The reggae we were grooving to in our car was perfect for the roads between Eldoret and Turbo. We grooved over the single and triple speedbumps in Eldoret, the car rising and falling in rhythm with the backbeat. These beats were the right soundtrack for weaving between petroleum tanker trucks, semis hauling who-knows-what, tractors pulling trailers stacked high with sugarcane, matatus (1) loudly painted with names like “God’s Providence,” “Trippin Luxury,” and “Kangaroo Shuttle,” motorbikes laden with people and crates of vegetables, and small cars on Highway A104. A clear path was rare. A104 is part of an almond-shaped ring road that passes through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania around Lake Victoria. It also connects landlocked Ugandan and South Sudanese businesses to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, via Nairobi, the capital of East Africa’s largest economy. Truck traffic was heavy. Eldoret, our home base, is the northeast point of the almond. At the other end is Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, 1,170 km away, or 21 hours according to Google Maps. Open landscapes of tree-dotted pasture and tilled earth alternated with strips of shops and lodging, such as the dusty, tin-roofed and tin-sided Smart Pork Hotel (yes, Pork, as in the meat,) the shiny Ketia’s Supermarket with its Indian swastika over the entrance and Sanskrit “om” symbol over the exit, butchers hanging their wares in glass storefront cases, and gas stations like OiLibya, Suez Energy, Kobil, and Shell, the one familiar brand. Men and boys drove cattle and goats parallel to the road.
Our driver turned off the highway down an ochre-colored dirt road that, aside from the color, resembled the streets of Indianapolis. The car again undulated to the reggae rhythm on the uneven surface around large pits filled with water in the middle of the road. There were a few houses, some shacks, and occasionally painted buildings that looked like warehouses. Mostly, there were patches of woods and fields. I rested my arm on the door and breathed in the fresh air blowing across my face. We waved at toddlers sitting on lawns with chickens pecking around them. Cows looked up from their grazing as we passed. A goat ignored us while devouring a sharp-looking plant. After a while, our cars pulled to the side.
“Hello. My name is Catherine. Karibu sana.” She wore a pale yellow blouse, a patterned wrap around the top of her head, and a soft smile. “Please come in. Karibu sana. You are late!” Our group of 11 was shepherded through a rustic wooden door into a little mud-walled building the color of the road. It was dark in there except for the light pouring in through the door, a couple of windows (square, wood-framed holes in the wall, really,) and a few pinholes in a rusty panel of the otherwise clean, pitched, corrugated metal roof. On the front wall were posted a couple of 2017 calendars featuring a European-looking Jesus standing in front of a cross. To their right were two green, white, and red tricolor flags reminiscent of Italy’s. (2) Round-faced women and lanky men, all wearing shirts similar to Catherine’s over their sweaters, awaited us, seated on benches along the walls in the front half of the building. Many of them wore scarves and knit caps. They held thin paper passbooks and cash in their hands. (3) Those seated along the front wall had simple wooden tables in front of them. Our group sat along the wall in the back half of the building. I heard a rooster in the distance. Sheep, cattle, songbirds, and motorbikes joined the chorus, too. The dirt floor was smooth and tidy. The shoes ranged from well-used sandals to sneakers to brand new work boots. Out a window, I could see a crumbling wall. Or was it a wall under construction?
An elderly man with a sun-weary face rose from the front. He addressed us in Swahili, calling the meeting to order. (4) We were here to observe the Maisha (5) Self-Help Group, one of several GISHE (Group Integrated Savings for Health and Empowerment). These have been organized throughout rural western Kenya to boost community health by making credit available to people who would not otherwise have access. The money comes from its members, is loaned to its members, and after 12 months is divided between the members according to the number of shares purchased. A member can request loans up to 2x the value of the shares they hold. If the recipient pays the loan in full at the end of the first month, it is interest-free. If the balance isn’t paid, 10% of the remaining balance is added as interest. This repeats monthly until the load is paid. (6)
The women and men sitting at the tables in front were officers of the GISHE. After a prayer, the elderly man turned the meeting over to the treasurer, a serious-looking woman who wrapped her head in a cornflower blue-colored cloth. (7) She initiated the first part of the meeting: the Merry-Go-Round. “Number 1” she said. (8) A woman along the wall responded “200” and handed Catherine cash, who handed it to a lady who counted and stacked the bills, whose work was verified by the woman next to her. Ms. Treasurer wrote down the contribution, called out “Number 2” and the process repeated itself until each member contributed. Ms. Money Counter counted each bill aloud and on display, a practice put in place to ensure transparency. Each member counted out loud with her. The accumulated 6,000 Ksh (about $60; Ksh = Kenyan Shillings) was handed to a woman sitting along the wall. This group meets every week. Each week, a different member receives the lump sum. The 200 Ksh contribution is required.
“Social Fund.” announced Ms. Treasurer. She read the members’ numbers again. This time, the contributions ranged from 20 Ksh to 100 Ksh, which I later learned are the upper and lower contribution limits for this fund. The money from this fund is secured by the treasurer and can be requested by any member to cover an emergency expense. Approval is granted by the membership. After the money was collected, Ms. Treasurer announced each contribution in order. The membership responded with the cumulative sum: 1040 Ksh. I was impressed at the speed of their mental arithmetic. I joined in for the exercise and noticed that it kept me awake and paying attention. At the end, Ms. Money Counter verified the amount. It would be difficult for cash to walk away without someone noticing.
“Savings!” Ms. Treasurer was steady in her enthusiasm. In this phase, members purchased shares in the GISHE. The price of 1 share varies from GISHE to GISHE depending on the affluence of the membership. In this one, the price was 100 Ksh. In all GISHE, 5 shares is the purchase limit each week, so in this case, 500 Ksh was the maximum. Since the maximum loan amount is equal to 2 x the value of one’s shares, this limit ensures that no one member can gain access to the GISHE’s entire pot of money. The collection and accounting procedure was the same as the social fund except that members handed both their cash and passbook to Catherine. As I added numbers aloud with the membership, my brow furrowed a bit. I’m not sure if it is the brow-furrowing or the math that will stave off dementia. They accumulated 7,200 Ksh in share purchases.
“Fiiines!!” Ms. Treasurer yielded the floor to Ms. “Disciplinarian,” the title Catherine gave her when introducing her. “We’re glad she’s a woman and not a man.” she added. Ms. Disciplinarian called out the names and numbers of people who were late to the meeting, who had to pay a fine of 20 Ksh. This was a subtle shift from earlier, where only numbers were used; earlier, they had explained why they were so deliberate about omitting names. Only a few people were late. Of course we were also “late”, which meant that we could pay our “fine.” Catherine smiled and rubbed her hands together as she approached Dyron, who was sitting in the back and was the bearer of our pooled fine money. He held out the cash, which she received with a bow. The treasurer led the accounting, and the membership responded enthusiastically with the sums as each bill was presented. The total – 8,500 Ksh (about $85) – was ratified and everyone clapped and cheered. To us, $85 is a small sum. Walking money. Pieces of paper we each had in our wallets. Each of us has spent that much on nice meals at restaurants or buying groceries without giving it a second thought. To the women of Maisha GISHE, who make $1 a day, it is the ability to start or grow a business, or buying seed for the farm, or paying school fees for children, or buying new fabric for the dress shop, or covering transit for a health screening. It’s a real windfall that opens doors that support and enable a healthier life.
- Think a minivan that seats 12 uncomfortablyefficiently, stops unexpectedly, enters traffic as you are about to pass it, and passes anything in its way on the shoulder.
- I later learned from Margaret, an interpreter who joined us, that this is not the Italian flag, but rather the flag of a denomination called “The Divine Church”, which is that of this church.
- 24 women and 6 men. The shirts are a required uniform in this meeting.
- Margaret interpreted this part for us live.
- Maisha is a Swahili noun meaning “life.” It comes from an Arabic verb that means “to live.”
- Thanks to Lucas Heinis for his notes on the loans. Margaret, the interpreter, explained these things to him in more detail after the meeting.
- Most of the women wore something on their heads. A couple of women wore knit caps. Many wrapped the tops of their heads in cloth of various colors and patterns. No one had the same one.
- The treasurer refers to members by number to protect the identity of the lump sum recipient from passers-by.