The Women’s Group

-Bryce

We’re walking to Mama Lucia. Our shoes crunch the dirt road and the wind whips at the plastic bags clinging to the dried shrubs. The land is a dusty patchwork of half finished construction and leaning fences. Around me are the women, seven members of the New Jordan Womens Group community bank (NJWG). They walk in flowing fabrics of red, black, pink and blue. Some children jeer at us and laughingly try to get a handshake.

“Give me my pen?” one of the children asks.

“You give me my pen.” I respond. The kids laugh harder and dart away.

“We’re going to visit an old mama,” says Hadija Mohammed, “A very sick mama.”

Again, I’ve found myself involved in a food distribution. Bringing food and midnight oil to someone unable to care for themselves. The difference here is the caregivers and the means behind the goods.

Over the past year, the 12 women of NJWG have been working to maintain a community banking project facilitated by Mama Hope though Pepo La Tumaini Jangwani (Wind of Hope in the Desert) in Isiolo, Kenya. The basic idea behind community based microfinance projects is to give those ordinarily unable to access credit, the ability to obtain small business loans, as well as the knowledge to manage these funds

Before the transition to microfinance, the women’s group had already been meeting for several years as a way to support fellow entrepreneurs. Their businesses range from small milk shops and clothing repair to a handful of roadside vegetable stands. A good day brings in about 100 shillings (approx. $1.50 USD).

Seeing the need for expansion, the group started what’s called a merry-go-round. Every week each member brought 50 shillings to give to a single entrepreneur.

“The money would help one of us, but we never moved forward. We were always waiting for our turn and could never make a higher amount “explains the bank’s first elected president, Geraldine Mugaonbi, the owner of a milk shop. “With the microfinance, we are all able to have the money through loans at the same time. So it helps us all.”

The key to this particular bank is its savings lead approach. Rather than an outside source simply giving money to the members, the bank is funded through the member’s hard earned savings. Each week, the members deposit a mandatory and voluntary savings. Once enough is saved, the members begin taking out loans and paying back interest to the fund.

“There is a saying from the coast,” Geraldine goes on, “if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat it, then ask for another. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll never go hungry. Even some of the members who came hoping and expecting money have decided what we got is better”

“I’m running the shop myself. My husband is an old man who never visits,” says Rose Mumbi, owner of a milk and charcoal stand. “I was married to him when I was 12 and he has other wives.”

The sentiment seems to be the same throughout the group. Of the 12 women, over half have no support beyond what they have built for themselves. When documenting a microfinance project in Nicaragua, I found a similar situation. The majority of men had either left their wives or had been unemployed for extended periods of time.

“”We’re not letting any men in the bank,” exclaims Hadija, a vegetable roadside stand owner, during a July 2008 meeting.

The group agrees.

They had one at the beginning. He was a local hired to help them manage the bank and act as a liaison between the NJWG, Pepo La Tumaini and Mama Hope.

“He tried to shake us, but we wouldn’t let him,” explains Hadija. “He was trying take complete control of it. Eventually he just left. No goodbye.”

Another aspect of the bank is the development fund. 20% of the interest from the loans is combined with weekly contributions and set aside to help community focused projects. Whether funding a community health day or helping the women care for the ill, the development fund gives the members the ability to make a positive change in their community. In their most common method of help, the development fund allows the women to bring supplies and psycho-social support to those in the community like Mama Lucia.

11 and a half months after the start of the bank, we enter Mama Lucia’s complex. Outside is a leaning sheet metal gate. The rectangular building is made of worn wood panels blackened with soot. It has 4 sections. Several children play in the front yard with pots and kitchen utensils.

Her room is in the back. It’s dark and she needs help greeting everyone. We spend some time with her chatting and showing her what has been brought. She asks for some petrol to burn at night and the group complies. She doesn’t say much else.

As we’re leaving I’m realizing the full circle this bank has taken. The women are finishing their first year and their capacity has been increasing in tandem with their ability to help the community. They have proposed more food distributions as well as more helping other groups to start their own community banks.

Hadija asks me if I remember a woman named Salma. I do.

We had visited Salma nearly a year ago, my first food distribution with the bank. She was a woman paralyzed from the waist down and unable to leave her home. At first she thought I was there to give her a handout. She refused until she found out it was purely from the women.

To explain her reasons, she propped herself up and said in perfect English, “if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat it, then ask for another. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll never go hungry.”

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