In honor of International Women’s Day 2018, we asked one of our BOMA Board members to share her experience in the field, seeing the transformation among BOMA Project participants.
I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa when I joined the Board of The BOMA Project in 2015. But I liked the idea of an organization that empowered women, even though I had only the haziest idea of what “empowerment” meant in the African drylands.
It took us four hours to drive north from BOMA’s office in Nanyuki, Kenya to Marsabit County, one of the remote regions where BOMA works. As we jolted along the rutted road, experiencing an “African massage,” I began to appreciate what it means to deliver humanitarian assistance to “the last mile.”
Along the way, I expected to see sights like I had seen in India and Morocco: thin, exhausted-looking women squatting by the side of the road, staring blankly at the occasional passing trucks and cars, usually holding a listless baby or two.
There they were alright. Hundreds of them. And I wondered again: how do you go about “empowering” these women?
In theory, I knew BOMA’s formula.
First, find the absolutely poorest women in each village. The ones who are sitting in the dirt begging for credit so they can feed their children that night. Women who have absolutely no power or agency. Women who are very vulnerable to being abused by their partners and husbands.
Second, organize those women into groups of three.
Third, give them $200 to start a small business of their choice selling rice, tea, butchered meat, laundry soap…whatever will sell.
Fourth, provide intensive mentoring with monthly visits from a BOMA employee. See how the women are doing, check their record keeping (usually provided by a child who is in school since the women are illiterate), give them advice.
Fifth, if the business is still going 6 months later, give them another $100. That’s it as far as capital investment goes.
Finally, help the women organize themselves into savings groups of about 20 women each. These savings groups then begin loaning money to their members for emergencies and capital investment.
I also knew the results. After two years, 90% of the women enrolled in a BOMA program have graduated from extreme poverty; 98% of them have savings; and there is an 67% decrease in the number of children going to bed without an evening meal. It takes just 24 months to go from begging to banking.
So what do these women look like and how would I know which ones had been “empowered”?
The first three women I met had just received their initial BOMA grants. We ducked through the front door of their tiny hut. The three new entrepreneurs were sitting among their inventory of bags of rice, cooking utensils, pots and pans. They were so shy that they wouldn’t even look at their visitors. They answered our questions in timid whispers. (How old are you? Do you have children? Are you married?) The situation seemed a bit hopeless.
The next day, I met three women who had been in the program for six months. They were running a butchery. They were standing behind a counter they had built in their shelter, chatting and laughing. Once I had gotten over my initial reaction to conversing across severed goats’ heads, they couldn’t wait to tell us about their success. They bragged about their savings, their daughters who were going to school for the first time, and the joy of lending money to a friend so that her sick child could get to the clinic and survive a near-fatal disease.
After the butcher shop, I joined about 20 women who had convened for their monthly savings group meeting. They were sitting in a circle, at the center of which was a metal lock box. It took three keys, carried by three different women, to open the box. The box was ceremoniously opened and fistfuls of cash were displayed to the participants and to us. After counting and locking the money back up, the women began to dance, pulling us into their dance as we all laughed and they made fun of our pathetic efforts to imitate their moves. And then it was THEIR turn to ask the questions. How old are you? Do you have children? Are you married?
But the best was yet to come when I visited the livestock market in Merille. It looks like a big football field with a lot of empty animal pens. Every Tuesday, on market day, the place is crowded with vendors, customers and thousands of goats, sheep and camels.
In Northern Kenya, only men are supposed to sell and buy livestock. It is simply not women’s work. As a woman who entered the legal field in the 1970s, I got that. I was hardly a pioneer, but I was often the only woman in a meeting, trying to slip in a word edgewise while the men went on and on and on… “mansplaining” as my daughter refers to it.
So here we were in Kenya, just months after that livestock market had launched, and guess what?
Forty percent of the sellers at the market were women and most of those women were BOMA graduates. And what joy, at least in the eyes of this 1970s feminist: these women were hiring men to transport their animals. Yes, these women were now the employers.
That was the “aha!” moment for me: women buying and selling the most valuable commodity in their community and hiring men to help them do it. This is what female empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa looks like. For them too.
–Kathy Roome, Secretary, The BOMA Project Board of Directors
Photos: Lisa Ryan Boyle
©The BOMA Project 2018