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

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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.


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.

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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


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.