A Holiday Gift of Second Chances

As we gather with family and friends for the holidays, many of us search for the deepest meaning of this season.

By Sam Daley-harris (Making a Difference)

Published: Sat 26 Dec 2009, 10:03 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:50 AM

Sometimes that meaning can be found in the most unlikely places, places like the slums of Nairobi, Kenya where Jamii Bora, a microfinance programme, offers savings and loans to people who have been beggars, prostitutes, thieves and gang members. Along the way, Jamii Bora has learned that some of the best gifts aren’t given, but are earned through the grace of a fresh start or a second chance.

Just months after the post-election violence that engulfed Kenya two years ago, Jamii Bora received funds to rebuild one of the markets that had been destroyed by fire in the deadly rioting. Jamii Bora, which means “good families”, decided they had to find the rioters and enlist them in rebuilding the market they had destroyed.

This was a seemingly preposterous proposition, even in the world of microfinance—which knows a thing or two about defying conventional wisdom. For most microfinance institutions, just finding the perpetrators of the destruction would have been a dangerous, if not impossible, task.

Convincing them to rebuild what they had destroyed would seem to be an act of futility. But believing in the impossible comes naturally to Jamii Bora whose staff are all former members who have used Jamii Bora’s combination of savings and microloans to leave behind their lives as beggars, prostitutes, and thieves—lives that at one time were mired in extreme poverty. What they didn’t leave behind, however, were their deep roots in the community.

Jamii Bora’s staff was able to find the leader of the gang of 200 that had destroyed the market and talked with “the General”, as he is known locally, about helping rebuild. When he first met Ingrid Munro, Jamii Bora’s founder, he told her he was upset with her staff when they first spoke with him because they didn’t seem to realise how dangerous he was.

But through persistence they were able to convince the General and his gang to aid in the reconstruction of the market, paying them to guard the materials at night and help rebuild during the day.

After the construction was completed the General and a third of the gang joined Jamii Bora. The others were still sceptical about microfinance, but they were intrigued as they watched the General build a legitimate business constructing cases that children use to carry their books and other materials to school.

Recently the General told Munro that he hadn’t gone to his home village for 13 years because his mother was so ashamed of him. But he had just gone home for a visit and his mother cried for three days because she was so happy about how he had turned his life around.

What are the ways in which each of us is held captive? Are we held captive by hopelessness about ending global poverty or making a difference? These stories of microfinance offer us the gift of redemption, the chance to be set free from apathy and make a fresh start in working for a more prosperous and peaceful world.

From April 7-10, 2010, Munro will welcome 2,000 delegates to Nairobi for the Africa-Middle East Regional Microcredit Summit in her role as Chair of the Summit’s National Organising Committee. Let’s hope that we are all able to welcome the gift of redemption into our lives and into the world this holiday season.

Sam Daley-Harris is founder of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, which seeks to reach 175 million poorest families with microloans

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