Mary dreamed of going to college. She was very determined and passionate about attending school. Her father, who considered education unnecessary, reluctantly agreed to indulge her, but only through the primary grades. After that, he expected her to quit school and get ready for marriage.
Fortunately for Mary, she received a scholarship after finishing primary school that enabled her to go through four years of high school. Since it was paid for, her father allowed her to go. She held out hope that college could be in her future.
As soon as Mary finished her last high school paper, she hurried home excitedly. When she reached home, however, her father informed her that he had already married her off. He was just waiting for her to be done with high school for everything to be finalized.
The news broke Mary’s heart. Her dreams of getting a college education were dashed to pieces. She couldn’t refuse to marry — her father had already received the dowry, spent some of it on alcohol, and misused the rest. So Mary became the third wife of her husband.
Mary stayed in her hometown, Wamba, where the husband built a house for her. He lived mostly in the village with his other two wives. Their relationship was difficult. He controlled all the money and property, and he was intimidated by her education. She worked hard, but she owned nothing.
By tradition, tribal women in Kenya bear the brunt of caring for their families. They often walk long distances, up to 10 miles each way, to fetch water and collect firewood, carrying these heavy loads on their backs and heads. They are responsible for putting food on the table. Sometimes they even build the house.
The tribal people of northern Kenya are largely nomadic. The men keep livestock, such as goats, cows, and sheep. In times of drought, which is common in this region, the men leave home to take their animals in search of greener pastures.
Most of the wealth is tied up in livestock, which usually belongs exclusively to the men, so the women generally have no assets of their own. This makes life harder for women left at home with hardly any money for food and other essentials. The situation gets even more challenging when a man marries multiple women, as in Mary’s case.
Because the men are often out with the livestock, tribal churches are composed mostly of women and children.
New opportunity for Mary
Mary attended a church started by Cornerstone Evangelistic Ministry, an ANM partner ministry. Eventually she became the church’s chairlady.
One day the leader of Cornerstone, Timothy Kinyua, visited the church in Wamba with his wife, Yvonne. Mary met Yvonne, and they became fast friends.
As Mary told Yvonne about her situation, Yvonne wondered if a micro-finance project she had started somewhere else could be a good fit in Wamba. Perhaps Mary could even lead it.
Yvonne gathered 10 women from the Wamba church, all of whom needed opportunities to earn money for their families. The women chose Mary as the leader of their group, called a “chama.”
“The women really loved Mary and listened to her,” recalled Yvonne. “She had leadership skills and knew how to mobilize the women. Sometimes she would even call them to her house for a meeting and make them a meal.”
Mary’s group received $200 to divide among themselves as short-term loans to start small businesses. For many, that is all they need to get started. They elected officers and established rules about interest on loans, how to add new members, and plans for meetings and accountability.
The group decided to use their $200 to buy and sell goats. They would invest some of the profit in more goats and share some of it as dividends. A few of the women also branched out into jewelry making.
The group has done exceptionally well with the goat business. A time came when out of the goats they would buy every month, they gave away two to members as gifts. They usually give she-goats so they can reproduce and provide additional goats for the family. They repeated this process until everyone in the group had received a goat.
This micro-finance activity is called “table banking” because the women huddle around a table when meeting to discuss money and business matters. Yvonne Kinyua has started groups in several villages around this region of Kenya, and about 240 women are now benefiting from it.
Not all groups pursue the same business opportunities. Some bought beads to make and sell jewelry. Others bought chickens to sell eggs. Some chose to make liquid detergent using locally available chemicals that they mixed and packed in used water bottles, selling it from house to house within the village. Others decided to buy and sell vegetables or tea leaves.
The women meet monthly, bringing back the loaned amount of $20 plus the interest previously agreed upon by the group. Then the group re-loans the money to the members.
Each group is based in a local church, and some groups are able to contribute some of their profits to their church.
Table banking empowers women economically. It also fosters fellowship among the women as they meet and exchange business ideas. Sometimes the local pastor speaks to a group about faith matters. Yvonne has also visited groups to teach them about sanitation, nutrition, and other useful topics.
Growing inflation in Kenya has raised prices for Mary’s group and others. Recently they also shifted their major investment from goats to jewelry because of drought. But they remain grateful for the opportunity to establish their own income in this culture where women have very little. They take comfort from God’s words in Zechariah 4:10: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”