Inspring story on escaping poverty


My dreams don’t look like I thought they would when I was a little girl. But if I think about it: I thought I wanted a husband, but I really wanted a family that was loving Jane, a single mother of seven children, Nirobi

How do we measure poverty? Very often we look at poverty in dollar terms. People making less than 1$ a day. Yet poverty is complex and income is just one variable. It’s a condition about choice and the lack of freedom. As said in Amartya Sen’s Capabilty Approach the value  is on what individuals are able to do with the resources they have. And I’m about to tell you a story that exemplifies this idea.

It is a story about a girl who lived in the slums of Mathare Valley 3kms away from Nirobi. Her name is Jane and so she lived in one of the oldest slums in Africa, a miles long two tenth in width – a strip of land where over half a million people live crammed into Tin shacks. Some houses have as many as 8-10 people living in the space of a small room.  When you walk down the narrow alleys it is impossible not to come across raw sewage or garbage along side the little homes.

But at the same time it is impossible not to see the human vitality, the aspiration and ambition of the people who live there. A woman washing her babies, washing their clothes, putting them to dry on the line or cooking outside of her home.

Jane is a young woman. The first thing that strikes those who meet Jane is the kindness in her face. She was asked a simple question – What is your dream? And she tells me:

” When I was a little girl I had two. My first dream was to became a doctor and the second was to marry a good man who would stay with me and my family”

My mum was a single mother so she couldn’t afford to send me to school and I had to give up on my first drea,. I started focusing on the second. Jane married when she was 18 years and soon had her first baby.And when she turned 20 she found herself pregnant again but tragedy struck her family. Her mother died and her husband left her – and married another woman. Jane found herself alone in Mathare Valley with no income, no skills and no money. Ultimately turned to prostitution. It was not organized as you may imagine, she would go out in the night with other girls and look for “work”. Sometimes she came home with a few shillings and sometimes  with nothing.

She says:

“The poverty wasn’t that bad. It was the embarrassment and the humiliation of it all”

Providing dignity for the poor is important. People need to have ways and means of earning their living. Luckily for Jane she met a girl who introduced her to an outfit called Jamii Bora (“Happy Families”) – a micro-credit company that help the extreme poor . There she was asked to show proof of savings before she was allowed to borrow money. So Jane spent the rest of the year saving 50$ and she was able to borrow money to buy a sewing machine.

She started a tailoring business which is is what she is doing now. She buys second hand ballgowns from the second hand clothing market and converts them to something new. She adds ribbons and frills and repurposes them into frothy frocks. She then sells the frocks to mothers who’s daughters celebrate their first holy communion or sweet sixteen birthdays. She also makes beaded jewellery and sells them along with the frocks. Now Jane makes over 4$ a day. By many definitions she’s no longer poor.

Disaster struck her life again. In 2008 Nirobi riots she lost her home and the market was burned down to ash. Jamii Bora understand the insecurity and that poverty comes in all kinds of shape. They came to her rescue again. They decided to provide decent housing for shanty dwellers and they were looking for people like Jane who knew responsibility and accountability. Jane was asked to pay 10% of the mortgage with her savings while they would match her rent for the shanty.

Just about to move in to the new home, located outside of Nirobi Jane was asked if she feared anything or if she would miss anything from Mathare Valley.

She said:

“What would I fear that I have not confronted already? I am HIV positive. I have dealt with it all. What would I miss? You think I would miss the violence or the drugs or the lack of privacy”

And then she was asked about her dreams.

She said: “You know my dreams don’t look exactly as I thought they would be when I was a little girl. But if I think about it, I thought I wanted a husband but what I really wanted was a family”. I thought I wanted to be a doctor but what I really wanted was to serve and heal people.  I counsel HIV positive patients two times a week.”

Jane may not be a doctor who gives pills but she gives something more valuable – she give them hope.

In the presence of  the economic crisis where we all pull in with fear it is good for us to learn from Jane’s story. We realize that been poor is not the same thing as been ordinary.  When systems are broken as we see in the world today it is an opportunity for invention and innovation.

We can extend the opportunity to all human been so that they can make decisions and choices for themselves. I truly believe that is where dignity starts. We owe it to the many Janes of this world.

This story is an adaptation from the TED talk ‘Escaping Poverty
by Jacqueline Novogratz


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