The Kenyan Touch: Warmth, Passion and Resilience
Being in a continent that has often been painted in the most negative picture possible by the outside world, Kenya has had its share of tumultuous times combating civil wars, rife corruption and widespread diseases. Just five years ago, the post-election violence that was politically and ethnically motivated threatened to tear the country apart. With the recent closing of a peaceful election in March this year however, it seemed to herald the start of a new era. For a nation that has been through so much, what was one to expect when making a visit? A nation poised for a positive change or a nation with a masked façade?
As it turned out, what awaited us were warmth, passion and resilience.
Our first excursion out of Nakuru town was to a small rural village called Lalwet. We received an extremely warm welcome by both the young and the old upon arrival. Everyone was so accepting and incredibly accommodating, we exchanged greetings with everyone we met. We used this opportune time to perfect our Kenyan handshakes – an exaggerated handshake to produce as loud a clap as possible. Kids were especially excited seeing us muzungus around. Their enthusiasm could be overwhelming at times though. Getting surrounded and chased around by more than 10 kids was both physically and mentally exhausting but it made the experience all the more memorable! I had an amazing time with my host over the weekend and I was overwhelmed with their level of hospitality; going so far as to give us their beds while they took the floor or sofas! The community of Lalwet may not have ample wealth and resources, but they definitely have got some big hearts.
In one of the local groups I worked with, I got to know a group of youths who were extremely passionate and ambitious. Through interactions, I learned firsthand about the frustrations that Kenyan youths face, including problems of corruption, drug addiction and alcoholism. The extent and prevalence of these problems were hard to believe, which all the more motivated the youths we worked with to fight for a change for the future of their nation. With persistently low employment level, seeking employment is not really an option and the only way out, often, is to start a business. With their own business, they could achieve financial independence. Beyond that, what they are more passionate about is bringing a change to local youths. If they proved successful setting up their own businesses, it will encourage youths around them to start something meaningful of their own and take charge of their lives. It is the group’s dream to lead such a youth movement and create a better future for Kenya.
In my other group from Lanet, a small village just out of town, I worked with a group of businessmen who are possibly the epitome of resilience. All of them have been operating businesses for years and have all persevered through the common hurdles all Kenyan businessmen face. The biggest challenge for many is the lack of capital. Securing a loan is tough and high interest rates that range between 25-30% make it all the more challenging for loan repayment. For those who are lucky enough to receive a financial loan through to tertiary education, they are forbidden from getting an extra loan to start a business on top of their existing education loan. These financial obstacles resulted in an extremely unfavorable environment for starting small businesses. James Kimani, one of my group members, recounted how he patiently spent his first few years building capital to secure a loan and then changing his business model to increase his profit margin so as to grow his business and repay his loan at the same time. Right now his business is booming and he is on his way to getting his fourth and biggest loan of half a million KSH/= to further expand his business. In a small village out of town, few would expect to find an entrepreneurial talent like James but in fact, people like him are all across the country; people who adapt to the testing business environment of Kenya, persevere through and thrive.
Kenya is a nation of people with strong fundamentals and the Kenyan touch definitely brought new perspectives to my life. While years of political and social upheavals handicapped the nation and threatened to corrupt its people with various social ills, I believe it is ready for a positive change forward. For this to happen, it is pivotal for Kenyans to hold on to their beliefs, to unite and take active steps fighting for a better future. This is a land I know I will return to and I am confident it is bound for greatness.
By David Chia, 2013 Fellow