By Anne Hector, KF9, Kenya

At two months into my Kiva fellowship (and woefully late on my blogs…),  I have now interviewed more than 50 micro-borrowers.  The individuals I have met are always moving and impressive, but Jeska Silivano Mlanya truly stands out for her strength, warmth, and resourcefulness.   Just take a moment and look at that face…!

When I visited the SMEP Mombasa branch to train and went out to the field with Beatrice Mbwika, she said, “I have the perfect client for you to meet.  This is my favorite borrower. “

We went so deep into the countryside outside Mombasa to meet Jeska that I wondered if we would ever re-emerge.  After a wild matatu ride and 30 minutes wandering deep into a mixed-use area thick with one-story, rough, small buildings, we found Jeska.  She was, as usual, working very hard.

We met  her at the small building where she runs her maandazi operation.   Maandazis are a sweet breakfast food – an African equivalent of a doughnut — and they are sold in small food stands and kiosks everywhere for a take away, morning bite.  One of Jeska’s granddaughters  was cleaning up after the early morning efforts.  She and Jeska get up at 3:30 every morning to deep fry the maandazies and distribute to local purveyors in time for the morning rush.  That is impressive for a 65 year old woman, but it turned out that was only the beginning of the story.

Jeska then lead us through a thicket of alleys and buildings into a tiny compound  which opened onto a central space.  We went into one of the small rooms off the courtyard, and another granddaughter proudly showed us a medium- sized freezer filled top to bottom with small plastic bags of colorful homemade popsicles.  This was another business Jeska runs with a family member.  Apparently the ices sell very well at a nearby large primary school.

Jeska next proudly ushered us into her area of the compound, and we sat in a large, quiet, immaculate living room.  This was Jeska’s private space in the compound and it was furnished with two matching red sofa sets.  In my time here in Kenya, I have come to recognize that a dedicated living room space with a substantial sofa set is one of the key signifiers that a family has attained a certain economic stability and level.  It is always a moment of quiet pride for a borrower when they invite their loan officer and the guest from America into such a room no matter how tiny.  At the same time, one can not help but reflect that the sofa set has often been pledged as collateral on the micro-loan and it is one of the first things to be sold in the case of default.

But back to Jeska’s story… Once settled into the living room, we began our interview.  Or rather, I posed questions for Beatrice to ask Jeska in Swahili.  The short version is that Jeska had worked as a cleaning lady to the city council for many years when her husband died leaving her with 10 children to raise.  Ultimately, her four boys married and moved out, but several of her at-home, un-married daughters had children themselves ratcheting up the economic pressure.  Later, three of these daughters died – two from AIDS and one of anemia — and Jeska had six grandchildren to raise on her own.

At a certain point, Jeska realized that she needed a radically different approach and sat down with the remaining daughters and grandchildren to brainstorm on how the family could support  themselves.  What evolved was that Jeska joined SMEP, (the microfinance institution that I am working with), got her first microloan (approx $266 US) and launched the maandazie business. 

It turned out that Jeska has what it takes to appropriately assess opportunities and apply the stunningly hard work that it takes to make small businesses succeed.  With two daughters and seven grandchildren, she runs a small empire of micro-businesses and owns the buildings where they live.  In addition to maandazies and ices, they sell chapatis, cooked beans, and sambusas (another deep fried snack) to local restaurants and stalls.  They also field an omena (a small fish) stand.  Jeska’s newest loan from SMEP (her 4th) is for 40,000 Kenyan Shillings ($566 US) and she is launching a charcoal business.   She has discovered she can buy processed charcoal cheaply near the Tanzanian border and resell it locally for a good mark-up.

The way Jeska manages this mini- conglomerate is equally impressive.  She is a member of a borrowing group.  When she takes a loan via the group, she then doles it out to the different businesses within the family according to who can benefit the most from a small expansion.  Micro-finance loans usually require weekly repayment, and the borrower group meets on a certain day to physically collect the cash.  Jeska meets with her family the day before that meeting and collects the money to make the weekly principal + interest payment.  In addition, the family meets monthly to brainstorm about new business possibilities.  I have encountered many American businesses that don’t manage things as neatly and with such a systematic eye for the next good opportunity.

Jeska insists that the grandchildren attend school in addition to help running the businesses.  She stresses self reliance and proudly told us that one granddaughter had reached the 4th form.

What struck me most about this woman was her absolutely radiating warmth and good spirits even after life had wacked her with some nasty blows.   She beamed good cheer and wisdom, and was busy planning her next micro-business. 

When I asked her if she ever wanted to travel, she just laughed and laughed delighted by that far- fetched notion.  I might as well have suggested she visit the moon.  She said she is happy with her life and just wants to see her grandchildren well set up.

Jeska is revered by her borrowing group and her family; the grandchildren all want to grow up to be like her.  Appropriately, she is respectfully known to all simply as Nyanya which means grandmother.  A simultaneously humbling and uplifting experience to meet her.

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