (my Kiva field contact) wanting to visit the Kibera slums, home to more than a million residents. I told her about the incredible program started at UNC Chapel Hill, Carolina for Kibera, and Duke’s own involvement with the organization. “You want to see a slum,” she said, “don’t go to Kibera. Come to Mathare, where even Kenyans refuse to visit.”

Puzzled, I soon discovered what she meant. When I told my colleagues at KADET that I was spending Saturday afternoon in Mathare, I might as well have told them I was planning to jump off of a bridge. I’ve quickly learned that Mathare is notoriously the most dangerous slum in Kenya, and nearly all Kenyans have only seen it from the perimeter. It is also where several of Stephanie’s friends live, including her best friend, Austin, therefore granting us secure access to the slum.

We catch a purple matatu, complete with green seats and an orange vinyl ceiling, and arrive a few minutes later. Exiting the matatu, we cross the street and step onto a muddy rectangular clearing. There is a group of about 30 children running after a ball, and I realize we are actually crossing a soccer field. Three mini-collisions later (no injuries) and we arrive at the other side of the field, where Austin is standing. Three toddlers cling to his pant legs as Stephanie introduces me to her closest friend on the continent. Austin is the only coach, so he returns his focus to the game, and Stephanie uses this as an opportunity to tell me more about Austin and to give me a mini-tour of Mathare.


Mathare's soccer field


Austin's soccer players

Mathare is Kenya’s second largest informal settlement. One of the oldest and most densely populated slums in all of Africa, over 600,000 people live in this sprawling urban jungle just a few kilometers from Nairobi’s city center. Mathare exists in a valley that is the site of a former quarry. There are no trees, bushes or blades of grass. Most homes are one-room shacks made from corrugated tin sheets, each averaging three square meters in size and accommodating entire families. As we walk, we follow dozens of chickens, goats, and cows meandering through the narrow pathways.


Ducking off the main road between corrugated tin shanties, we reach an outlook. The ramshackle collection of congested roofs reflects the sun in various shades of grays and browns.

It’s impossible to capture Mathare on film; the noises and smells are just as much a part of its identity.  There is a pervading stench of human sewage. I remember seeing the musical Urinetown when I was a senior at Duke University. The show is about a backward community that starts charging its residents to use the toilets. The show is a comedy; in Mathare this is reality. The few toilets that exist cost 2-3 shillings to use. Most residents deposit their waste into plastic bags instead, throwing these nicknamed “flying toilets” into the alleys or dark Nairobi river which runs through the middle of the slum.  The sharp scent of burning charcoal is also present throughout Mathare’s streets. Everyone cooks their meals in the alleyways, as their homes are too cramped, and the smell of githeri and sukuma wiki waft up and down the streets as the winds change.

Access to basic services is limited. Few have electricity, and for those that do, frequent blackouts last for long periods of time. Safe water is virtually nonexistent as groundwater sources are polluted by the contaminated Mathare River and excessive garbage. Adequate schools and healthcare are also major issues in Mathare. With little assistance from the Kenyan government, Mathare’s schools are overcrowded and many children do not attend school at all. HIV/AIDS and TB are highly prevalent, though it’s difficult to determine actual infection rates since few are tested.

Most of Mathare’s residents come to Nairobi from rural areas, where unreliable agriculture and high unemployment make life difficult, in search of a steady job and better life. With little money, these people come to one of the city’s many slums because housing is more affordable (rent is $5-$30 a month). However, life in the slums is not easy. Members of all of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups call the slums home. Cultural traditions remain strong and ethnic segregation and violence are common. Gangs control much of the slum, and residents are forced to pay monthly protection fees to gang members. Frequent clashes between these gangs and the Kenyan police make the area a war zone at times.

Though some transplants manage to find the work they came in search of, Mathare boasts an unemployment rate of 75% or higher. Those that are able to find day labor, such as construction or washing clothes, make about $1-$1.50 per day.  Some run small kiosks that sell vegetables or charcoal. For most, the business in which they are engaged does not provide a steady or reliable income, and they struggle to put food on the table while also trying to meet the expectation of sending money to extended family back in the rural area.

We circle back to Austin’s soccer game, where a water break is taking place. Three small girls, maybe 4 or 5 years old, lug large jugs of murky water to the thirsty players. While we watch Austin’s soccer teams gear up for the second half, Stephanie tells me about the amazing league he started. Austin was raised in the slum and rose to prominence as an incredible soccer player. He played professionally after college, even winning the Norway Cup. A knee injury took Austin out of the game, but ignited in him a focus on community and the desire to provide opportunity for the kids of Mathare. With no field available to him, Austin began clearing off a major garbage dump, one wheelbarrow at a time. After he had uncovered the ground beneath one small section, the inspired people of Mathare joined him in his efforts. Eventually the area was free to be used as a soccer field, and Austin has since built up an entire league for children of varying ages.  Several of Austin’s female soccer players have obtained full scholarships to some of Kenya’s best private schools.  Soccer has become as major source of pride and confidence for this community.


Sitting on the sidelines watching the soccer game with neighborhood kids

Watching the second half, I notice most of the children playing are not wearing shoes, and I wince as I watch one boy step on a shard of glass. His younger sister waddles over to where we are sitting, sucking on a discarded battery. The sound of children crying, ignored by adults, is persistent, and I bend down to pick up the child closest to me. His tears dry immediately; he just needed some love. Unfortunately, the parents here do not have the luxury of focusing on their children in the way we are accustomed to in the United States.

Stephanie again leads me away from the sidelines to visit a group of women with whom she works, helping them earn a fair living through a small business selling the sisal and cloth bags they make. Beneath its tin cover, Mathare teems with typical daily activities: women hanging laundry from ropes, food being sold in front of homes, and children wandering the streets, dressed in well worn, holed clothing or elegant dresses of American communions and Christmases past.


Stephanie, in Mama Florence's home, holding up one of her beautiful creations. For more information on the women's fair trade business, please visit:

After being fed several bowls of githeri and pretending to drink the polluted water served to us by these women, Stephanie and I reunite with Austin to visit the school they are working together to build. A few years ago, Stephanie met the headmaster of a school that was considered a great success. However, all of the school’s funding was being spent on rent – for a crumbling, cramped, dangerous building. Realizing that the school needed its own secure space, Stephanie successfully fundraised $45,000 to buy a plot of land in Mathare. While progress is slow, it was amazing to stand on the completed foundation of the school. From the school’s grounds, we drank sodas and watched the sun set over the slum.

Austin and Stephanie, sitting on the foundation of the school they are working together to build

Austin and Stephanie, sitting on the foundation of the school they are working together to build

With Austin, overlooking Mathare at sunset

With Austin, overlooking Mathare at sunset. As we sipped our sodas from colorful straws, the temperature dropped significantly. By the time we finished our drinks, goosebumps covered our arms. Mathare faces both extreme heat during the day and icy temperatures at night.

Seeing Mathare for myself and being introduced to many with entrepreneurial spirits reinforced for me that positive change and improvements are realities, even in some of the toughest
neighborhoods. Despite the most challenging obstacles and hardships, I witnessed real signs of resiliency and progress.

That night Austin took Stephanie and me to a reggae club, where we danced the night away as the only mzungus in a crowded room of locals. In the wee hours of the morning, I climbed into a cab that took me back to the safety of my warm bed in the serene area of Upper Hill. Austin hugged me goodbye, got into a matatu and headed back to Mathare…

Steph, Austin and me at the reggae club "Monte Carlo"

Steph, Austin and me at the reggae club "Monte Carlo"

On Monday morning, I asked my colleagues how many KADET clients live in Mathare. Disappointingly, the number is zero. Apparently, KADET used to have several borrowers in Mathare, but the inter-ethnic structure of borrower groups caused every single KADET group to fall apart in the midst of the post-election violence in 2008. The people of Mathare were also impacted by the scene that played out between the Mungiki gang and the police. When some individuals in Mathare started to resist the Mungiki influence, a spate of killings took hold. Several police tried to enter the slum to crack down on the brutality and were killed, their heads displayed on a central bridge as a strong warning to others. Enraged, the police conducted a massive sweep of the slum, inciting angry Mungiki members to use innocent individuals as shields against the rough hard-arm tactics of the police. Police beatings were common and arson became an even bigger issue. This eruption of violence was a very hard blow for those trying to make a living with small businesses. KADET borrowers (whose businesses included small kiosk shops, eateries, vegetable trading, and the sale of second-hand clothing) saw their businesses destroyed, and almost every single loan was written off as a loss for KADET.

While KADET no longer has any borrowers in Mathare, there are several clients living in the slums of Kibera and Korogocho. I have arranged to visit these individuals and will highlight these experiences in future posts.

**On a side note, I only took a few pictures while in Mathare. Though I want to bring awareness to the outside world, I struggle to balance this desire with the zoo-like feeling of photographing humanity living in stark conditions.

Maasai Market

October 26, 2009

Last Saturday, I took an overcrowded matatu to the Central Business District to meet Stephanie at the pancake and waffle-serving café, Java House. Although we are the same age, Stephanie is Kiva’s “Field Support Specialist” for Anglophone Africa, and my best resource in Kenya. The official Kiva title she carries is well deserved: Stephanie has spent two years in East Africa, is fluent in both the language and cultural norms of Kenya, and has even started a small fair trade bag company benefiting women in the slums of Mathare. Lucky for me, Stephanie is also a lot of fun and has generously taken the time to share with me both her knowledge and friends.

Our first stop of the day: shopping at the Maasai Market. Before heading to Nigeria to forge a new Kiva partnership, Stephanie wants to purchase a few pairs of earrings. After just a short walk from the city center, we come to what is essentially a parking lot filled with dozens of carefully placed blankets covered in wood carvings, jewelry, scarves, drums, bags, and clothing. Colorful negotiations take place and excited sellers call out to us as we walk through an entrance, joining the mayhem. Stephanie lays down some ground rules: “Don’t say anything. Don’t express interest in any items. If you want something, touch my elbow. I will negotiate for you so you can see how it’s done. The price we will pay is actually about 10% what they will ask for.”

Though I consider myself a skilled frequenter of foreign craft markets, I defer to Stephanie. She leads me to the front left corner of the market, where a man sells hundreds of earrings from a wood and mesh board. I touch her elbow, whisper the quadrant in which my targeted earrings sit, and listen to the back and forth exchange. The transaction ends with a hearty handshake, and we move on to the next area of interest. Many of the crafts scattered throughout the market are ones that I’ve seen before in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Stephanie tells me that most sellers here are middlemen, either importers from other parts of Africa or individuals that travel to small villages and collect pieces from women, returning a very small portion of the profits to the artists. We navigate the narrow paths for a half hour, acquiring a few other items, before returning to the normalcy of the downtown Nairobi streets.

In the future, I will make an effort to purchase directly from the source if possible. Many of my borrowers are involved in the creation of bags, clothing, and other handicrafts; and although this was fun, I’d rather patronize them directly.

With Steph, shortly after my scarf purchase. Scarves of every color and ever design were available, yet I somehow managed to make a decision in only a few minutes. As I walked away, however, I realized I had chosen a scarf that was made Thailand, not Kenya.
With Steph, shortly after my scarf purchase. Scarves of every color and design were available, yet I somehow managed to make a decision in only a few minutes. As I walked away, however, I realized I had chosen a scarf that was made in Thailand, not Kenya.
Maasai Market
Maasai Market
My new earrings
My new earrings

The View from Kamae

October 21, 2009

“Habari. Nina itwa Maia,” I practice saying as I walk into my first group meeting of the day. Today, Gachii and I are visiting Kiva borrowers living in Kamae, a slum-like area filled with tin huts and roads littered with garbage and roaming animals. Almost all Kiva borrowers here lack formal education and exposure to English, and I wanted to make sure that I could at least introduce myself in their language. I take my seat on a long sturdy bench and face a group of 12 borrowers sitting in four straight rows before me. With perfect posture, the borrowers stare earnestly at Gachii, waiting for an explanation as to why a mzungu (white person) is joining their meeting. A round of introductions begins, translated by Gachii, and I learn that the group’s name is Kihatu, meaning broom. When they hear their group name announced to me, every single borrower’s face breaks into a proud grin. Until now, the groups I have met have names that translate to English words like lion, opportunity, and faith. Puzzled by this self-designated title, I ask for insight into this choice. A willowy woman with a strong, clear voice responds and Gachii translates, “This is the first loan cycle for all of us in this group,” she says, “and each of us is looking to sweep away the problems of our past and the problems of luck. We are no longer going to depend on luck, but on ourselves.”

The symbolism behind this word selection moves me, and I’m eager to learn more about this community. However, my excitement to engage with these individuals is met with wariness and even hostility as Gachii describes what Kiva is and why I’m here.  Voices rise as rapid Swahili dialogue fires between group members and Gachii. I try to wait patiently for a pause in the conversation to ask Gachii to explain what is going on. Although I do not know most of the cultural norms here, I have learned that heated discussion is rare among Kenyans, and that this is an unusual scene playing out before me. Thinking that perhaps I can help Gachii explain Kiva’s role in a constructive way and emphasize that becoming a Kiva borrower is completely optional (while still being able to remain a KADET borrower), I finally interrupt.

I’m told that the group, led by a particular woman seated in the third row, objects to the idea of having their photos taken for Kiva borrower profiles. Historically, this community has been a target area for aid workers and NGOs. Unfortunately, despite posing for pictures in front of their homes and allowing their children to be photographed in their streets, the Kihatu group has not reaped any of the benefits promised by camera-toting journalists and aid workers. Instead, what money has trickled in has gone to squatters, those individuals who roam the streets and sleep on piles of dirt. The Kihatu borrowers have been considered above the need for these donations, even though they lack appropriate nutrition and their homes are unsound, one-room tin structures. There is a consensus in the group that somewhere, someone (even a reporter or newspaper) has profited from the photos of their families, and they are angry at what they see as a violation of their rights.

The woman in the third row, Lucy, also questions why Kiva works through KADET instead of just giving (not loaning) money directly to her.

Through Gachii, I join the conversation and tell them that Kiva lenders do not view them as vulnerable victims in need of hand outs. “Instead,” I say turning to Lucy, “lenders view you as a business partner, capable of engaging in a financial relationship based on respect and for the purpose of providing you with opportunity.”

I explain how Kiva works, but Lucy is so used to western aid workers parachuting in to “save” people in Kenya, that it is hard for her to grasp the concept of accepting a loan from people in the United States (or other western countries) that she must repay. She views all mzungus as rich, and therefore is angry that we would ask someone who is much poorer, like her, to pay it back. In Lucy’s experience, this is simply not the ruling precedent for how a relationship with the west functions.

My next approach is to explain to the group who are Kiva lenders. I’m grateful that I remembered to print out a few lender profiles from Kiva’s website. I hold them up, giving them three different faces to attach to the concept of lenders. “Lenders and borrowers are equal partners; this is not a benefactor relationship. These individuals that you see here are some of Kiva’s lenders. Your loans are not funded by just one of these individuals, but by a group of people that have banded together to invest in you. Contrary to your belief, they may not have much money to spare, but by grouping together they are able to support your business and empower you to improve your life.”

I wait while Gachi translates in his soft, calm voice. When he finishes, I add, “The purpose of taking your photograph and interviewing you for a borrower profile is to facilitate this connection and to create understanding. By providing a view into your life and work, lenders are likely to choose to invest in your business.”

I reach into my bag and extract a thin photo album covered in a plastic coating that depicts a map of the world. Passing it to Lucy, I say, “This shouldn’t be a one-sided mirror into your lives. In here you will find pictures of my family, friends, boyfriend and favorite places in my home town. This is what my life is like in the United States. And this is my job, working with KADET to create greater access to funding for micro-entrepreneurs.

Finally, I want to re-emphasize that being on Kiva’s website is your choice. If you do not feel comfortable signing the waiver, then please do not.”

When Gachii has completed the translation of my words, two women actually stand, walk to the front of the room and wrap their thin arms around me in a strong embrace. For Kenyans, a people to whom formality and courtesy are extremely important, this is a big gesture. “Asanti sana kwa kazi njema,” they say. Thank you for your good work.

I’m proud that I was able to reach through to them, and extremely touched at the appreciation they’ve shown for a conversation that took less than 30 minutes. Insecurity can stem from ignorance, and these people have not had the education that would equip them with the ability to fully understand how their loans work. They are used to being taken advantage of, and I am so happy to have the chance to dispel their doubts by providing information. The power of transparency cannot be underestimated.

The murmurs settle and Gachii goes around the room, asking every individual how they feel, if there are any lingering questions, and if they are willing to become a Kiva borrower. Susan needs time to think about it. John says that my presence has given Kiva validity in his mind and is appreciative that Kiva will help him receive a loan; he agrees to be photographed and interviewed for Kiva’s website that afternoon. Turning to Susan and those that have not yet responded, John uses big hand gestures as he speaks, trying to convince them to become Kiva borrowers. “We are lucky to have the opportunity to receive a loan from KADET,” he says, “by becoming Kiva borrowers, we bring the possibility of loans to more people. The money KADET may have allocated to us can now be given to someone else. We help our neighbors by being on Kiva.”

This is a message they all seem to hear. Mary, Matthew, Naomi, Paul and five others, even Lucy, their fearless leader, agree to become Kiva borrowers. Susan changes her mind and asks if she can be photographed first.

I’m touched by John’s message of community and his desire to provide opportunity for others. This is the spirit of Kiva and why I am here working as a volunteer. To see this sentiment echoed in a place where access to electricity, running water and sanitation is minimal is extremely moving.

After we’ve visited our day’s worth of borrowers, Gachi and I catch three different matatus before arriving back at the KADET branch office. During our trip back, I’m able to reflect on the day and am thankful that our morning group challenged Kiva’s role in their lives, and with it, my assumptions. I naively expected all borrowers to be grateful to Kiva for providing access to capital. I didn’t take into account skepticism towards the west that has brewed from past experiences or the expectation of donations and an inability to immediately grasp the concept of a business partnership. It’s also given me a lot to think about on another level, in terms of what the mechanism should be for assisting less fortunate communities. In a country that lacks the infrastructure, or in which corrupt systems exist, how do we reach those like the Kihatu group in a constructive way?

Finally, the morning’s discussion reinforced the responsibility I have as a Kiva fellow to portray these individuals with the dignity and respect they deserve. Photos that circulate of emaciated African children and downtrodden workers, what some at Kiva call “poverty pornography,” fuel the image of Africans as helpless, dependent victims rather than as diverse, capable people with unlimited potential. No one hears this message more than Africans themselves. I am working hard to combat established expectations of relationships with the  West. I believe Kiva loans and partnerships are a big step in the right direction.


Some of the Kihatu group borrowers with their businesses:

Naomi Wambui with one of her three cows

Naomi Wambui with one of her three cows

Though Naomi is unsure of how to sign her name, opting for three small dots on the paper, she is excited to be a Kiva borrower. Her loan is for 10,000 KSh (~$130) with which she will diversify her income by opening a fruit stand. Naomi used to borrow with another MFI, but switched to KADET after a loan officer disappeared with the group’s money, including their savings. Encouraged by others in the Kihatu group, Naomi decided to give micro-credit another try. She doesn’t know her age and can’t remember the name of where she comes from, but she does know how to keep a passbook and make her repayments. Naomi says she is proud to provide food for her children.

We find Lucy standing in front of her used clothing business, 12 or 13 blouses carefully laid out on a piece of worn, woven straw. As Gachii interviews her in Swahili, Lucy takes hold of my hand and squeezes several times.

Lucy announces to Gachii that I am hard working, just like her daughter, and therefore she wants to hug me. She insists on taking eight different photos together, and giggles when she sees herself in playback mode on my

In one of Lucy's embraces

In one of Lucy's embraces

digital camera. Lucy’s loan is for KSh15,000 (~$200) and with it she will purchase more stock to sell. Although this is Lucy’s first loan with KADET, we learn that she had previously borrowed from another MFI but that her group was crippled by the hospital bills of two members and their inability to repay. (One member lost his arm in a motorbike accident and the other had throat surgery for a tumor.)

Julius Mwaugi with his taxi

Julius Mwaugi with his taxi

Julius’ taxi is a red motorbike with peeling paint and cracked seats. Julius has a big grin on his face during the entire Kiva interview. His loan is for KSh20,000 (~$265), which he will use to purchase merchandise for a secondary business and pay for limited insurance. With his profits, Julius says he will purchase comprehensive insurance, which will cover his vehicle and all parties in the incident of a crash.

Mary mostly sells charcoal, and once in a while vegetables if she can afford to stock them. Mary’s kiosk is made from wood and tin, with burlap walls. A large jug labeled “sulfuric

Mary Wambui, in front of her charcoal kiosk

Mary Wambui, in front of her charcoal kiosk

acid” sits next to the charcoal. When I ask why she has sulfuric acid, Gachii laughs and tells me it’s a container for water. It has never been cleaned. Mary’s loan is for KSh10,000 (~$130), which she will use to purchase potatoes and additional charcoal to meet customer demand.

Peter Mashariah, inside his butchery shop

Peter Mashariah, inside his butchery shop

Across town, we find Peter’s butchery. The thick, pungent smell of blood and fresh meat hit my nostrils the moment we walk through the narrow door. A partial carcass hangs from a hook in the window. On the counter sits a scale and a glass aquarium, which holds three small pieces of raw meat. The instant we step inside, it starts pouring rain outside. The noise is amplified by the tin roof over our heads, making it difficult to hear what Peter is saying (not that I understand anyway). Peter’s loan is for KSh15,000 (~$200), which he will use to renovate the butchery. His top priorities are improving the broken tiled floor and installing an appropriate enclosure for where the meat hangs. One day, Peter says, he hopes to buy live animals to slaughter and sell to retailers. By the time we leave Peter’s shop, the rain has completely stopped falling.

A five minute walk down the main dirt road and we come to John’s butchery. A slightly muted version of the thick odor present in Peter’s shop lingers. Flies swarm, landing on my head, notebook, jacket and hands. This space is larger than I expected, and three men sit inside chatting. John wears an orange and white mesh jersey and sucks on a toothpick during the interview. With warm eyes and a bright smile,

With John in front of his stew and sausage pot.

With John in front of his stew and sausage pot.

John is charming–even in a language I don’t understand. This is John’s 11th year in business; he buys cattle and sells the individual pieces to retail butcheries (like Peter’s).  John takes the parts of the cow that he is unable to sell (intestines, heart, lungs, feet, etc) and creates a stew and sausages, selling lunch and dinner on the street. The loan he seeks is for KSh40,000 (~$535), with which he will expand his meat supply coverage. When it is time to photograph John in front of his business, he is giddy. He runs across the street to find a butcher’s coat, slicks his hair back and poses.

A closer look at John's special stew

A closer look at John's special stew