Life and Death in Rongo, Kenya
By Steve Grey, KF11, Kenya
“One of the borrowers on this list, Helida, passed away last month.”
Those words hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was in Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria to work with Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET), one of Kiva’s lending partners in Kenya. K-MET is different than most microfinance institutions. Started in 1996, its mission is to provide quality reproductive health services to the poor through a network of over 450 volunteer community-based health workers. Since the health workers are volunteers, and often poor themselves, they have to earn income through other means. K-MET started its microfinance program to provide loans so its health workers could start or expand their own businesses.
My assignment with K-MET was to do “borrower verification” – visit 10 randomly selected K-MET borrowers who have received Kiva loans to verify that the information posted on Kiva’s website is true (name, loan use, loan amount and term, etc.).
When I showed the list of 10 borrowers to John Asuke (K-MET’s Loan Officer), he told me the sad news: “Helida passed away last month after many months of being sick.”
I didn’t know much about Helida. From her Kiva profile, I knew that she was a 36 year-old mother of 3 children and the owner of a retail business specializing in plastic products sales. She emphasized in her Kiva interview that her “main reason of joining the Rongo K-MET community health workers was to work together with other women for the empowerment of orphans and widows.” Like most other K-MET members, Helida had 3 jobs: businesswoman, volunteer health worker, and mother.
After talking with my Field Supervisor, I decided to continue the verification process for Helida. But I felt like I was on shaky ground. Was there a way to honor her memory and be sensitive to her family while also upholding Kiva’s value of transparency to its lenders?
After traveling with John Asuke for 3 bone-rattling hours over every combination of asphalt, pothole, and mud, we arrived in Rongo, a small town in an agricultural area, to meet the chairwoman and the treasurer of Helida’s borrower group. They told me how much her group and the community missed her. She had been a very active community health worker and had frequently acted in educational drama programs to teach people about HIV/AIDS. The women’s hearts seemed very heavy as they talked about losing Helida.
Next we drove to Helida’s home to meet her husband Charles. He came out of his home with a haggard look of deep sadness on his face. He silently led us to a corner of his yard to Helida’s grave, with new grass shoots just beginning to push through he fresh dirt. Charles prayed to thank God for the good things He provided while asking for strength to meet the days ahead.
We went into his home – a sturdy house with a wooden frame, mud brick walls, and a red metal roof. Though it was a simple house with a dirt floor, it was extremely neat and clean. We met their youngest daughter; the other two children were at school. Charles showed us the condolences book that had been signed by hundreds of local people expressing their sympathy for the family. Clearly, Helida was a woman who had been loved and respected by her community. It was difficult to know what to say to this man who had recently lost his wife and was now raising three children, in his words, “as both father and mother”.
Charles wanted to show us the chickens… the ones Helida bought with her loan. She was a smart businesswoman; she decided that it would be good to have multiple sources of income. So, in addition to her plastic products business, Helida built a hen house and purchased dozens of hens so she could sell their eggs.
Charles was familiar with K-MET but not with Kiva. I briefly explained how Kiva partnered with K-MET to provide loans. I showed him a print-out of Helida’s Kiva profile page, including the 26 Kiva lenders who funded her loan. I explained that his wife’s picture and story had been seen around the world, and that these 26 people (from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States) believed in Helida and wanted to help her. Charles was grateful and proud that Kiva lenders from around the world wanted to help Helida and his family. He asked me to thank the lenders and to let them know the rest of Helida’s story.
(As a side note, all K-MET loans require insurance. Borrowers pay 1% of the loan amount to cover the loan in case of death. So K-MET’s insurance fund will pay off this loan so that the family bears no burden of debt on top of their grief.)
As a community health worker, Helida served others to sustain life. And yet, as in much of the world, death often arrives much too early in Rongo. I hope that you will pray for her family and support the many Kiva borrowers who live where the line between life and death is much too thin.
Steve Grey is a Kiva Fellow working with Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET) in Kisumu, Kenya and Small and Micro Enterprise Programme (SMEP) in Nairobi, Kenya.