Jamii is the plural of family in Swahili

Bora is good, but not just good, better than good

Like many beautiful unfoldings, the initial seeds of Jamii Bora were sewn with no idea about what yield would eventually follow.

Ingrid Munro grew up in Sweden and had a rather illustrious career as the Head of the Department for the Swedish Council for Building and Research where she was both the youngest person and the first woman to hold that position. She then accepted an invitation to come to Africa to set up a Pan-African intergovernmental organization called the African Housing Fund, a position that was meant to last for 2 years. She stayed with the project for 11 years and it was during those years that the foundation for what would become Jamii Bora was established.

“Camera Shy”
Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana

Ingrid’s heart for the poor was strongly nourished in this period as she spent time in the early mornings and evenings, before and after her day at the Housing Fund, visiting the poorest communities where the very serious housing and development needs really lay. During this time, one of Ingrid’s daughters was volunteering at a Catholic hospital and had become rather taken with a 6 year-old boy who was there in very serious condition after being hit by a bus. Ingrid and her husband Robert adopted that boy, Waithaka, and later his two brothers, Kareithi and Maina.  Ingrid got to know many of the mothers of her son’s friends and became intimately connected with the challenges they were facing. Many of them were beggars, some thieves, and some prostitutes but all of them were struggling mightily to keep themselves and their children alive.

Ingrid’s reputation as an advocate for the poor was beginning to be known and she was approached by the government when the African Development Bank meeting was being planned. During such events the government rounds up all of the people living on the streets in particular areas and throws them into jails (very sordid places in Kenya) for the length of the event so visiting VIPs won’t see the real poverty that is so evident and widespread. Ingrid was able to get some funding from the Ford Foundation to provide food and shelter for 250 street people with the promise that they would be kept off of the streets for one month. Tents were set up in an informal settlement called Saweto and people were fed and given medical care.

“Room with a view”
Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana

It was during this time that the famed “first fifty” came into being: fifty of the women in that temporary settlement agreed to go through a process of rehabilitation and training during which they learned or relearned basic skills that had been lost during their years of extreme poverty, such as personal hygiene and self-care. They were introduced to the concept of saving money (which was required before any loans would be given), to remedial business concepts, and to the life-changing philosophy that poverty becomes a state of mind and they were capable of climbing the ladder out of that state permanently, not with hand-outs but with a hand up. Most importantly, they received the most precious gift any human being can receive during a period of desperation – being seen, heard, understood, believed in, and loved. These were the first fifty women to receive loans and they decided on the name Jamii Bora because they were able to claim that as their true identity.

When Ingrid’s stint at the Housing Fund ended she was ready to pack up and go back to Sweden with her family. But the many women whose lives she had become so critically involved with and who were at long last beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t hear of it. They pleaded with her to stay and stay she did, in fact she’s never left. She has been a tireless and fierce advocate and champion of the poorest of the poor, founding the largest micro-finance organization in Kenya.

“Ingrid Munro”
Photographed by Monicahm Photography

Jamii Bora Trust came into being in 1999 and was set up to function like a bank for the poor, a place where people could save money and take out loans without having collateral or even a regular salary, the only one of its kind in the country. The trust became an official bank recently but when all of the regulatory red-tape became too cumbersome and unsustainable for the population and purposes it had originally intended to serve, Ingrid started Jamii Bora SACCO (Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization) earlier this year. The feat of getting a SACCO registered countrywide with the affiliation of not teachers or doctors but poor people was Herculean.

“Local laundromat”
Photographed by Malcolm King-Fontana

Those are the bare-bones of how Jamii Bora came to be. The real meat of it is this: one woman was willing to go into some very grim places and she allowed that to not just touch her heart but to break and rebirth her heart. She responded to the most pressing needs, one and then another and another and another. And during this whole process her character and determination and creativity was being further developed. She invited along as her friends and colleagues the very people who understood the mountain she has been climbing with them because they are the experts on their own life experiences. From this collaboration, hundreds of thousands of people have received help and hope and for some of them it has been life-changing. To say that Ingrid is respected and loved deeply feels like an understatement but what beyond that can be said?

One Jamii Bora employee told us, “Ingrid can walk through any slum in Nairobi without fear for her security. She is known and loved by the street people who she has always been good to. She is considered a white-skinned African.” Every person we met with spoke of “Momma Ingrid” with such sincere adoration and bade us pray for her long life and good health. “What would we do without her?” was an anguished and frequent refrain. In a world that values material wealth so highly, irrespective of what genuine and lasting good it actually does, being a champion for the destitute and mentoring them toward mental, spiritual, and material health that they earn, ain’t too shabby a legacy.