It is never a smooth path for self-help groups (SHGs) when working hard to achieve what initially seems impossible. Now expanding into a new county in Kenya, one of Excellent Development’s partners, the Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), is supporting SHGs where the concept of self-help is not so common. Excellent's Head of Programmes, Christine Whinney, and former Programmes Officer, Emma Seal, visited two new SHGs in Mwingi, Kitui county, to learn more about the challenges specific to the region.

We trundle and bump our way along red, dirt roads to Mumo wa Mwambui SHG, located at the bottom of a deep, sweeping valley. The group sing and dance as we pull up. An infectious, rhythmic song, it bounces around the glade. Skirts, headscarves, and t-shirts are bright and swirling with patterns. Like most SHGs, the group consists mainly of women, and they usher us down to their new, Jersey Overseas Aid funded sand dam where we sit on the wall in the shade of a broad, green, tamarind tree. It leans over the dam, as if to protect it from the burning sun. Sawa Mwendo, a group member, explains that they began the group in 2003 in response to the lack of water in the area. “Before we constructed this dam, all the people that live around here used to walk seven kilometres to fetch water. Most of the old ladies here used to carry the 20 litre jerry cans on their backs… and that would be the only activity for the day.”

This is not unusual in rural Kenya, where rainfall is erratic at best and only falls twice a year with desperately long dry periods in between. However, less common is the animosity faced by the group in response to their progress. This region has been subjected to many food-for-work schemes which create dependency and provide only short-term solutions. Such activities promote the presumption in communities that all activities must produce immediate payment, and where they do not, they are not worth doing. When this topic is brought up, Joseph Kilonzo, one of the few male group members, stands and leans against a gnarled branch. “It is people who are not members of this group, who are trying to plant those seeds of doubt. Those who wish to see the group disintegrate. Having been a member of this group and having worked here, I already knew that there was nothing that will get rid of the group. I am confident.” He nods around at fellow members as they clap in agreement.

"We needed empowerment. We work very hard. We have a vision of where we should not go as a community."

Dorothy, member of Mumo wa Mwambui and Wendo wa Katululi self-help groups.

Priscilla Nduni, the group’s secretary, adds to Joseph’s sentiment. “This is an old group which is very successful… it has a lot of enemies. We should not listen to what naysayers are saying.” It is astonishing to see such dedication and strength where the work of the group is time-consuming, hard, and voluntary. The pressures of family, water, income and survival could so easily overcome anyone living here, but every member’s face is resolute, self-assured.

Before we move on, ASDF staff chat with the group about these problems. They reassure them of the NGO’s commitment and praise the group’s dedication and strength. Space opens up for members to question the staff, to fully communicate any doubts. ASDF have these kinds of conversations with all the SHGs they support, their field officers visiting groups several times a month. Their clear commitment helps the groups to remain motivated, and the transparency of the NGO produces flourishing working relationships between staff and communities. The group speak passionately about the changes they are hoping to see once their first sand dam has matured. “Before, some families lost their livestock as a result of the drought. But now, we have enough water.” Priscilla explains. Part of the training provided by ASDF, are exchange visits to SHGs which have been building sand dams for several years. “When we took the training that was an eye-opener to us, we could now comprehend what was ahead of us. Knowledge is power, we want to keep on learning.”

Over the hill in the next valley is another group, Wendo wa Katululi SHG. One woman, Dorothy, is a member of both groups and she hitches a lift as we rattle over to the next group. Despite being in her early seventies, she usually walks the long, steep journey between SHGs several times a week to offer her help and get a head-start on skill-building. Katululi has been working together since 1992 and are no strangers to the concept of individual contribution for group gain. After pooling resources and managing to buy several goats, when the first set of kids came along, they sold them and made a profit. They used it to purchase a plot of land in the town, near a shopping centre. Their chairlady stands in the sandy riverbed, unfazed by the beating heat of the sun. “We plan to build a residential building where we can rent out some houses.” As a recent addition to ASDF’s support network, the group does not yet have a sand dam. “If we get water here, we can use (it) to make bricks. Then it will be easier to construct and make money.”

Like Mumo wa Mwambui used to, they face a gruelling journey to water. “We walk for water. If there is no queue it takes four hours.” But they are not ones to settle. “We want to cut that distance. We aim to plant trees and vegetables. Our children will have more time. The fruit trees will be an investment for our children’s future.” Although animosity from non-members is a likelihood, the group brush off suggestions that it could cause a problem. “We needed empowerment. We work very hard. We have a vision of where we should not go as a community.”

It is easy to understand the reliance of some communities on food and cash-for-work schemes which provide temporary relief from the severe difficulties of day to day life. However, once the project moves on or runs out of money, the local people are back to square one with no sign of change. These SHGs recognise this and will not watch the same thing happen to their children. “We need to change mindsets, produce our own food and work with our own farms.”

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