Kenyan Women rise from beggars to lenders


In Kibera’s Toi Market, more than 1,750 Jamii Bora traders lost their stalls during the 2007/2008 post-election violence. Today, the market has more 2,300 stalls.

Confidence is the middle name of Ms Nancy Wairimu. The mother of seven has known the worst in life, raising a family in the Mathare slums single-handedly.

Wairimu has not only lived through it all, but like the mythical phoenix that rises from the ashes, she has risen to become a shareholder in one of Kenya’s youngest commercial banks, Jamii Bora. The 55-year-old’s story is truly a rags-to-riches one.

The branch manager of the Funzi Road (Industrial Area) branch of Jamii Bora Sacco, and co-ordinator of the Sacco’s Nairobi branches, and who has vast experience in working with street beggars, is described by Mrs Ingrid Munro as “a worker, a manager and a social worker”.

The Standard Six school-leaver comes from “a very poor family” whose “father deserted our mother”. Wairimu abandoned the drudgery of farm work for the dubious glitter of Nairobi. An active member of St Teresa’s Church, Eastleigh, across the road from her Mathare Valley shack, Wairimu eventually secured a job as a cook at the church.

Nancy Wairimu: Worked as a cook to fend for her seven children but is now a bank manager at Jamii Bora Sacco.

It was while at St Teresa’s that she met Mrs Munro, who, with her husband Bob Munro of Mathare youth Sports Association (Mysa) fame, had adopted three street boys.

While the expatriate couple realised soon enough that it would not be feasible to adopt every street child, and opened a home at a church in Maili Saba near Kasarani, they soon learned that street children had parents to whom they were assets, and it would be hard to keep them in a home.

Ever wondered why street mothers always carry small babies? It is to win alms-givers’ sympathy. Taking them away spoils their mothers’ “business”.

Ms Janet Bett proved to be quite resourceful in transforming the beggars’ dependency mind-set. She is generally regarded in Jamii Bora circles as “a great mobiliser”. But mobilising fellow beggars was the easy part. Convincing the authorities to register them into a group was another story altogether.

The Nairobi provincial commissioner at that time dismissed the idea of registering the women, because, according to him, they were “not normal”. And yet in seeking to be registered, all they wanted was “the best for their children, just like all mothers,” their mentor, Mrs Munro, told the administrator, who has since died.

Janet, for one, was not a beggar by choice. The trained schoolteacher was kicked out by her abusive husband in 1988 after he had burnt her certificates. Without the papers, no school in Nairobi would employ her. She had to beg in desperation.

In 1994, Janet mobilised fellow street beggars after Nairobi streets were swept clean of what to the city fathers was human nuisance ahead of a major African Development Bank meeting.

Through an intercessor, the leadership of St Andrew’s Church had promised to confine the beggars in the church compound so they would not spill back into the streets. They had even roped in NGOs to donate tents and services to specific groups of beggars.

Mr Solomon Gacece, the then chairman of the social responsibility committee at St Andrew’s, told Living: “More than 50,000 street children from Nairobi alone assembled at the church.”

Then all hell broke loose with the start of the Rwandan genocide. The tents were uprooted and taken to Rwanda. The girls had to go to Soweto, where the African Housing Fund (AHF), then headed by Mrs Munro, had a programme, while the boys were taken to the Boy Scouts’ Rowallan Camp.

Mr Gacece remembers that time as if it were yesterday — and with a tinge of drama. In particular, the goodwill of the people of Nairobi stood out — from barbers who offered to shave the boys free of charge, to well-wishers who filled two pick-ups with clothing for the street families.

After the week-long meeting, asking the women to go back to the streets was just not possible; something concrete had to be done for them and Ford Foundation came to the rescue.

Although the then regional director, Mr Charles Bailey, was sceptical about the viability of a street beggars’ project, Mrs Ingrid Bailey was fascinated by the idea and prevailed on her husband to fund the AHF proposal to support the women’s project.

Genesis of great things

Typical of many such programmes that run not so much on the principle of know-how but know who, the project that was involved in providing shelter and water for the poor lasted until Mrs Munro’s retirement in 1999.

The male “experts” who joined the AHF at that time were not keen on working with beggars, and a group of women sought their mentor’s support pleading: “Mum, you can’t abandon us now.”

Given Janet’s rapport with fellow beggars, it was not difficult to form a club.

By September 1999, they were ready to formalise and register as a charitable trust. They wanted to call it Tumaini (Kiswahili for “hope”) Trust, but a search at the AG’s found the name had already been taken. The women brainstormed and settled on Jamii Bora (Kiswahili for “better/superior families”).

They dealt a lot with street children, coaching families to take care of them. It was the genesis of the Tumaini Children’s Home in Kitengela.

Former street boy David Mwita, an accountant at Jamii Bora Sacco, is a product of the children’s home. The orphan, who ran away from an abusive uncle, was picked from a street in Westlands and placed in Class Six.

Mwita, 25, studied accounts at the Nairobi Training Centre in Kibera after scoring a “C+” in KCSE at AIC Oloolaibor Secondary School in Ngong. He was working at the microfinance institution (MFI) that has since become Jamii Bora Bank, after Central Bank introduced new rules that imposed tough demands on banks and micro-finance institutions.

The law required financial institutions to raise Sh350 million by 2009, Sh500 million in 2010, Sh700 million by last year and to have fully complied by December 31, 2012.

To be able to cater for all their members, a decision was made to form a savings and credit cooperative organisation (sacco) that took more than a year to be approved.
Registration was not easy, although when it finally happened, it debunked the myth that saccos are only for salaried people.

Under the tough CBK rules, the original members of the MFI that had branches as far apart as Moyale and Taveta, risked being edged out, hence the sacco.

For instance, banks need special physical set-ups like bullet-proof windows — a prohibitive requirement for the nascent bank. The former MFI’s countrywide network was whittled down to the current branches on Funzi Road, Industrial Area, Koinange Street, Mathare, Huruma, Mombasa and Kisumu.

Jamii Bora hired “some brilliant people from the Kenya Commercial Bank to work with our own people, who were not conversant with banking rules. Jamii Bora Trust owns 25 per cent of Jamii Bora Bank” — a percentage that was set to drop to 11 per cent because other shareholders must come on board to comply with CBK rules, Mrs Munro told Living.

The group started off with 50 beggars, and “grew like a bushfire”. After one year, the women went home for Christmas, and they were the ones who bought the chicken for the celebration. The amazed villagers asked: “What is the secret?” They replied: “I’m a member of Jamii Bora”.

Through word of mouth, the group grew to 120,000 members countrywide, until the dream was almost killed by the 2008 post-election violence. More than 60,000 members of Jamii Bora lost their homes and everything they had in life.

Hope over despair

At Kibera’s Toi Market alone, more than 1,750 Jamii Bora traders lost their stalls. Although they had a health insurance scheme for members in 2001 and a disaster insurance scheme by June 2007, the latter could not cover the post-poll violence damage. Still, a lot of people came to their rescue after the leadership embarked on a “begging mission”. Today, Toi Market has 2,300 stalls.

It is a testimony to Jamii Bora’s 300,000 members’ resilience that while they were pondering their losses, CBK came up with tough new regulations. Rather than throw in the towel, they bought City Finance Bank, which CBK wanted to close.

“All the staff of Jamii Bora is from among the members — former beggars, desperately poor slum dwellers and rural landless people who know what it is like to be poor.

“It’s something that you don’t learn from a university degree. No matter how well intentioned,” Ingrid says, “so long as one has never lived in the streets, the wits of a Class Six pupil cannot match those of a child who has lived in the streets for six years.”

And that, Wairimu explains, is why all her daughters are educated, despite her humble educational background. The woman, who lives in Kasarani, borrowed from the group to educate her children.

In 2009, she borrowed Sh600,000 to put up 10 rental units, which now earn her a steady income. Not only is she a landlady, but also lives in a house she built using an AHF loan.

Jamii Bora is a testimony to hope over despair: “We can’t call ourselves Christians if we ignore the plight of the less privileged. When we started working with beggars, I asked myself, ‘Why are they not outside churches on Sundays as they are outside mosques on Fridays?’ The sad truth is that they are not inside the church and they are not outside it. Christians have been trained not to give. All the rich do is build tougher, higher walls. We’re building ourselves into caves.





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