I have now been with The Undugu Society for three days. I spent yesterday and today visiting many of Undugu’s projects in the informal settlements of Nairobi. They are the slums of Nairobi and are inhabited by the poorest of the poor.
The first informal settlement I visited was Kibera, the largest slum in Africa and possibly the largest slum in the world. Bernard, my new colleague at Undugu and the director of Undugu’s Kibera project, said that 700,000 people live in Kibera. More liberal estimates (like Wikipedia) say there are 1 million people living in Kibera. Either way, that is a lot of people to put on 650 acres. A LOT OF PEOPLE! The people make up the poorest of the poor. When people talk about extreme poverty, they talk about Kibera.
I met several people in Kibera, but one of them left a particularly lasting impact on me. Her name was Mary and she is a single mother who is a part of a self-help micro loan group that was started by Undugu. I met Mary when I observed her group’s weekly meeting at Undugu’s Kibera Community Center.
When I entered the meeting, Mary was sitting with her colleagues taking turns reviewing the neatly kept ledger and making the appropriate marks. They also took turns counting the cash on the table that was made up of small bills and coins. I glanced at their ledger for the week and found that the largest loan payment was 750 Shillings (about $10.30) and the smallest loan payment was 250 Shillings (about $4.10). The numbers may have been small, but their impact was much larger. To know that, one would just have to talk to Mary and see her excitement for what they were doing.
Mary owns a small business where she sells charcoal to her neighbors living in Kibera. Without the self-help micro loan group, her business wouldn’t be possible. Mary proudly explained the process of the self-help group for me; their weekly meetings, the amount of payments, their voluntary donations to their group savings account, and the trust they have for each other.
The group was passionate about what they were doing (especially Mary). As Mary explained to me the details of her business regarding costs, prices, profits, and payments to the group account, I was reminded of a lesson that I learned several years ago while working in a similar slum in the Marshall Islands. That lesson is that living in poverty does not mean living without dignity. Mary explained to me her business structure as if she were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She is her own boss. She earns enough money to sustain a livelihood for herself and her children. Most importantly, Mary had dignity in what she was doing. Undugu is to be credited for making this possible for Mary.
Mary is just one of several people I have met in two days who have benefited from Undugu’s services. But, her story sums up much of what Undugu is doing. They are empowering community members and giving them the tools that they need to have dignity in their lives.
Posted By Jonathan Homer
Posted Jun 14th, 2007