Rosemary and Golowa, BOMA’s other Business Mentor from Laisamis village, arrived at the campsite to join me for tea and mandazi. It gave us a chance to review the training program that all of the Business Mentors had attended in western Kenya. Rosemary felt the program helped her to better advise and mentor the businesses. She also found it helpful to see the diversity of businesses in western Kenya.
Poor people are reluctant to take risks and so they tend to mimic what they know will work. With BOMA’s REAP program, we want to encourage the poor to determine their own course and own the results. So right now we are seeing a fair amount of duplication of businesses, but what is exciting is that we are also seeing adaptation and diversification after the businesses have been in operation for about six months.
Ntitoya Mirgichan of the Mirchigan village business group confirmed for us that we are on the right track. She told me “Mama Rungu, BOMA is the only organization that came to us in the right way. You sent our own people to teach us how to do business and they have taught us well. You did not try and make us take credit. You are the only person who has ever visited us in our home to see that we are succeeding.”
The evidence of bloated, patronizing and ineffective aid organizations is everywhere. A large Christian organization has a fleet of shiny vehicles here in the district. They have large numbers of field officers who are paid well to do surveys of the people. They’ve been conducting these surveys for SEVEN years and I’m proud to say that four of the villages in the region have kicked them out since the village residents have seen few improvements in their lives as the result of their presence. The vehicles seem to have an endless supply of expensive petrol and the drivers are regularly employed as taxi drivers to drive people around the district. This represents considerable income for the drivers, and I am sure that the donors to this organization have no idea how their valuable donations, which include the purchase of vehicles, are being used. Even more reprehensible, most of the children in the area have been photographed for the child sponsorship program which has resulted in a tiny fraction of the students receiving school uniforms.
And then children are brought into a classroom where a letter to donors is written on the blackboard and they must write it down, word for word. The name and address of the donor will be added later. The exploitative nature of their work is demeaning, creates aid-dependent communities and represents all that is wrong about aid programs. My fury at such organizations is sometimes what keeps me going.
That day in Laisamis village area, we visited 22 of our 40 businesses. It is clear that our greatest success lies in the nomadic villages where they sell simple things like posho, beans, tea, sugar and beads. The biggest challenge they face is the competition with the free relief food that comes in from the aid agencies. We will document the changes in the socio-economic indicators for each participant in the program in July, so for now I am here to collect the anecdotal evidence. I only had to write down what the women told me: “Our children are back in school;” “Now we are in development and our children benefit from this;” “This business gives us strength;” “People did not see us but now we have respect.” The women were proud to show us their record books maintained by the schoolchildren in the village and their cash box of savings and profits.
They were also intent upon showing us how their lives have improved: “Mama Rungu, I have a new house.” “Mama Rungu, come see, I now sleep on a mattress.” “Mama Rungu, my child was sick and I had money for the clinic.” Five years ago when I started BOMA and visited these villages, I was besieged with requests for help – food, school fees, money to pay for health care. All they saw was a mzungu (white person) and that triggered an immediate begging response, conditioned by years of well-intentioned aid. Now it was all about what they were doing for themselves and the close relationship they have with their local Business Mentors who provided advice and encouragement.
We ran out of time to visit all of the businesses in the remote villages since we wanted to reach Loglogo before nightfall. The heat was even wearing down my team of warriors, so we said goodbye to Golowa and Rosemary and went back out on the brutal corrugated road. Before we left, Omar drained the last of the petrol from the leaking tank and tightened everything that had come loose the day before.
By the time we reached the Isgargaro women’s group camp in Loglogo, I was not feeling well from the heat. You can drink three litres of water a day and still not have to visit the bathroom. It was too hot to go into my hut and I slept on a covered day bed outside, soothed by the wind and the chatter of voices. About 8 p.m., Aleya brought a basin of water for me in the bath house, a simple roofless structure of a cement floor and four tin sheets for sides. The moon was high and provided enough light for me to wash without a lamp. After a dinner of ugali and soup, and a couple of stories by Kura, I fell asleep to the sounds of the woman singing. Semeji and Turunga, our other local security man, woke me in the middle of the night as they quietly sang the warrior songs outside my hut. I listened to the gentle crack-drip of the termites munching my bed poles and went back to sleep.