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Lisa, straddling the equator. Copyright 2018 Lisa M. Hendey. All rights reserved.
Today, I straddled the Equator and prayed intentionally for the grace to “walk the line” in my life.
In a sense, we are hitting our groove here in Kenya. Our group of sponsors has become a family of sorts. We watch out for each other, reminding friends to apply sunscreen and to drink sufficient amounts of water to protect ourselves in the bright Kenyan sun. We laugh or cry readily at one another’s family stories. We’ve begun to exchange home contact information to keep in touch when our paths part. Such ready intimacy happens easily in the crucible of an Unbound awareness trip when you simply must find a way to mentally and emotionally process the range of emotions you feel each day. We are in many ways just getting started with our journey, but we are also forever transformed and bonded.
I spend Wednesday morning apart from the group but with a very impressive group of women. One wonderful aspect of Unbound is that sponsored children’s mothers participate in formal “Mothers Groups” that meet monthly as a part of their families’ participation in the program. Unbound Mothers Groups are registered organizations who function according to the guidelines of their own unique constitutions. The local Unbound staffers act as consultants but have no direct control over the groups. Each group elects their own leadership, including a Chairperson, a Treasurer and a Secretary. The meeting process is formalized with attendance, a reading back of the prior minutes, a report from the treasurer and a formal agenda. Group members can bring agenda items forward for group conversation.
I’ve met with Unbound Mothers Groups now in three countries, the Philippines, India and now here in Kenya. It’s interesting to see that while the groups’ tools are similar (their individual banking passbooks, their forms and such), each country’s groups seem to have their own unique flavor. Here in Kenya, the group I met with in the KLA project has a dual focus. Members meet to provide support for Unbound program-related concerns, double checking for such things as whether sponsored children have written letters to their sponsors and have had home visits from social workers. The second part of the group’s mission is financial: Mothers Groups function as “SACCO”s, a sort of savings and lending coalition that is very popular here in Kenya. Group members make a savings deposit into a common account at each meeting. Their deposit amount ranges from an equivalent of approximately one dollar to up to five dollars. For most of us, that feels like nothing… less than what we’d spend on a cup of coffee. But for these women, a deposit of any size is a sign of hope. Additionally, group members can request to take individual loans from the group at a very low-interest rate. These loans are given only after a formal request is made via loan documentation that is approximately two pages long and requires that the borrower do significant research on the purpose and nature of the loan. A series of approval signatures at a variety of levels must be obtained for the loan to be approved. Loans are then directly deposited into the requesting member’s bank account via EFT. Repayment is made over a particular term.
The nature of these loans is interesting. Loans are not typically granted for personal needs such as food or family items. Rather, the group I met with focuses on lending for entrepreneurial or construction related expenses. This is an impressive group of women. Their twenty-five members gather not only to support one another emotionally but also to encourage one another to live lives that will offer greater prospects for a brighter future.
It might be easy to dwell on these women’s challenges. The group that welcomed me yesterday included one woman who is partially blind and dealing with health challenges. I met in their midst widows and more than a few women who had been left penniless by their husbands to provide sole care for their children. Many of the mothers have not had formal education. They deal daily with a bevy of challenges that would send me to my knees.
But as I’m learning, Kenyan women are not only beautiful but also strong and wise. As yesterday’s meeting neared its end, several of the women stood to share with me their success stories. First of all, imagine that in giving these brief reports that had to overcome not only nerves and emotion but also the barrier of speaking in English to a stranger. But time and time again, these remarkable women rose to share how from humble beginnings, the SACCO loans they had taken have enabled them to better their lives by beginning small businesses.
With rampant unemployment in their community, the mothers are making their own opportunities. They sell phone cards and moto parts. They make peanut butter and sell fresh fruit. They run salons and fashion outlets and design intricate beaded jewelry. They have looked around themselves, spotted needs, and have come up with creative ways to fill those needs. Every woman who gave a report spoke of humble beginnings made possible by their loans, but several have also come back to the group multiple times, increasing the size of their loans (after repayment of previous requests) to increase the size of their inventory. Their tears of frustration turn into bright smiles as they share how this work has enabled them to pay school fees for their children or care for their families. It’s clear to see that the dignity and self-worth of the women are truly fostered by these Mothers Groups.
After this uplifting few hours, it was time to begin the next part of our journey by hitting the highway to head to Nanyuki. Along the highway, with views of Mount Kenya on one side and coffee plantations on the other, we pulled over for a surprise stop at the Equator, which runs through Kenya. As each of us took turns to catch a tourist-worthy photo of ourselves straddling a chalk-drawn line on the ground, my mind turned to the imagery of the phrase, “walk the line” (which is perhaps fresh on my mind owing to Kenyans’ love of country music).
We sponsors must learn to straddle two worlds. As followers of Christ, we are called to be in the world, but not of it. I already know that my heart will be breaking next week when I say goodbye to the Unbound family here in Kenya. Just typing these words brings pain to my soul and tears to my eyes. But this is not home. I know I will struggle with remorse over the excess I will see back home. It’s always challenging to see poverty so close up and not feel guilty about what I have, how blessed I am. It’s easy to begin to pass judgment. But I’ve decided instead to focus on straddling that line before me: to understand the needs here and to remember that part of the joy of being blessed is the blessing of being able to help others. Folks here in Kenya face many of the same concerns we have at home: we want a secure home life, a bright future for our children, and a fulfilling mission in life. Straddling the line, having part of my heart and home and part committed to understanding and aiding with challenges faced by others, is how I’m feeling called to live right now. Having a foot on both sides of the line might mean that you’re never fully “right” in either place. Or, as I noticed hovering over the Equator yesterday, it might mean that you feel balanced and happy in both places.
I’m still working on this metaphor and will have more time to ponder it as we take off today for Meru. I hope that if these posts are blessing you, you’ll consider sharing them. Be sure to follow me on social media using hashtag #UnboundAdventure for images, videos and sharings from my fellow sponsors.
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Copyright 2018 Lisa M. Hendey