ALWAYS LOOK FORWARD AND NEVER BACK
The African sky still black, inhabitants of a small house in Eldoret begin making soft rustling sounds that crease the night. The smell of homemade chapati confirms that is 4:00 a.m. in the morning. An hour later, the children rise, and at 5:45 a.m., the house opens its doors. A woman in a burgundy Muslim headdress and her five children appear from the lightened doorway.
The woman’s name is Barey. In her early fourties, she has soft features that are framed by her headdress, and a straight gaze that hints at her determination. It’s 10 a.m., and she has already bathed, cooked, sent the children to school, prayed, opened her store, and has worked for a few hours. As she speaks, she oversees piles of rice, sacks of tea and other food ingredients, “all the time selling.”
Barey’s life today is very different than it was 20 years ago. Her father died when she was young—14 years old—and she was cared for by her uncle. But he wasn’t able to support her, so he arranged for her to marry a much older man. At first, she reflects, “I was not happy but you have to respect your elders. I could not say no. I told my uncle I was scared but he said since I wasn’t going to school, he needed me to go.” But shortly after the marriage, she said realized that her husband could provide for her. “My husband knew I was young. He treated me well.” But he traveled for two to three months at a time for work and she “had no one close.”
Perhaps out of a mixture of loneliness and a continued desire to help her family, Barey decided to work secretly when her husband was away, and slowly began saving money. In 2009, she gave birth to her sixth and youngest child, and managed to save 300,000 KES—about $3,400 U.S. dollars, three times the average GDP in Kenya.
Two weeks later, her husband was flown back from a trip to Sudan. Instead of spending time with his newly born child, he was admitted to a hospital for over a month. The bills piled up after extensive treatment and a long hospital. He passed away two months later. Barey, still in recovery from childbirth, suddenly found herself a widow. And the hospital would not release her husband’s body until she paid the bill—890,000 KES in full (approximately $10,500 USD).
In what was perhaps the most trying time of her life, Barey reached out to everyone she knew. She received 100,000 KES from the husband’s family, 300,000 from his former employer, and fundraised 100,000 KES from her community. Together, with her total savings of 300,000 KES as well as a loan of 90,000 KES, she was able to receive the body.
It was difficult for her to imagine that months prior she had a committed husband, a stable financial income, and a cushion of savings. Now she had nothing but her debt and her children—whom she realized that she needed to support on her own. Determined hold on to what little of her life she has left, she first requested a small loan and began to sell lotions, perfumes, and clothing material to make dresses. She also used the loan money to pay for school fees, and stopped taking loan money as soon as two of her children graduated.
While she was selling one day, she began talking to one of her friends and loyal customers, Winnie. “Winnie was very talkative and very friendly; it was not hard to befriend her.” She learned that Winnie was the leader of the Tuinuane Group, one of Zawadisha’s lending circles, and decided to take out another loan of $60 to buy rice, tea, and other food ingredients. Switching over to selling food allowed her to stay close to her family instead of traveling far distances to attain her stock. Through financial literacy trainings, Zawadisha taught her how to use her loan to increase her profit margin by purchasing goods through a warehouse shop rather than buying small amounts daily at retail prices.
With a steadier profit margin, she was finally on the right track to slowly build her life again to support her family. “I now spend more time with my family which is so fulfilling,” Barey reflects. She is also grateful for Zawadisha, and points out that obtaining traditional loans are often impossible for women who have little education and even less collateral. Zawadisha lends to women who traditional institutions deem too risky and also employs a holistic approach that includes financial literacy and self-defense trainings, preventative healthcare, and savings incentives. “The terms and conditions of Zawadisha are fair,” she says. A simple statement, but not one made frequently about lending institutions in Kenya.
Back at the store, she explains that as a woman in Kenya, there are moments one can truly feel vulnerable. Sometimes women have to turn to prostitution to support their families and she is proud that she never had to do such a thing to raise six children. Life still is not easy, but it is better. She has to be strong and “always look forward and never look back.”
~ Written by Jenny Tang, based on notes and an interview between Zawadisha board member Wendy David and Barey