Funerals & the Act of Listening

A few years back I was living in a rural village in Uganda and working with an organization that works with the poorest of the poor who are considered “not bankable” by formal savings institutions. Instead of going to traditional banks, communities formed savings groups and worked together to lend each other money and save a small amount each week. These weekly savings serve as a safety net for a household should a crisis emerge.

We were working with three of these savings groups on a short-term income generating project that diversified incomes. We met on a weekly basis to discuss the progress we’d made organizing this project. And without fail, meetings would start 1-2 hours late. I remember one meeting we had scheduled for 2 pm. 2 pm came and went, then 2:45… soon it was 4 and we were still waiting and no one had showed up. I was sitting there becoming increasingly frustrated. Shouldn’t these participants arrive on time? We were doing all the leg work and creating a project that really benefitted them. Around 4:30 a participant showed up and informed us that the whole community was at a funeral - someone had died a few days prior. We knew nothing about it and felt guilty for becoming so frustrated. It was a reminder that we were outsiders who were expecting these savings groups to cater to our needs rather than the other way round.

It is our job to be listen to the needs of those we are working to help, listen to what isn’t always said outright, remain critical of our efforts, monitor our work, and be willing to adapt. It takes a concerted, intelligent, thoughtful effort to reduce poverty and make lasting change. We cannot oversimplify issues because the poor deserve the best we are in a position to give them.

We abide by these principles at RoHo as is reflected in the adaptation of our giving model. We first wanted to establish a vocational school in Malindi to encourage unemployed groups to learn a marketable skill. The idea was that eventually we could hire several trainees into our business as we expanded. But the more time I spent with our artisans, the more I realized how inundated the area was with trainings, trainings on every topic trying to encourage people to find new sources of income. But there was no market for jobs. Those who were able to secure a job often receive tiny incomes due to the high supply of semi-trained labor.

So we shifted our focus instead on our artisans to ensure that new markets existed for their products, increasing demand, and therefore allowing us to make sure they are well provided for. Our artisans are paid higher than the industry standard and we are dedicated to ensure working conditions meet developed world standards. We’re in the process of ensuring our employees have health insurance and have a day care at their disposal. We have also established a community development fund in which we work with our artisans to determine what the community needs most. Our artisans decide where these funds are allocated because we’ve learned they know their community and its needs far better than we do. We’re there to facilitate these projects, which can range from scholarships to coastal cleanup projects to access to capital for entrepreneurs. We’re doing everything we can to listen.

Now I’m not suggesting that RoHo is perfect, but we are learning from our mistakes and making a conscious effort to be responsible and ethical in our business practices and giving model. I’ve come to realize that my role in this whole process is really to be a conduit. There are incredibly beautiful products that exist in Kenya that we don’t ever have an opportunity to see. I am trying to be a bridge to fill the gap that exists in these shortcomings. I could never in a million years do what these men and women do. The time and precision that goes into these shoes is really incredible!