Why Debt is No Joke

I have two living grandparents, my family lives in New Hampshire, and I am a United States citizen; we are all freaking out about the U.S. debt crisis. It is a real and scary part of our lives right now. The U.S. government has provided its citizens with some level of financial security through social security, welfare and federal student loan programs. In light of the current situation, many people are worried that security might be fleeting. But imagine if you never had security and then things began to get worse? What if you weren’t ever able to depend on your government because its abundant corruption was making your life harder instead of giving you support? The U.S. debt crisis isn’t just the crisis of one country; it’s affecting the international financial markets, countries from Albania to Zambia, and one acre farmers in Kuria, Kenya.

Life before the debt crisis in Kuria – and before Nuru – was all about sustenance: scraping together enough bags of maize to feed your family for one more season.  As if this wasn’t already hard enough: the debt crisis and East African famine have worsened the situation for Nuru’s one acre farmers.

Because the U.S. Dollar is the international reserve currency, when the dollar drops so do other currencies. The Kenyan shilling hit a new low this month. In response the deepening debt crisis in the U.S. and Europe, Kenya has cut its growth forecast for horticulture earnings, further threatening a weakening currency. That means food price hikes, not to mention the ever-increasing gas prices that raise transportation costs of every commodity that finds its way through the back roads to rural Kenya. A few months ago in Kuria, a bunch of three onions used to cost 20 shillings (approximately 25 cents USD). Currently in Kuria, a single onion costs up to 30 Kenyan shillings (approximately 37.5 cents USD). Maize prices are increasing because of the drought; typically this would excited our one acre farmers since they would be able to get more for their crops, but because the drought is here in Kuria, Nuru’s one acre farmers don’t have as many (if any) bags of maize to sell as they did last season. Instead, they must keep their bags of maize to feed their families.

The Community Economic Development program at Nuru focuses on self-sufficiency and money management. There is a lesson to learn here for the people of Kuria – which is a lesson that should be the foundation of larger economies: we don’t give loans without building a deep understanding of when you should use a loan and when you should depend on savings. Our Msingi wa KAPESA program teaches that even if your income is tight, there is always room to put away a few shillings every month in preparation for an unpredictable future. The age old financial mantra of “you shouldn’t spend more than you have” is growing roots in rural Kenya. We can’t prevent a drought, but we can prepare for what we can’t prevent. While there may not be accessible welfare programs for the farmers to worry about losing, they are learning practical skills to help them prepare for hardships. Their life experience has taught them that when you can’t depend on your government, you have to depend on yourself. Even for the extreme poor, when there is a way to prepare, there is hope.

About Rebecca Herrington

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