It was a quiet Thursday afternoon in the office at Karura Community Chapel.  I didn’t have many responsibilities that week, so when my friend Carol Ndegwa invited me to go with her for a visit to the widows in Gathanga, I jumped at the chance.

We made plans for the following day.  “How do you want to go?” she asked.  “By foot or by motor bike?”

I hesitated…I hated questions like these.  I don’t like special treatment.

“I want to do what you do.”

“OK,” she said with a chuckle. “We’ll walk.  Wear some good shoes.”

So far over 20 women have committed to join the Gathanga savings group.

So far over 20 women have committed to join the Gathanga savings group.

For me, this was more than a chance for some exercise.  I had been looking forward to another visit with these women ever since I first met them at a prayer meeting in their church several weeks earlier.  One woman especially, Susan, I felt a particular connection with.  Even though we didn’t have a common language between us, I admired her spunk, and she had adopted me as her friend.

I don’t doubt the impact these women can and will have in their community.

I don’t doubt the impact these women can and will have in their community.

That Friday afternoon, after trekking up and down hills on red dirt paths, crossing streams, and cutting through maize fields, Carol and I found the women waiting on us at the tiny church. Right away, I was reminded why I liked these women so much.   “Njoki!” they exclaimed, warmly welcoming me with my Kikuyu name and showering me with hugs.  Susan was beaming as she grabbed my hand.  So much joy, and such hospitality.

And the more I learned about these women and their stories that day, the more reasons I found to be amazed.

The purpose of this meeting, in addition to their regular prayer gathering, was to discuss business.  The group of ten tiny ladies, which swelled to twenty before the day was over, had decided to start a savings group that would help them learn money management skills and hopefully one day, start incoming-generating businesses.

My friend Carol was trained by the non-profit organization WORTH to organize women into savings and entrepreneurship groups.  She normally works with younger women, but this group compensated for their age with their exceptional level of motivation.

Susan, in pink, naturally lights up the room.

Susan, in pink, naturally lights up the room.

Earlier this year, these widows had experimented with group savings by pooling their earnings from their maize harvest, giving some back to Karura Chapel who donated the seeds, then spending some on medicine for the sick women they knew.

So when Susan and her friends heard Carol talk about bank training through WORTH at Karura Chapel a few weeks ago, they asked her to come and help them start a group.  They were eager for new ways to support their families and for the opportunity to learn basic reading and writing skills to use in their record-keeping.

And they were eager to include me, too.  They proudly introduced to me the elected officials of their organization: Susan was the chairwoman, a natural choice.  Then I met the secretary, vice-chair, treasurer, and the “bouncer.”  That’s right, one of the two elderly gentlemen who joined the women, and quietly sat in the back of the room, had been appointed head of security.

With Carol translating, they asked me to come visit as much as possible, and promised that before I leave Kenya, they will have a celebration to mark the progress of their group.  As for my part, I was told I had to learn some Kikuyu!

Carol and the “bouncer” chat after our meeting.

Carol and the “bouncer” chat after our meeting.

After the meeting ended, and the weekly contribution of 10 shillings was collected from every member, Carol and I went on another walk, this time with Susan.  We made our way slowly out of the sleepy town, past the local medicine dispensary, scattered houses and shops.  On the way, I heard a bit more about Susan’s life.

Though her weathered face and toothless smile suggest she is in her 70s, her actual age is 58.  She is the mother of many children, four of whom live with her now.  Since her husband died many years ago, she is the sole manager of her household.  Daily life involves long walks to the market to buy affordable potatoes, and looking after her grandchildren.

The obstacles she faces are many.  Food has been scarce for everyone in Gathanga, especially widows.  Her poor eye-sight makes reading difficult, a hindrance to participating in Carol’s training.  Plus, building ownership of the savings group is proving to be a challenge to her as the chairwoman.

But obstacles don’t equal despair in Susan’s mind.  For her, these were all reasons to work toward improving their lives, not excuses not to try.  Food is scarce? Let’s start saving so we can start businesses.  My eyes are bad? Then, where is the next free eye clinic? Meeting attendance is low?  Let me talk to some of those who stayed home.

When we reached the edge of the village, Carol and I turned back toward the main road, and I practiced my good-byes to my friend in Kikuyu.  Before leaving the church, I told Susan that I thought these widows were the leaders of their community.  Now, I believed it more than ever.  They are leaders with a vision.  And from their perspective, obstacles are never excuses.

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Next Steps
    • Buy a banking workbook for one or several of the women in Gathanga’s savings group. The price of 350 Kenyan shillings, or about four dollars, is an obstacle for many of them. Email info@karuracc.or.ke if you are interested.
    • Check out pactworld.org to learn more about the WORTH model for empowering women like Susan.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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Comments

  1. Curtis Honeycutt said... 

    Reply

    September 21st, 2009 at 9:23 am  

    “And from their perspective, obstacles are never excuses.”

    …I love that. What a powerful lesson. You rock, Jess!

  2. Bee said... 

    Reply

    September 22nd, 2009 at 11:15 am  

    I’m so glad you are back to writing again. I love your enthusiasm, and hearing about the people you’ve met.

  3. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    September 22nd, 2009 at 7:23 pm  

    Thanks Jess, I’m inspired by these women as I am the organizations like Karura Chapel and PACT which are doing an incredible job world-wide.

    Good to have your insights and experiences back as a part of our daily lives!

  4. Njoki's brother said... 

    Reply

    September 25th, 2009 at 2:40 pm  

    I love this. What an inspiration. How many excuses do we give? I mean seriously, come on let’s quit being paralyzed by the thought of failure. If they are willing to risk in their life how much more should we be willing to risk? It’s time to fulfill what we are created for and stop hiding behind our excuses.

  5. Jim Meacham said... 

    Reply

    September 25th, 2009 at 8:27 pm  

    Jess,
    Greetings form your friends in Access. Thanks for posting this story.

  6. Bill Shewan said... 

    Reply

    October 4th, 2009 at 1:23 pm  

    Hi Jess: I’m catching up on my reading. Great article. After reading it I practically felt like I had been there. And great inspiration. I am so moved by overcomers. What precious women. May they have great success under the goodness and protection of God. May He be lifted up through this group.

  7. Bea Tsola said... 

    Reply

    November 6th, 2009 at 2:03 am  

    These are good lessons to learn from Susan and the other women. One on never giving up…it’s never too late and secondly our faith, even though small as a mustard seed…wow!

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