Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Paul Norton: A Different Kind of Savings Account

Norton in Kenya with KidsBrandeis student Paul Norton traveled to Kenya this past summer to intern with the KIMbia Foundation.  Below, we continue sharing his journal entries, which will run daily for the remainder of the 2009.

As an economics major, I am always fascinated by how things like money and banking work in other countries.  Earlier this afternoon, I received an unintended lesson about Kenyan banking.  I was sitting in the main house/common room/lounge area having a cup of tea and watching Kenyan music videos when Mike (one of my speedy training partners), Nyanye (Swahili for grandmother, and the only name I have heard the caretaker at Silgich referred to) and a few teachers trickled in.  For a while, all of us were sitting around talking, watching TV, sipping tea and eating snacks. After about a half an hour, the TV went off, and between the people around me 1500 Kenyan shillings (about $20) and a half a kilogram of sugar were put on the table.  As all of the conversation coinciding with this was in Swahili, I was a bit confused as to what was going on.

Mike and Madam Murule, one of the teachers, filled me in.  Every other week, Mike, Nyanye, two teachers, the secretary, Zipporah (Paul’s wife), and Mama Kanga (you read about her in my last blog) would meet. Each person would bring 200 shillings (about $2.50) and kilogram of sugar. Whoever hosted the meeting that day would take home all of the money and sugar, and would use it toward a bigger purchase like furniture, utensils, or whatever they needed.  As one would expect, the host rotated so that everybody had hosted once before a person hosted a second time.

Kenyan Economic NewsAccording to Madam Murule, groups like these were very popular among Kenyan women.  Mike quipped that Kenyan men were starting to see the usefulness of such groups.  I was intrigued, but also not surprised. One thing I have learned in my three weeks here is that everything in Kenya is social and involves the community.  When I went shopping for the day in Eldoret with Zipporah and Mama Kanga, I must have met half of their extended family.  People do not let you leave their house without having tea or a meal.  It shouldn’t surprise me then that Kenyan women have also managed to make the tedious process of saving money into a social event.  Frankly, it makes sense.  I would be a lot more motivated to put money aside every other week if it meant meeting my friends for tea as well.  This is another situation where I think we could learn a thing or two from Kenyans.  The massive amount of debt that the average American household wracked up was a key cause of the recent financial crisis.  What better way to motivate Americans to save more than to make it a social event?  While Kenyans may be very curious about us, we may have a lot more to learn from them.

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