Over the next year, Heidi will be acting as our eyes and ears on the ground, capturing stories in Kenya and Uganda that reflect the essence of Village Enterprise and its poverty alleviation model. Her ultimate goal is to amplify the voice of our business owners and to let their stories speak for themselves. She writes, “I hope that my column, “Through Heidi’s Lens,” provides a glimpse into everyday life in East Africa and reflects that people living in extreme poverty are not defined by their conditions.” Check back every Wednesday to get updates from Heidi!
The second I open my car door, a stream of women, men, and children emerge through the church doors, singing and dancing. I try to prepare my camera to capture the moment but am instead swept up in the crowd. Women wrap me in close embraces and smile at my failed attempts to move in their graceful manner. The minimal greetings I have learned in Kiswahili are welcomed with hearty laughs and the local people repeat “Karibu,” welcome. I heard mentions of disbursement day in the United States office, but I didn’t quite grasp how powerful the day really is until I experienced it firsthand at Sitatunga Village and Orombe Village in Kenya.
Disbursement. It is one of those mundane, scholarly words that fails to exemplify the magic of disbursement day with Village Enterprise. After participating in 4 months of business skills training, the day marks the occasion when our business owners receive their first grant from Village Enterprise. Yet, the day is more than just an exchange of funds, it is an occasion to come together to both celebrate and motivate.
After being ushered inside, all of the Village Enterprise staff are seated at the front of the church facing the business owners. The singing is replaced by silence as the business mentor, Peninah, launches into a series of introductions. Village Enterprise business mentors are responsible for training and mentoring business owners throughout the year-long program. It is clear from both the level of engagement and the laughter of the crowd that Peninah has built a strong rapport with this village.
Following introductions and prayers led by the local pastor, disbursements begin. A general hum fills the room as the business owners eagerly await the calling of their names. “Beatrice Juma.” Beatrice stands up as her name is announced and approaches the table at the front of the church where she completes her paperwork and is handed the first grant- $100 for her business group of three. One village elder spoke of his disbelief of the program because he had seen many nonprofits enter their village, take from the people, and make no positive impact. In a sense, the disbursement of the first grant increases trust and marks the beginning of a symbiotic relationship. If these business owners remain committed to the program and the growth of their businesses, they will receive a smaller $50 grant in six months.
The highlight of disbursement day is hearing directly from the business owners themselves. One of the most memorable speeches came from Edwin Nyakundi. He faced the crowd and explained, “today you have been given a seed. You can either plant it and watch it grow. Or, you can eat the seed, but then you would be no different from a squirrel.” The attendees nodded their heads and murmured their affirmations. In the midst of the business owner’s speeches, we were offered biscuits and a soda. Lillian, a young entrepreneur that is creating a baking business, joked “the next time you come, we will have scones and cakes for you, and I will be much fatter!”
The closing portion of disbursement day is marked by an offering of gifts to the guests. After listening intently to speeches for around an hour, the crowd once again erupted in song and dance. As the energy level escalated, a handful of business owners danced to the front of the church and placed a live chicken in each of our hands. Needless to say, I was a bit caught off-guard, but I did my best to hold the chicken tight and sway to the music. We said our final farewells and headed to the car with not only the chickens, but also bags loaded full of avocados, Irish potatoes, peppers, bananas, and cabbage. As we once again pulled out on to the red dirt roads, my head bouncing up near the top of the ceiling, I couldn’t help but smile at the generosity of the business owners.
There really is nothing quite like disbursement day. The energy. The smiles. And the sense of hope that the seed will grow and their businesses will thrive.
This business owner’s son was all smiles throughout the entire program.
Following every speech, all of the business owners clap in unison.
Lillian, a young business owner who will be starting a bakery, stands in front of the business owners in Orombe Village, Kenya.