In our time with Jamii Bora, I have gotten a sense of the difference between pretense and pride. Not a single one of the people I have met has a shred of pretense that I have detected yet each one of them embodies and expresses their pride; in the work they are doing, in their families and communities, in Ingrid and Jamii Bora, and in the simple gift of just being alive to greet another day with some hope and dignity.
When we arrived at the Jamii Bora office on our first visit we were greeted by the whole staff singing a rousing traditional Swahili song (“We always move forward, never back”), clapping and dancing us across the parking lot and up the stairs into the office. Claris lead the charge, voice loud and proud, body swaying, face beaming.
Claris is from the ranks of the first fifty. She’s happy with Jamii Bora for a lot of reasons and one is that, although she never attended school, she was speaking to us in English which she learned through Jamii Bora. But more to the point, Claris is happy with Jamii Bora “because it changed my life and my children’s lives. If not for Jamii Bora, all of my children would be thieves or dead. But now all of them have gone to school.”
She met Ingrid when she was in the street and utterly hopeless. She explained that she was very skinny back then and proudly declared, “Look at me now.” She is a strong, stout woman with the bearing of a linebacker. Nobody messes with Claris.
Her husband chased her and their five kids away (apparently a frequent phenomenon with men married to more than one woman when they tire of the responsibility of too many families) and she ended up on the streets. She walked for 2 days from her rural home to Nairobi in search of work which she never found. She figured it was just a matter of time before she and her children died. In a state of desperation, she accepted ten shillings (about 12 cents) for sex and became pregnant. When she discovered this she prayed for her own death and the death of the unborn child who she did not want to be born into the harsh world she had come to know.
When Ingrid came to a park with young Waithaka (her recently adopted Kenyan son) where many homeless people squatted, she and Claris met. Claris recalls that at first the women looked at Ingrid and said only, “Give me” as they were accustomed to doing as street people who had reached that level of despondency. Ingrid told Claris and the other women that she believed they were good mothers and that they could change their minds and their lives and run their own businesses, but that they would have to do that for themselves. She would provide the hand up but not the hand out. Claris quickly decided to sign on and ended up moving to the Saweto temporary shelter with her children.
A year later Claris took out her first loan for 2000 shillings to start a business cooking fish, the one thing she knew how to do from how her rural home close to Lake Victoria. For the first time she was able to feed her children from her own business and had a little money in her pocket for necessities.
Claris has since taken out and paid back numerous loans for increasingly larger amounts and went on to build several stalls in an open-air market where she started several new businesses and rented out the other stalls.
It was a very proud day for Claris when she was first able to help out her own mother financially. She has since helped many other people and firmly admonishes her own children, “You will help other people.”
“God gave us Momma Ingrid as Moses. I pray that she will live to be 150 years old!”
Claris is now living in Kaputiei (more on what Kaputiei is later) where she has a 2-bedroom home and a grocery business that provides goods for Kaputiei residents and food for the boy’s orphanage there. Her youngest son, the one she had wished would die during her darkest hour, is almost finished with high school.
Joyce was living upcountry and had some acreage and a small farm where she was contentedly raising her 5 children. Tribal violence erupted in 1997 and she lost everything and was driven from her home. She ended up in Nairobi where she met a woman living in a slum who invited her and her children to stay in her home with her. This woman also had 5 children; count them – 12 people living in one 10 x 10 room. Joyce had absolutely nothing with her but her children. The woman she was staying with, already working with Jamii Bora, bought Joyce a hoe. Being the farmer that she is, Joyce scouted out and dug up a 4-acre plot of land on the side of a road (you can do that sort of thing in Kenya) and planted beans and maize. She had been introduced to the savings plan but wondered how she would feed her children and herself until the crops she had planted were producing.
Joyce, farmer and budding business tycoon, began washing people’s clothes and started saving. She was able to move into a two room house with her children not long after. Her crops were producing and she continued her laundry business. She took out a loan and started a restaurant. This was followed by several other restaurants, a video sales business, and a movie house. She then began selling food to schools. She’d take out another loan, start a new business, pay the loan back, and repeat. She purchased a generator for her restaurant and then a van that she converted into a mobile kitchen. Next she started a wholesale and retail juice business. She was eventually able to purchase some land.
Finally she was ready to do something she’d wanted to try for a while and she took out her largest loan yet and built a 2-story restaurant. Right before it was completed, it was burned to the ground. She found out through the grapevine it was arson and who was responsible. She confronted the woman who would not fess up and told her, “I know what you did but God will bless you.” And she left it at that.
Next she went to Ingrid and first took out a 600,000 shilling loan and began rebuilding her restaurant. Midway through the process she took out a 2nd loan for another 500,000 shillings and was able to complete the rebuilding process.
The wildly popular African Brothers Restaurant now employs upwards of forty people! She is almost finished paying off the loan. Her son George helps manage the restaurant. Two small storefronts in front of the restaurant provide her other two sons, an artist and a technician, with places to work.
Joyce is a well-respected business woman in Saweto and her stately bearing attests to that. “Momma Ingrid took us from nothing to something. God is good. If there could be five Jamii Boras in Kenya, I think nobody would be poor.”
Margaret, another of the first fifty, had lost her home and was on the street with her children. She met Ingrid and responded to her message that she could stop begging and learn how to support herself and her children. Margaret was soon on board to the degree that she began encouraging and mentoring other women in her position.
After raising her own 5 children, Margaret adopted 5 orphans, one with physical disabilities. She has raised all of them, and now they are all in school or married except for Ruben, the youngest, who still lives at home. We visited Margaret’s spotless home in Saweto (the one I described in an earlier blog, white and ashram-like) and met Ruben.
“We had no hope left but these days we are good mothers with hope.”
Margaret works with Janet in the Tumaini Department out of the small Jamii Bora office in Saweto.
Though struggling with some health issues, Margaret gamely joined us on walks through several slums. We didn’t speak a lot but an immediate bond developed between us and we spent a lot time smiling at each other and holding hands as we squeezed through the narrow slum passageways. Each time she saw me, she would ask me if I remembered her name and I thought about my grandmother who has passed away, also a tough Margaret who faced many challenges in her life. How could I forget?