A New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof caught our attention on September 15, 2011, and we put it aside for later. Now, it’s later!
Writing about poverty in Kenya, Kristof described Jane, a “prostitute-turned-businesswoman” who single-handedly lifted her family out of that poverty. Her world was very dangerous, and she had turned to prostitution for five years when her husband left after the second of her three small children.
But then, thirteen years ago, Jane joined JAMI BORA, Kenya’s largest microfinance organization. JAMI BORA is itself remarkable, founded by fifty street beggars and now boasting 300,000 members. In addition to small loans, the organization offers educational resources that cover many crucial aspects of productive living. (It also offers supported sobriety for people struggling with addiction.)
Jane learned about savings, entrepreneurship, and housing possibilities. With what she learned and the money she borrowed from JAMI BORA, she bought a sewing machine and began a business of making new bridal gowns from used gowns. Eventually, Jane’s business was so successful that she was able to buy a small house in the suburbs and watch her children excel in school.
Kristof’s article illustrated how precarious life without any back-up can be, and how unexpected outside assistance can help to save a family from tragedy. Of course, outside help is not always available. This made us think about the personal qualities and other circumstances needed to rise out of life’s difficulties and limitations.
In today’s United States, more than 10 million people are out of work, often for long periods, and we’re reminded that during the Great Depression, many despairing Americans committed suicide. Certainly, a poverty-stricken prostitute and mother in Kenya with no schooling beyond the eighth grade and nothing to cushion her could have succumbed to “reality.” But instead, Jane co-created a better reality. What does it take to do that?
In a previous blog, we mentioned the importance of cultivating vision beyond circumstances. It would seem that the fortitude of an inner vision, of belief in possibilities, would be reparative: to help combat feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and also to weaken the previously indomitable appearance of reality. Jane joined an organization that knew full well the realities of life for Kenya’s poor and uneducated, but they offered another vision, and she chose that one.
One could say, “Luck helps”—well, sometimes one has to be in motion, and to pay attention, to attract “luck.” As much as the external support of community made a vital difference in Jane’s story, so did her openness to a radical new experience. When she paid attention to something unusual (JAMI BORA), took advantage of what it had to offer, and made a move, her life changed.
We are greatly helped from inside by drive, energy, flexibility, hope, and creativity. From outside, we also need reminders, inspiration, and teachers. It’s been said that when one is ready, the teacher appears. We can be each other’s teachers—and we can be inspired by true stories like Jane’s. It’s unfinished, as all our stories are. But she’s made it thus far, to raise children with more opportunity than she ever had, and they appear to be fulfilling the promise that this opportunity gives them.
May we all learn whatever we need to from the story of Jane.
Oliver & Barbara