Microfinance in Kenya: Maasai vs slum dwellers

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

A new village is arising near the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and the country's largest microcredit organisation is putting a lot of money into it. Some Maasai leaders are pleased, but others are furious because slum dwellers are arriving in the city. Radio Netherlands Worldwide reporter Eric Beauchemin went to investigate the conflict. In 2010 Radio Netherlands Worldwide is reporting on various microfinance stories as its theme.



In early May, I was asked to cover a visit to Kenya by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo. My editor asked me to tack on a couple of extra days to make a video about microfinance, RNW's theme for 2010.
After googling frantically for a couple of days, we decided to report on a controversial housing project being developed by Kenya's biggest microfinance organisation, Jamii Bora. It's building a town for 10,000 slum dwellers in an area inhabited by the Maasai people near the Nairobi National Park. "Come back with lots of footage of wild animals and Maasais in their colourful clothing," my editor said. "It makes for good video."
Infamous traffic jams
The morning after my arrival, I head out with Jamii Bora to visit Kaputiei Town. It's located 60 kilometres from the capital, Nairobi, but it takes nearly two hours to get there because of the infamous traffic jams in Nairobi and the poor state of the roads.
The red roof tops of Kaputiei Town suddenly appear amidst the green plains. We've come to see Jane Ngoiri who moved here in April of last year. She worked for six years as a prostitute in Mathare, one of Nairobi's densely-populated slums. A decade ago, Jamii Bora convinced her and some other commercial sex workers to leave the profession. The organization gave them a microloan to start a tailoring business.
One room shack
Jane has been receiving microloans ever since, and her business has thrived, but she couldn't make enough to move out of her one room shack in the slum. When Jamii Bora offered her a 20-year loan to purchase a house in Kaputiei Town, she jumped at the opportunity. As she was sewing clothes and telling me her story, she kept on gazing at her living room in wonder. For Jane and the others, Kaputiei is a dream come true, even though she admits that her business has gone down, now that she lives so far away from her suppliers and customers.
The next day, I return to speak with some Maasai about the project, and I hear a completely different story. They fought five years of legal battles against the microfinance organization to block the project. But they lost and they're still bitter. They fear that Kaputiei and the slum dwellers will bring crime, litter and pollution to their region. They also believe the slum dwellers will have a negative impact on the lions, giraffes, zebras, gazelles and other wild animals. As one local Maasai leader put it, "Jamii Bora is a cancer. It threatens our survival".
Pure lies
I ask repeatedly for an interview with a Jamii Bora official, but the interview never materialises. Instead, the organisation takes me back the next day to visit a Maasai elder who was one of the people behind Kaputiei Town. Dressed in traditional Maasai clothing, he looks much more convincing than any Jamii Bora official ever could. He's personally benefited from the project because he sold some of his land. But he believes Kaputiei Town will benefit all the Maasais in the region because it has brought schools, medical facilities and development. When I tell him about the arguments I heard the day before from some Maasai leaders, he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. "They're pure lies," he says.
The two positions are so diametrically opposed that it's hard to see where the truth lies. But a conversation I had with one of the project's opponents still sticks in my mind. He told me that there are over 1.5 million people living in Nairobi's slums. Providing proper housing to 10,000 of them in Kaputiei Town is just a drop in the ocean. He wondered "why doesn't Jamii Bora do something about the housing there rather than creating all these problems here?"