The clouds in the dark Kenyan skies quickly gather, followed by loud thunder that rumbles and booms. The rain will begin pouring down any minute. We hurry through our Monday morning meeting, in a rush to get to the field for disbursement day. We must bear in mind the condition of the roads we are meant to navigate today.
A few hours after leaving the office, our team: Assistant Country Director Nancy Chumo, Field Associates Felix Tiony and Fred Stingo, and myself are welcomed into West Pokot, a county in Western Kenya, for disbursement day. There was a song in the air as our business owners danced their hearts out welcoming us. Upon arrival, we were asked to join the dancing line, a custom conferred upon all visitors. As always, disbursement day is one of the most jubilant days for the Village Enterprise program. This is the day program participants receive their business start-up capital.
As my team and I visit members of the Village Enterprise program, one speaker after the next presents their remarks. They express their gratitude to the organization for deciding to expand operations in this region. Most importantly, they mention how the training they received equipped them to start and run profitable enterprises. Others mentioned that at first, they didn’t believe that the seed capital was real, but now the reality was unfolding right before their eyes.
One particular woman caught my attention. She said that this was a new dawn for West Pokot. In her entire life, not one NGO had ever provided training for them, let alone tangible money. Before we entered the village, their hope had faded and they even felt neglected by their own government. Village Enterprise was “God sent” and now that their narrative was about to change, they were determined to seize this opportunity and work towards improving their living standards.
At this point, we wrapped up our first disbursement and head out to the next village. This region has not seen much of infrastructural development, as evidenced by the poor state of the roads. For a long time, West Pokot has grappled with perennial problems ranging from conflicts with neighboring communities attributable to cattle rustling, hunger, and famine, which ravishes the region due to a lack of sufficient annual rainfall. Additionally, some antiquated traditions such as child marriage and female genital mutilation are still rampant here. Consequently, a number of NGOs that work in this region engage in peacebuilding initiatives, provide food relief, and create awareness about the importance of girl child education. However, “before Village Enterprise started working in this area, no other NGO has been involved in livelihood development initiatives,” said the chief of Kishaunet location.
With the County government in place, the situation is slowly but steadily improving. We could see a few schools and dispensaries that had been recently built. Although this region has very rough terrain, the hills present a beautiful scenery to gaze upon. And the rough three-hour ride here seemed shorter as we enjoyed the breathtaking views. Before we knew it, we had arrived at our final village.
At this location, we were greeted with beautiful songs and dancing, similar to the first village. Again, we are invited to join in the dance and for the next thirty minutes, we engage in their tradition with vigor. Finally, we settle down and are ready to start disbursing the grants. Suddenly, an elderly woman rose from the crowd and expressed her concern that we were seated facing the “wrong” direction. In their culture, people are not allowed to sit facing southwards. At the back of my mind, I keep asking myself, what does the direction have to do with anything? But, we are in their territory, and they call the shots. We obey her request and move our seats so that we are facing eastward, the “right” direction. After five minutes of shifting chairs, we now settled and embark on the disbursement process. This entails calling out the name of the business group, then the three business owners approach our desk. After a quick verification using their national IDs (which ensure that we are giving the money to the correct people), they sign their receipts and the money is handed over to the treasurer of the business group.
After an hour, we finish the disbursement and a few beneficiaries are given a chance to give their remarks. This is usually among our best moments. We get to listen to participant’s stories that truly move our hearts. They narrate how their lives were full of lost hope and despair but now through this program, their lives have been changed for good. One elderly woman narrated how she depended on charcoal burning to make ends meet and had been surviving on this business for as long as she can remember. With the government ban on charcoal trade, however, her life transitioned from bad to worse. Her only source of livelihood was cut short and her survival had been so uncertain until Village Enterprise came into the picture. She was so happy about the business skills they had bestowed upon her and even mentioned that the wildlife and forest conservation training was eye-opening for her. Apart from starting the business, she was also determined to start planting trees in an effort to restore and rehabilitate their land. West Pokot has been particularly affected by the deforestation that wreaked havoc in Kenya. Perhaps this explains why the region has been experiencing frequent drought and many areas are more prone to flooding. Gullies that are visible everywhere speak loudly of the massive soil erosion that is taking place in this area.
It is nearly nightfall, yet my team and I still have a long trip home. A few minutes into our journey, it begins to pour. Suddenly, our vehicle is stuck in the mud and we are unable to continue. The four of us get out and push with all our might, yet we are unable to free the vehicle. After one hour of struggling, our efforts proved futile. The harder we push, the more the car sinks into the trench. By this time, we are exhausted and our wet and muddy clothing clings to our bodies. The beauty we experienced just a few hours earlier with the West Pokot villages begins to fade. We begin to feel hopeless. But all at once the kindness we experienced earlier is replicated when a man stops to assist us. After exchanging greetings, he makes a few phone calls and before we knew it a group of young men comes to our rescue. Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is amazing how people are so kind in this region. The youth who braved the cold and rains to come to lend a hand were inspiring. Where else do you see that in the world?
After close to one hour of a beehive of activities: bringing stones to fill up the trench, digging the road surface to make it a bit level, we finally manage to pull the car out of the mud and our journey begins again even with our clothes full of mud. By 1 am, we finally reach home. Though we are tired beyond words, what we all agree on is that we would do this again. Lifting people out of poverty is our core mandate and we are ready to brave all odds to ensure that we transform people’s lives.
— Violah Kishoin is an Innovations Coordinator. Violah graduated from Egerton University in 2014 where she studied environmental science. She previously worked for Manna Development Agency in South Sudan as an Environmental Office.