“For all of my friends everywhere who care about making this a more peaceful world and for my Sisters from Sister Giant, who could not make it to Kenya, this is for you. I have tried to recreate the experience as best as I could…
“A note to all of you who are not familiar with my recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya. I attended the African Regional Microcredit Summit in Nairobi last week. I had the fortune to go as part of a delegation from SisterGiant/RESULTS. The 3 day conference was sandwiched between 2 field trips to the slums and the new model community, Kaputiei Town. We had the opportunity to meet, hug, listen to and speak with the people whose lives have been transformed by the microfinance grassroots organization Jamii Bora. We also had private meetings with Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Peace Prize Recipient; Ingrid Munroe, the visionary behind Jamii Bora; and Sam Daly Harris, RESULTS founder and organizer of this conference.”
MIRACLES IN KENYA
We walked through the slums of Nairobi expecting to find the downtrodden — human beings without hope, children crying and begging. Instead to our surprise we found smiles and laughter and pride. Children were serenading us in their high pitched voices, “How are you, How are you?” Everyone was proud and pleased to welcome these “wasungu” — white foreigners.
Who were these lovely beings we found squashed inside their one room huts? Families of five or even fourteen crammed themselves with all their belongings into a 10 x 10 space. Mattresses piled one upon the other, stuffed between storage containers reaching to the ceiling. Each night the mattresses are pulled back out of the stack and laid upon the floor for all to sleep. No bathrooms. . .no toilets. . .no running water. . .no kitchens. . . maybe a cooking stove run on kerosene shoved in the corner. Outside the door are plastic buckets to wash and bathe in. Two foot wide dirt paths separate the shacks and morph into mud paths during the rainy season.
Strangely, strolling through this community warmth and happiness radiated with an intensity that both captivated and energized us. What beautiful faces! Never in my experience as I’ve traversed through villages in other foreign lands have I felt such warmth and love. What is this magic that caught us off guard and warmed our hearts? These were authentic smiles. These were people who walked with their heads held high, people filled with dignity! The love and warmth they exuded were contagious. We all felt it. Walking on rural or city streets back home in the US, I have never experienced such a feeling.
The secret recipe of that magic is called Jamii Bora which means “good families” in Swahili, is a grassroots microfinance organization. It transforms lives by integrating ingredients including micro-loans starting at $10, a mandatory savings program and weekly support groups, affordable health care and life insurance, education, training and counseling, all with an astonishing loan default rate of only 1% and without Government support. Private donations are used minimally to initiate projects to develop infrastructure. This holistic approach provides an opportunity, not a handout, for the world’s poorest to take responsibility for their own lives. Individuals who repays their loan can access larger loans and are then energized to mentor others in the street.
Jamii Bora, with the guidance and vision of Ingrid Munro, who had lived in Africa for over 20 years working in housing development, looks for the poorest of the poor, families earning less than $1.25 per day. They search for street beggars, prostitutes, gang members and thieves. Ingrid Munroe believes and has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that any person on this globe, no matter how destitute or downtrodden, once empowered will discover and ignite their own individual creativity and motivation to lead a life of contribution with dignity.
The miracle is one of transformation, both personal and social. A favorite mantra that we heard from the Jamii Bora members is that “it doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is where you are going”. Personal transformation generates social transformation in a reinforcing and self-sustaining reaction. Helping the poorest stand up is a central element in this process of transforming a culture. Many microfinance organizations have found that women are particularly responsive, trustworthy and responsible. As the saying goes, give a woman a loaf of bread and she will share it with her family and if anything is left, her community. Give the man a loaf and he will eat it himself or sell it for something else.
I have been asked, “How many people can this possibly touch?“ Another miracle of Jamii Bora is that this social model is replicable. Jamii Bora has given over a hundred thousand loans totaling almost $3 Billion. Jamii Bora has grown and spread throughout Kenya.
In Bangladesh, Grameen Bank, the microfinance institution begun by Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, has designed a similar program which has spread into Asia and Africa, now reaching millions of people. Another organization called BRAC, also begun by a Bangladeshi, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, has built an organization of several billion US dollars. BRAC is also spreading throughout Asia and Africa. Multitudes of other Microfinance groups, based on similar principles of savings and support groups are cropping up throughout the poorest communities of the world.
Muhammad Yunus has declared that microcredit is about making “The Impossibles Possible!” Leaders of the microfinance movement have said that we have the knowledge to end poverty within this generation. What we need now is not only the political will, but also compassionate commitment within the Institutions that serve the poor to make their first goal serving the poor not their bottom line, nor their investors. Jamii Bora, Grameen Bank and BRAC are outstanding examples of service in the name of the people. Reasonable interest rates and integrated support systems must be the accepted benchmark as we move forward. Institutions that charge 80% and 100% interest rates with the sole goal of profitting off of the world’s poorest are an absolute outrage.
People working in the field know that compassionate microfinance is the best tool that we have for obliterating poverty and obliterating poverty is the best tool we have to rid the world of terrorism.
To access the photos of the amazing people and their homes visit my Facebook page.