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Posted on August 5, 2018

Building livelihoods: An identity perspective (Part 5)

There is a sense of progression and increased empowerment among participants of the Building Livelihoods programme that is associated in part with changing meanings of identities such as woman, widow, old, disabled, and illiterate.

Throughout this blog series I have examined FSD Kenya’s Building Livelihoods programme from an identity perspective. I have shown how the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) creates valued identities in the community and how there are different pathways to savings group identification and value. I have also highlighted the important role of community-based facilitators (CBFs) and explored tensions between what it means to be both a community member and a business person

Over the past two years of my study, I have also found the Building Livelihoods programme is helping shape other key identities in the community. One of these is what it means to be a woman. While the programme includes both men and women, the majority of participants are female. Many of the women in my study told me they used to sit at home and wait for their husbands to give them food or money. When some of them became widows, they struggled to find ways to support their children, often resorting to begging or doing casual labour jobs that are physically demanding and hard on their health.  

During my last visit in March 2018, I spoke to a woman about whether the programme and business have changed things for her as a mother and a woman. She explained:

 “It has because people no longer depend on each other, or even the husbands. They work for themselves nowadays. Even the women that receive that money [HSNP], they no longer depend on handouts from the husbands, they all have businesses at the market, goats. They are now the ones that feed the husbands from the proceeds of the business, they feed the children at the satellite camps, and those at home. It has brought change. We have changed now; the business seemed a male dominated industry before as opposed to today.”

Another woman named Kotopo, who I have met four times over the past two years, is an elderly widow with a disability and no children. When I first met her, she told me there is no one poorer than someone like her with no children or livestock. She often had to rely on the generosity of others to survive. But through the programme, the meaning of widow, childless, and disabled changed for her. She explained:

I have bought goats now because I didn’t own any before. My husband was killed by cattle rustlers because I owned livestock before. They killed him and got away with the livestock, I was left alone. Thank God, I have managed to buy some goats now and I do a little business as well in my house. I am visually impaired, but I do my business. I am not that bad nowadays.”

Kotopo expressed happiness at no longer having to beg or borrow from others, and over the past two years I have seen her business expand from selling sugar at home, to include other items such as rice, potatoes, and cooking oil. Even the meaning of old has changed for her, particularly because of the unity of her savings group. She told me:

“In the group we meet twice and put our resources together and share our ideas. It is in the group where the ideas of the old are respected. I feel like the part and person of the group by participating.”

During my latest visit, Kotopo also highlighted that what it means to be illiterate has changed. She said “I was illiterate before. I now know what to do. I feel that… what I feel right now is that I am a person too and I have my own things as well.”

Many participants in my study have talked to me about their illiteracy and how what it means to be illiterate is changing. It now includes an ability to learn new things, progress and grow. It is not only the women in the programme that are experiencing these changes, but men as well. As one man explained:

“We are not learned, it’s [CBF] who enlightened us because we didn’t know anything before. We are pleased and are looking to know more. I have learnt a lot. Being in a group and doing contributions has increased my savings. Before we were told that when you use money to invest in something it will double, we didn’t believe it but now we have realised that it’s true. Taking loans from the group has also helped because we can use it to grow our businesses, and also cater for school fees in case a child is sent from school. As illiterate people we have realized that the project has greatly impacted on us.”

While most participants talk about the new things they have learned, some struggle with understanding and adopting new business and financial concepts. At times, progress is slow and the CBFs must continue to repeat teachings because recall can be low. Some participants get school children to write things down, so they can recall it later. So far, I have found new concepts delivered through stories, shared experiences, and images seem to have the highest recall.

Overall there is a sense of progression and increased empowerment among participants that is associated in part with changing meanings of identities such as woman, widow, old, disabled, and illiterate. Over the coming months I will examine these and other identities in more depth through additional data analysis and a final round of interviews in Marsabit County. My aim is to increase our understanding of how various identities interact and change over time through programmes such as Building Livelihoods, and how those identity interactions and changes shape behaviour of programme participants, particularly with respect to business.

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