Woman works to empower other women, breaking poverty’s chains

Lillian Naka (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

Lillian Naka

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There’s a lot of talk these days about empowerment and micro- finance lending, especially for women with children in poverty. Lillian Naka does more than just talk. Through Unbound’s (formerly Christian Foundation for Children and Aging) Nairobi Project, she works with women in her native Kenya, helping them climb out of poverty and be able to proudly provide for their families.

Lillian visited Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., in February, attending board meetings as a visiting representative from its projects. While in town, she spoke to high school and college students, played with children at Operation Breakthrough, and met their caregivers, teachers and some of their moms. She also gave several talks about her work and introduced some of the women she works with via video.

Lillian, 32, is the youngest of nine children. She was born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city with a population of 1.2 million people. Situated on the Indian Ocean coast, the climate is warm and humid.

Mombasa is a very diverse city, with descendants of early settlers from Iran, the Middle East, India and Somalia living there. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are the three dominant religious faiths practiced in Mombasa.

Lillian attended Mtongwe Primary School, and Likoni Secondary School. Early on, she learned the art of public speaking and won awards in it and in drama.

She has vivid memories of her mother’s struggles to keep her family fed, as well as the struggles of many other mothers. “It’s painful for parents who cannot provide for their children, especially food,” she said.

After graduation, she enrolled at the University of South Africa (UNISA), the largest institution of higher learning in Africa. UNISA changed its structure, direction and mission in 1946, becoming a distance education university. When Lillian enrolled in UNISA, she did not own a computer — all her work, papers and tests had to be mailed to and from her professors, which created delays. She finished however, earning a degree in Community Health.

She also had to depend on public transportation to get to places that weren’t within walking distance. Kenya has strict laws related to bus travel, and several years ago Lillian ran afoul of one of those laws.

Having heard of the sponsorship organization through volunteer work, she applied to work for C.F.C.A. in 2007. Lillian was living in Mombasa and her interview was to be in Nairobi, entailing a bus ride of more than six hours.

“Kenyan police will arrest you if you are not fastened into your seatbelt on a bus,” she said. “I sat in my seat, and when the bus driver said, ‘Seatbelts!’ I went to put it on. The long side of the belt I was able to find, but the short side, where you fasten it, was missing. It just wasn’t there. I tried to wrap it around me and sit on the end, but I got caught. The police woman didn’t care that the short side of the belt was missing. I was arrested and taken to police court.”

She was detained for several hours and wound up arriving hours late for the interview.

“I called from the police court and told them what had happened, and I was told ‘Oh yes, come on to the interview.’ I did, but I did not get the job.”

Two years later, the story had a different ending. She was called again for an interview with C.F.CA., and boarded a bus for the six hour ride. But, this time the seatbelt worked, she was on time for the interview and, she got the job. Lillian joined the team in August 2009, and in July 2010 she was named Mothers Group coordinator, based in Nairobi.

Lillian speaks three languages, English, Swahili and Kikuyu, a tribal language; all come in handy when dealing with different mothers groups.

The mothers groups were begun in 2007; currently there are 367 mothers groups in the Nairobi Project, with about 10,000 moms and 230 fathers as members. Two other Kenyan projects, the Meru and Kasama, as well as Unbound projects in Tanzania and Uganda, India, Madagascar and South America also have mothers groups.

The mothers groups aren’t coffee klatsches. They are a way for mothers to mingle with other mothers, which increases confidence and social skills. And through cooperative goal setting and money saving programs, the groups can loan small amounts to members, which can help a woman start or grow a business and work toward self-sustainability.

How are the groups established? “There are 13,000 sponsored children in the Nairobi region,” Lillian said. “Most of the moms have many children, at least four. To join a mothers group, a mom has to have at least one sponsored child. We usually ask the mother of a newly sponsored child to join a group.”

Where do the fathers come in? Single fathers who need to be able to support their children are invited to join the moms groups, Lillian said. There are no fathers groups yet.

Once a group is established with about 15-20 members, and mothers start saving, and they are ready to elect group leaders — a chair, secretary, two committee chairs. They then are able to register for certification and elect signatories (cannot be group leaders). Then they formally open a bank account for their mothers group, which is used as the depository for their monthly savings, the funds that can be loaned out to group members, and the repayments of those loans.

When a woman joins the group, Lillian and other members spend about six months working with the new member, getting to know her, helping her understand Unbound’s programs and how they build on her potential, and preparing her to start saving $1 (about 87 Kenyan shillings) a month. In the beginning, she said, mothers who have been barely hanging on are often afraid to save. After the first year, a new member has grown comfortable with the idea of saving each month.

The next six months are used to work on financial literacy education, for both the mother and her children. “It’s easy to work with children, teach them responsibility,” Lillian said.

Here’s how it works. The group allocates $1 of her child’s monthly sponsorship fund to the mother, which is deposited into the group’s bank account in her name. After the first year of attendance at meetings, responsible saving (she must have saved at least $12 that first year) and interaction with other members, a mother is able to apply for a loan from the group. There are four primary reasons mothers give for needing a loan: to start a business or boost an existing one, pay tuition fees for a sponsored child or for a sibling of a sponsored child. Moms want to plant potatoes, maize, groundnuts (much like peanuts) or traditional Kenyan vegetables, raise poultry or livestock, run a laundry service or beadwork. Charcoal selling is another business avenue.

Lillian said the first loans are about $20, and mothers are given a year to repay it. If something happens that makes it impossible to repay the loan on time, the mother must go before the entire mothers group, explain the situation and ask for an extension.

After the first loan is paid in full, a mom can apply for another loan. By that time, her savings account will have grown, and the loan amount is usually a match times two, Lillian said. In other words, if a mother has saved $25, her loan could be as much as $100. However, she must have saved at least $12 to get the matching funds loan.

The mothers groups have loaned out millions in Kenyan shillings since 2007, Lillian said.

“No, not everybody succeeds. When we have a mom who fails to save each month, or doesn’t pay a loan back, the mothers group looks at what caused the failure and tries to figure out what can be done to not fail again. Working together is a traditional way of resolving problems and challenges.”

Lillian, who is working toward her second degree from UNISA, in Government Administration and Development (now made easier with a computer), hopes that within the next decade, Unbound and its Nairobi Project develops a database to track progress.

And which of the 367 mothers groups she coordinates is her favorite? “Oh the Hope Mothers Group,” she answered immediately. “The group had so many problems and challenges, meetings were chaos. But we sat down, and by conversations, we were able to work through the problems. The things we can be accomplished by working together!”


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October 21, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph