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.

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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


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

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

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.


Mathare

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.

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Mathare's soccer field

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: http://www.witethye.org

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.


My First Day in the Field (Part 2/2)

October 16, 2009

Gachi and I traipse through the dusty, pebble strewn streets for 20 minutes before arriving at our next stop. My second group meeting of the day takes place in a turquoise

Standing in front of a barber shop, which doubles as the location for Kiva borrowers' group meetings

Standing in front of a barber shop, which doubles as the location for Kiva borrowers' group meetings

painted corrugated tin shack that upon entering, I realize is actually a barber shop. A large poster containing 64 numbered photos display hairstyle options from the 70s (80s? 90s? Definitely not this decade). The space is cramped and hot; I can feel sweat oozing from my pores after less than a minute inside. I’m thankful that I remembered to put on deodorant, disappointed that some of the others in the confined room had not. Seven of the twelve group members are assembled inside, and I’m given the only real chair. I try to refuse this honor, but they insist. Four of the members present are male, three are female. The meeting takes place in Kiswahili, and I observe as Gachi checks the members’ passbooks for accuracy and signs his name next to various repayment schedules. Throughout the meeting, the treasurer rotates her small child back and forth between her breasts, allowing her daughter to eat while she collects money and conducts financial business.

The next Kiva borrower we visit to photograph and talk to is a woman named Flashiah. Flashiah is a tailor, specializing in dresses. Her shop is located directly across the street from the turquoise barber shop, and she is the only one present when we walk through the doorway. Flashiah wears a floral print tunic, long black skirt and flat mary-jane tennis shoes which are covered in the thick orange dust that intrudes on everything here.  A single black sewing machine sits on a folding table and bears a sticker that says: “On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Several garments hang from the walls, and a few scraps of fabric litter the floor. Chickens wander in and out, not paying attention to the beautiful colors of thread in their paths.

Standing with Flashiah in her dress shop

Standing with Flashiah in her dress shop

This interview takes place in English, and I’m thrilled to be an active participant in the conversation. It’s been one year since Flashiah opened her store on these streets, although she previously had a store in another village (unprofitable based on its location, she says). Flashiah tells me that she learned to make dresses in “dress making college.” Her husband, a newspaper vendor, saved for several years in order to put her through this training.

Flashiah’s last loan was for KSh 20,000 (~$266); this new loan is for double. The loan repayment term brings about a discussion over interest rates (14.625% for 9 month term or 19.5% for 12 month term), and after an internal debate, Flashiah decides to go with the 12 month term. This loan will be used to purchase additional fabric for her shop as well as to buy another sewing machine so that Flashiah can hire her first employee.

We leave Flashiah to find several other borrowers: a father of 6 who walks up and down a busy road selling cds and dvds (his loan is to purchase more merchandise), a mother of two who supports her family by selling french fries from a kiosk (her loan is to expand into the business of fruit sales), a woman who sells used shoes on a tarp on the side of the road (her loan is to purchase additional used clothing). I photograph all of them for Kiva’s website, and Gachi conducts the interviews in Kiswahili, patiently translating thereby allowing me to engage with the borrowers.

Walking to our final borrower interview of the day, I stumble on some uneven ground and almost land on my face, alongside a black and white goat trying to swallow a muffin wrapper. I’m saddened by all of the trash that fills the land here, and watching the various animals eating discarded papers and plastic bags in an attempt o find food breaks my heart.

We arrive at Nicholas’ carpentry kiosk, a stand comprised of four wooden posts and a malleable tin roof. Chairs are assembled for us in the open air, and Gachi buys me a ginger soda while we wait for Nicholas to finish what he’s doing. Nicholas’ wife runs the attached food kiosk, and she takes out two filthy, empty glass bottles (Fanta and Coca-Cola) and goes to fill them up in another part of the village. Three goats lay in the rubble at our feet, and as we drink our lukewarm sodas, the goats munch on mouthfuls of dust. Nicholas joins us after 20 minutes.

Nicholas is the Chairman of his borrower group. He started his carpentry business in 1994 and earns profits of about KSh 10,000 (~$135) a month. Over the last several years, Nicholas has taken out loans from KADET to diversify his sources of income. In addition to this carpentry business, Nicholas also owns the food kiosk and operates as a bread and milk supplier. With this new loan, worth KSh 50,000 (~$665), Nicholas is set to also become a meat distributer. Nicholas will purchase a cow at wholesale and then distribute the various parts to retail butcheries.

With Nicholas, in front of his carpentry kiosk

With Nicholas, in front of his carpentry kiosk

It is obvious that Nicholas is proud of his accomplishments. Smiling wide, he even showed me the two fingers missing from his left hand as a result of a mistake early in his furniture making days. Perhaps the thing about Nicholas I am most awed by is the impact his success has had on others in his community. Nicholas employs four other men, all operating from his small kiosk at the end of a dirt road.

It is almost cliché to say that I have never met such dedicated, hard workers in my life. These individuals are industrious; they believe in their own capacity to succeed and have changed their lives for the better through entrepreneurship. I am honored to put their profiles on Kiva’s website so that lenders around the world can take part in their journey upward.


My First Day in the Field; Anything but Ordinary (Part 1/2)

October 16, 2009

This was the reason I became a Kiva Fellow. All of my preparation, training, fundraising, crazed matatu rides, nightly battles with mosquitoes, and long days at KADET headquarters have been for this: impacting borrowers. I was surprised to realize I had butterflies in my stomach, a combination of nerves and excitement, for my first day in the field. Although I was scheduled to leave for the Thika Road branch office at 8:30, it was 10:45 before I actually climb into the KADET van with my driver, Sam. Hey, that’s 8:30 in African time.

As Sam navigated our way through the crowded city streets, I realized this was my first time leaving Nairobi. I’ve found Nairobi to be a compelling place with enormous vitality and character. The controlling ethos is commerce rather than community, and there is never a quiet moment in the free-for-all of commuters, shoppers, merchants, police, and traffic. However, Nairobi’s commercial landscape disappears only a few miles outside of the city. Replacing massive car jams and the sound of honking matatus are dusty roads filled with bleating goats and clucking chickens. In Mwiki, an area where many Kiva borrowers live, the dirt roads are lined with sidewalk vendors and tin storefronts selling everything from second-hand shoes to beauty supplies to charcoal.

I was so engrossed with the scene around me that I didn’t even realize Sam had come to a complete stop and was speaking to someone. He was introduced to me as Erastus, the credit officer with whom I was to spend the next three days. Once Sam had departed and Erastus and I were alone, Erastus confided that he’d rather be called by his African name: Gachi (pronounced Gah-she-ay). [I will have to dedicate an entire post just to the concept of names and name use in Kenya.]

Gachi led me to a kiosk selling soda and cellular air time. He spoke to the owner, retrieved a key, and steered me through the kiosk’s back door and into an incomplete brick structure divided into several open rooms. We walked through a door-less gap and Gachi motioned for me to sit on one of the two thin benches leaning against the rotting brick. I carefully avoided animal feces as I took my seat in the tiny room. A bicycle leaned against the opposite wall; I swatted at the flies buzzing in my face. After a few minutes, my first group of borrowers arrived for their weekly meeting. (Although this was my first encounter with borrowers, Gachi had been in the field since 7am). Every group chooses a name for itself, and this particular group of five is called Simba (lion in Kiswahili). The meeting takes place in Kiswahili, with short moments of English when Gachi translates for me and I ask questions. One member is applying for a new loan. Though it’s his third, Matthew struggles to complete the loan form independently, relying on the other group members and Gachi to help him determine a repayment schedule and other details.

Gachi, waiting for our first borrower group to convene.

Gachi, waiting for our first borrower group to convene.

When the meeting adjourns, I shake hands with everyone in the group (a standard greeting and goodbye to any stranger or friend) and follow Gachi out the same way we entered. Gachi informs me that one of the group members, Lydia, has recently applied for a loan and will be put up on Kiva’s website for funding. As we walk to her business, where we will take her photo and gather information for her borrower profile, I ask her questions about her trajectory and how she became a landlord to 35 families.

Lydia is 50, and it wasn’t until 5 years ago that she decided to start a business. Motivated by the desire to send her sons to secondary school—an expensive undertaking—she started out selling kerosene. Eventually Lydia was operating three pumps, but she faced thievery on a weekly basis, so she decided to take her savings and purchase a building in 2004. We maneuver through dusty alleys and makeshift roads, sidestepping dozens of emaciated goats and thirsty chickens, and finally arrive at Lydia’s building. It has 35 rooms; each is no bigger than 8’x6’ and each room houses an entire family. Lydia’s first loan was used to paint the building. Subsequent loans from KADET were used to implement weekly trash collection, install running water and an electricity meter. With these improvements, Lydia has increased the rent she charges from KSh700 (~$9) a month to KSh 1,500 (~$20) a month. The loan Lydia is applying for now will be used to add additional electricity meters, so each pod of families can control their own usage.

Lydia and me in front of her rental building.

Lydia and me in front of her rental building.

“My entire life has changed since I started borrowing money and running my business,” Lydia tells me.  Her children are in school, she now owns a vehicle, has moved into a new home and has begun to expand her source(s) of income (she recently purchased two cows for dairy farming). Gachi tells me Lydia is average. At 5’6” wearing a floral top and black trousers she may look average, I tell Gachi, but Lydia is anything but ordinary.