God bless Wynd Harris for wanting to sit in the front seat during our drives to the field. Nick and I rode in the backseat and looked out the side windows to avoid having a heart attack. Today we were heading to Rongo…at 120 kph.
Rongo sits beyond the hills on the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. Approximately 150 km from Kisumu. The roads that lead through Kenya don't have many rules. Honk if someone is in your way, use your blinker when passing and drive like hell on a skinny, two lane road crowded with trucks, motorcycles, people and bikes. They come so close to hitting everything in their way, yet miss by inches at the last minute. I was content to stare at the mountains in the distance with my camera to avoid the stress of looking at potential disaster through the windshield.
We must have passed at least 6 villages on the way through the hills. Every village is the same, a fluorescent green building for MPesa, a bright pink building for Zain and a red building for Coke, with tons of make-shift covered tables for selling the local goods. And what seemed like thousands of people in every village.
Awaiting our arrival in Rongo is a man named Cary. He has started a small lending firm for even smaller businesses. Businesses so small that a regular bank will not finance them. Including, what they call Hokas, who are more or less traveling salesman. They buy or receive the abundant crop from one farm and resell it down the road or in the next village for a mark-up. Sometimes they may stay in the same town for a period, but not very long.
After explaining the business to us, he and his partners, David and David, took us to the Town Hall to have their first board meeting for the members and shareholders. To our surprise the three of us were sitting on the stage facing the crowd. More of a ploy to persuade and comfort his shareholders for the idea he was about to present to them – starting to give back 2.5% interest on their savings accounts. They already pay back there loans with 10% interest on a monthly basis, based on weekly cycles. Cary spoke English while David translated in their native tongue. So my head went back and forth like a spectator watching a tennis match.
Just before we walked in, Cary mentioned to us that we should say a few words of encouragement to the crowd. Nothing like being put on the spot when you're an Art Director who knows nothing of the business of loans and financing. We all did our best and it seemed to please the crowd. Hopefully David polished it up a bit in the translating.
Then Cary opened it up to the floor. The first member (their biggest customer) said the interest is too high on the loans and they don't have the money for the size of the loan that he needed.
Good start so far.
It actually turned out well, they even managed to elect a board while we were there. See, Cary is a very persuasive and mellow, yet charismatic guy. Just the kind of guy you would trust with your money.
So after the meeting was adjourned we lunched at a local restaurant, BBQ chicken, pan fried tilapia and ugali, then headed far out into the edge of the Rongo district to visit an HIV treatment center and orphanage. They had been waiting a while, as our car could barely make it down the washed out road. The rain had also started. We were hours late, late in the day and now even further away from Kisumu. The local boys school had a prepared a dance, but due to the rain could not perform. So we packed into the small medical center. The parents, some of which were their HIV patients were meeting us and shaking hands while the young children looked at us in amazement through the doorway. Aside from the treatment, they are also trying to shed the stigma that HIV burdens them with. Far out here, in this small community, they live without the shame and guilt. They live freely.
The rain stopped. We were called outside for the performance.