“This Box Is A Painkiller.’
Siaya is a town twenty miles from Lake Victoria, in Western Kenya. I am in town to visit community groups that my CARE Kenya colleagues (Alex, Lucy, and Margaret) have been working with in the last six months. The first group we visit named themselves Twelve Sisters, but they are quick to tell me they have fifteen members, as they have been growing. Six months ago, these women started working together as a community savings and loans group. The women meet twice a month, and at every meeting they contribute money to the group. They are required to contribute 20 Kenyan shillings (about 30 cents) to the group's social fund, and then they can choose the amount of money they want to contribute to the group's pooled funds. The pooled funds are lumped into shares, which cost 100 Kenyan shillings (about $1.50).
At any meeting, group members can take out loans from the group's pooled funds. In April, Dada started an embroidery business. Frances improved her poultry farm. Alice paid the secondary school fees for her children. The women repay their loans a month after they take them out, along with 10% interest.
The social fund, however, is a different matter altogether. The social fund grows every month, and if one of the women has a problem, the group votes on whether or not to use their social fund to help her. Two months ago, Frances' house caught on fire, and she lost many of her possessions. Twelve Sisters voted to nearly deplete their social fund, giving Frances a way to start over. Unlike the loan system, the social fund does not need to be repaid.
Beatrice, the group's president, tells me, "this box is a painkiller…before when we had problems we had nowhere to turn, but now we have a resource." While we only spent a day together, it was clear to see that Beatrice was a force to be reckoned with. In addition to leading Twelve Sisters, Beatrice is a community educator on clean water. Trained by CARE, Beatrice goes into rural villages armed with PUR water packets. Donated by Proctor and Gamble, these packets purify 10 liters of water. The packets cost 15 Kenyan shillings (20 cents), but thanks to Proctor and Gamble, Beatrice and other health workers can distribute samples for free when they conduct community trainings.
Beatrice shows me how she demonstrates the packets. She empties the packet into a bucket of brown water that she collected from the nearby river. As she sings a song about the process, Beatrice stirs the bucket for five minutes. Then we wait. Twenty minutes later, the water is miraculously clear. Beatrice ties a white cloth around a second bucket and uses it as a filter for the sediment that floats on top of the translucent bucket. "Now it is safe," she says. I must admit, I'm impressed.
Alex and Margaret, who run CARE's water and sanitation programs in Siaya, tell me that the funding from Proctor and Gamble will last two more years, and their clients are always asking for more PUR packets. The mortality rate from water-borne diseases has dropped significantly in Siaya since CARE started the Safe Water System Project, and families are eager to use the PUR packets because the water looks and tastes better, and they see immediate improvements in their health.
Beatrice asked me what I was going to do when I got back to the United States. I explained that my job is to tell stories to members of Congress, so they will support programs like Twelve Sisters and the Clean Water Project. I hope to make good on my promise.
There are two bills in Congress right now that could help women like Beatrice and groups like the Twelve Sisters. The Microenterprise Empowerment and Job Creation Act (H.R. 2524), and the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act (H.R. 3658). Please call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121, ask for the office of your member of Congress, orclick here to send him/her an e-mailin support of these life-saving pieces of legislation.