Through Heidi’s Lens: Mary Nabwera

After receiving a tour of her kuku (chicken) and sungura (rabbit) coops, Mary Nabwera and I sit under the shade of her red-clay compound in Sabwani Village, Kenya. I ask, “What has helped more in your life: the grant or the training program?” Her eyebrows rise as she declares “the training,” as if the answer is obvious.

It was certainly not the first time I had heard the response. In fact, business owners and field staff are incredibly vocal about the vital importance of the Village Enterprise training program. The training serves a direct purpose of providing our business owners with the concrete skills to create sustainable businesses. But what I have found to be the more profound impact of our training program is less easily measured: self-confidence and a changed outlook on life.

You can catch a glimpse of this as a business owner proudly shows off their business during spot checks. It is perceived in the assertive tone of voice when they speak of challenges that their businesses have faced. It is evident when they speak of their ambitions for the future- whether that is expanding their business, returning to school, or embarking on a new entrepreneurial venture.

I was immediately drawn to Mary. She had a million dollar smile that made me feel like I had known her for years and she shared intimate details of her life despite just meeting me. After her husband passed away, Mary was forced to work long hours on a neighboring farm to support her children. She was targeted to participate in the Village Enterprise program and only a year later has a sustainable income that allows her to send all four of her children to school. She shared, “I now know that business can help you get out of poverty.”

My view is not anything new. Nicholas Kristof describes the essential role hope plays in lifting people out of poverty in his piece, “The Power of Hope Is Real.” People living in extreme poverty often lack opportunities to improve their conditions, resulting in a state of hopelessness that can be self-fulfilling. Yet, Kristof points out that “Give people a reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.”

There is even early data to support this theory. Graduation programs provide participants with both a cash asset, generally livestock, as well as financial and business training to build skills and increase confidence. Participants in graduation programs not only exhibited increases in savings and overall livelihoods, but also improvements in mental health. Additional studies are currently being developed to examine if raising spirits holds the potential to boost economic outcomes.

I leaned back in my wooden chair and left Mary with the notoriously open-ended question, “do you have anything else you want to add?” I started to close my notebook when the she pronounced, “I used to be a beggar.” She continued, “I now understand how to save, keep records, and look for seasonal business. I one day will be a big woman who owns my own farm!” It was the way that Mary said this final sentence that resonated with me. She clearly believes in herself and her own abilities to create a better tomorrow.

Village Enterprise business owner Mary shows her record book for her kuku (chicken) and sungura (rabbit) business.

Mary shows off the record book that she keeps for her kuku (chicken) and sungura (rabbit) business.

Heidi Graves interviewing Mary Nabwera in Sabwani, Kenya.

Interviewing Mary Nabwera in Sabwani, Kenya.

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