Title: The Kochia Chronicles
Genre: Social Innovation
Author: Khanjan Mehta
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Obongo’s Scramble for the Signboard
Like the rest of the inhabitants of Kochia, Obongo was excited about the new solar power project. Obongo and his wife Janet were leaders of the Empower Kochia Group, a Community-Based Organization (CBO) working on various development projects to improve the lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants of Kochia and surrounding areas. Government officials and Chief Peter Achieng from the Sustainable Utopian Village (SUV) Foundation had come to Kochia about three months back to congratulate the people on their good fortune. After a year-long screening process that involved studying thirty sites and interviewing over 300 people, Kochia had been selected for this project. An array of five large solar panels were to be installed for people to recharge their LED lanterns. Kenya’s electrical power system was unreliable and very expensive. Remote areas like Kochia had never had electricity and the people generally used kerosene lamps at night. Since the last two years, a select few inhabitants of Kochia had purchased car batteries for powering LED lamps. It was common for them to travel upwards of 10 kms and spend half their daily income every two weeks to get their batteries charged.
Chief Achieng had explained to Obongo that the solar panels would convert sunlight into electricity. The people of Kochia would have to purchase LED lanterns that would operate on this electricity. Every week, they would have to take their lantern to the project site and get it recharged. It would be like going to the water tap and waiting in line to get your jerry can filled up. Obongo was not quite sure how it would all work but Peter was a trusted friend and if he said so, it must work. Everyone would finally have light at home in the evening; no more eating in the darkness. Obongo was happy that he would finally be able to see his dear wife Janet’s face when they would sit down for dinner and chat for an hour or two afterwards. Obongo had a set routine every evening. He would listen to his radio for an hour before dinner. After dinner, he would check on his seven children, two cows, five goats and then come back to his hut and talk to Janet. The topics of conversation were the same every day. They would talk about the children, how much milk the cows and goats were giving, the cellphone calls they made on that day, and general gossip about the members of the Empower Kochia group. The solar power project had also made it to their daily conversation – taking up the spot between the goats and the cell phone calls.
Okello had explained to Obongo that he would save over three hundred Shillings a month by switching from kerosene lamps to the LED lanterns. The lanterns would provide more light than the kerosene lamps and not produce those nasty fumes. He had mentioned something about saving the earth. Obongo was a frugal man and understood the importance of saving water. He was confused about this business of saving the earth but if Okello thought it was important, it must be. Okello knew everything about everything. They had studied together in secondary school and while Obongo quit after Form 4, Okello had gone to Homa Bay and completed Form 6. Okello did not have money to go to university. He worked various jobs in Nairobi, Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa before coming back to his homeland to settle down. He started a small medicine shop and looked after his half-acre farm.
Everyone in Kochia had great expectations from Okello. They were convinced that if Okello really put his heart into it, he could rise to great heights. Maybe even become the President of Kenya some day, or at least a senator in the Kenyan government. Okello, on the other hand, had no political ambitions or interest in bureaucratic processes. Ever since he was a child, he was very inquisitive and loved to solve problems. He liked to build things – toys, furniture, mud sculptures, farming implements, matatu decorations and radios. Upon returning from Mombasa, he invested his savings in various tools for his little workshop. He could be found working on some new project in his workshop at odd times of the day and night. He loved children and would make them toys with lights and sound. He would help people build their homes and toilets, fix their cellphones and radios, and rent out batteries. He didn’t particularly seem to care about making money either. Sometimes he would just give away his creations or fix people’s appliances and refuse to accept money in return.
“Solving a problem and seeing you happy is my biggest reward. If I have money in my pocket, I will spend it on something frivolous. Rather, I will save it as a favor in your pocket and someday when I need something, you can return the favor,” he would tell everyone.
After a year and a half of putting aside a thousand Shillings every month, he finally purchased a second-hand laptop for KSh. 20,000 and a USB internet modem for KSh. 2,000. Access to the internet opened up a whole new world. Okello would spend days and nights learning and building all kinds of things. Gradually, he came to be known as the engineer and problem-solver of Kochia. Everyone sought his advice before buying a new technology product, engaging in a new business venture, trying a new fertilizer, or essentially doing anything new or different. Okello would admit the boundaries of his knowledge but strive to find answers to people’s questions. It took away a lot of his time but he enjoyed it. He just couldn’t turn anyone down. When people started seeking his advice on buying cows, impotence problems, and negotiating dowries, he drew the line. He put a sign on his door declaring that he would only answer questions related to technology and new businesses. People just ignored it. Finally, when he intentionally advised a rich man to buy a sick ox, the problem was solved. The ox died a week later and word got around that Okello did not know much about cattle. Okello was now able to devote more time to his own projects, and those coordinated by his dear friend Obongo for the Empower Kochia group.
Obongo woke up at his regular time of 6 AM on Monday morning and started thinking about the week ahead. There were only six days left before the launch of the solar power project. There was so much work to be done. He had to travel to Homa Bay to invite the District Officer (DO) and District Commissioner (DC) to the ground breaking. The DC and DO would be invited by Chief Achieng but it was still essential for him to personally invite them. He had to contact all the members of the Empower Kochia group and confirm that they were prepared to be present on Sunday morning. He had to arrange for name badges and safety pins for all the office-holders. There were so many more things to do but first and foremost, he had to get the project signboard made! Chief Achieng had suggested that a big professionally-painted signboard would be received very positively by the chiefs of the SUV Foundation. After all, this was a very big and important project that would mark a new chapter in the history of Kochia. Obongo presented this idea to the CBO members who were very supportive and resolved that no expense should be spared to prepare a signboard that fits the stature of the project.
Obongo decided to start his day by talking to Godgift about the signboard. It was a 45-minute walk across his friends’ farms to reach Godgift’s little shop in Imboyo market. Obongo started out for Imboyo market at once – there was no time to lose.
“The ground breaking of the solar power project is on Sunday at 10 AM. Come to the site directly after church. Don’t forget!” he would shout as he passed people’s homes. It was barely 8 AM when he reached Imboyo market. Barring the M-Pesa kiosk, the rest of the shops were closed and the huts where the people lived were just beginning to stir.
“A little too early,” Obongo thought to himself, “Godgift is not going to open his shop for at least two more hours!”
He settled down on a chair offered by a lady in one of the huts. He had seen her many times but was not sure whose wife she was. A number of thoughts ran through his head: things to do for the groundbreaking; how he would greet all the important people; the menu for the feast sponsored by the SUV Foundation; from whom he would buy the goats; how the goats would be cooked; how he would bargain down the price of the goats. After dwelling on the goats for a few more minutes, his mind settled on the finances of the Empower Kochia group.
Obongo always knew which members had their dues paid in full and whose contributions were pending. “…my good friend, I know that business is not very good right now and your child was recently sick. But if you don’t pay your dues on time, how will our group complete all these projects? How will we improve the life of our people?” Obongo would urge the defaulters. “It is just 100 Shillings a month – the cost of two sodas.”
He always knew how much money was in the group’s bank account. Last month, the balance was over KSh. 8,000. When the rent for the group’s tiny office space, which had accrued for six months, was settled, the balance dropped to KSh. 2,550. Fifteen members were yet to contribute their monthly dues. That would put their total balance at KSh. 4,050. He remembered the day the bank manager at United Kenya Cooperative Bank had called him into his office and they had a soda together. The account balance stood at a majestic KSh. 22,600 on that day and they had discussed various ways the funds could be invested so that they would grow into a larger amount.
“Those were the days. If only I had not listened to the manager’s
Obongo Waiting Outside Godgift’s Shop
fanciful ideas, right now there would be so much more money in the account,” Obongo reminisced. He wrote up the names of the fifteen group members whose dues were pending. He decided that after he had talked to Godgift about the signboard, he would go around and collect money from all the members. He might even goad them to pay for the next month!
It was past 10:30 AM when Godgift finally appeared at the shop. Obongo could not stop staring at the gigantic rusted lock that held the rotting doors together. “One could easily pull the doors out from the hinges,” he muttered under his breath.
“You are very lucky that I decided to open the shop today,” Godgift insisted. “Business has been so slow in the last few days that I don’t see the point of opening the shop and sitting here all day. I might as well stay at home with the children. How can I help you?”
That’s the moment Obongo was waiting for! He took a deep breath and burst into an ear-to-ear smile. For the next thirty minutes, he narrated to Godgift everything he knew about the solar power project – from the sun’s energy to Okello’s smart ideas to the menu for the gala feast to be held on Sunday. A small crowd had gathered by the time Obongo was done explaining the project. “Don’t forget gentlemen,” Obongo said to the crowd, “Sunday morning, directly after church…and I have been told that the MP himself will stop by to grace this occasion.”
“This is a very good project. It will benefit all of us,” Godgift agreed. “Thank you specially for coming all the way here, early in the morning, to tell me about this project.”
“Karibu Tena. I came here with a purpose.” Obongo smiled. “I want you to play a larger role in this project and leave your mark on the history of Kochia.”
“I am honored,” Godgift replied. “But let me be clear. This time I cannot provide my services for free. Business is not good. I will leave as many marks on our history as you insist but I need my fair wages.”
“Surely,” Obongo assured, “the group has already sanctioned the funds for this effort. We need a large signboard on a metal sheet with a wooden frame around it. The metal should be thick gauge and the wood must be termite-resistant. The name of the project is ‘Solar Power Project’ and the partners are the President’s Office (Government of Kenya), the Sustainable Utopian Village (SUV) Foundation and the Empower Kochia CBO. The words should be painted with oil paint that will stay for at least ten years. Every two years, we will get it repainted so that it looks brand new…and of course you will be asked to repaint the sign.”
“Did you say it is a ten-year project?” Godgift gave a shy smile. “I am so proud to play a pivotal role in such an important long-term project.”
“Indeed,” Obongo confirmed. “Depending on when the project itself starts, it might even be longer than that.”
“When will the project commence?” Godgift inquired. “At that time we will have to place several signboards to direct everyone to the project site. Why don’t we start working on those signboards now? Then all our people and the visitors will know exactly where the project is going to be located!”
“No, No, No, my friend,” Obongo said. “For now, the group has only sanctioned funds for the main signboard. But, you have to give us a very good rate. As you know money is very tight and this is all for the improvement of Kochia!”
After an hour’s negotiation with six bystanders expressing their opinions on the correct price, the kind of wooden frame, and the precise shade of the blue paint, the price was set at KSh. 4,000. This price included the installation of the signboard at the project site as well as repainting the text every two years for the next six years. The signboard was to be installed on Saturday morning and that’s when the KSh. 4,000 would have to be paid.
“There is nothing to worry about. The money for your wages has already been set aside.” Obongo swiftly turned down Godgift’s request for an advance.
“Godgift does a good job but always charges so much money. KSh. 8,000 is certainly outrageous! The signboard should not cost more than 2,000 bob. Thank heavens for supporting this project. We got the signboard done for 4,000 bob. Now, there is nothing to worry about for the next ten years,” Obongo mumbled to himself as he set off on his journey, determined to collect the KSh. 1,500 in missing dues. He went to five houses that evening and spent between ten minutes to two hours explaining the solar power project and coaxing the members to pay their monthly dues. He was able to recover dues from three of the members while the other two asked him to come back the next day. He had to collect money from 12 more members and he had four more days to do so. After those four days, he would have KSh. 4,050 – enough to have the signboard completely paid for. The sun had set when he reached home – another long day with so much accomplished.
That night Obongo truly enjoyed his modest sukumawiki and chapatti dinner with his family. His nightly discussion with his wife focused on his adventures of the day and his plans for Tuesday. He decided to set off early on Tuesday morning to collect dues from the other twelve members. The reputation of the Empower Kochia group was at stake, and so was his.
“Maybe there will be some faults with the signboard and then I will pay Godgift only KSh. 3,900. That will leave me with 150 bob that I can use to buy a soda for the District Commissioner, the District Officer, the MP, Chief Achieng and me. I will just pay for the ice myself so that we can enjoy a cold soda together. Once the project starts and everyone can see the potential in Kochia, more donors will come and there will be many more projects. In addition to more donors, once we demonstrate some success, we will increase the monthly dues to 200 Shillings. Then I will have some funds to move around and meet more partners. I can even ask the group for a small stipend,” Obongo thought to himself. He was smiling when he finally fell asleep.
Tuesday and Wednesday were long days. Obongo went door to door all over Kochia from seven in the morning to eight at night. He was able to collect dues from six more members. Now, he had KSh. 900 in his pocket and KSh. 2,550 in the group’s bank account, bringing the total to KSh. 3,450. Six more members to go! He tried to hide his worries from Janet but failed miserably. As he tried to fall asleep, he was thinking about the people from whom he had to collect money.
Philip was one of the group’s most active and popular members. His home was closed. “Maybe, he found a contract job in Homa Bay and is staying with his brother. I should go to Homa Bay to withdraw money from the bank tomorrow rather than Friday…and also check on Philip at the same time,” Obongo made plans for the next day. Four of the Empower Kochia members lived in Ngegu, a small fishing village on the way to Homa Bay. He decided to visit them first and then go to Homa Bay. If everything went as planned, the only person left would be Reverend Ndiege.
“Yai yai yaaiii!” Obongo sighed. Last time when he had gone to Rev Ndiege to collect dues, the Reverend had asked him to wait for almost five hours while he took care of church duties. Finally, he had come out and explained how his finances were not very good and asked Obongo to come back after two days. It took three more visits and a cumulative wait of eleven hours before Obongo walked home a winner – with 100 Shillings in his pocket.
Thursday did not go as planned. As Obongo was about to step out in the morning, the sub-chief of Central Kochia walked into his house to discuss the plans for Sunday. The discussion lasted over four hours and the sub-chief finally left at 2:30 PM only after he was convinced that everything would go smoothly. Now, there wasn’t enough time left to make the trip to Ngegu, the bank in Homa Bay town, and the municipal offices to invite the DC and DO. Obongo decided to visit the Reverend instead. The Reverend greeted him very warmly and inquired about the plan for Sunday and the status of the signboard.
“Don’t forget to check on Godgift again!” the Reverend warned Obongo. “All of Kochia knows how bad his spellings are. Last time…”
Obongo was not in the mood for any more discussions but he patiently heard the Reverend’s stories about Godgift’s spelling errors. He had to wait just 30 minutes to witness a miracle. The Reverend pulled out a crisp 100 Shilling note and gave it to Obongo, “I will be at the site at 11 AM sharp and I will bring all my congregants with me.”
The reverend understood the reason for the surprised look on Obongo’s face. He looked at the heavens and smiled. Obongo was back home in less than an hour and had successfully collected the dues from the Reverend! On the way home, he decided to stop by Godgift’s shop. Godgift had the correct design and spellings on paper and was just getting ready to start painting them on the board. Obongo waited for a while but then decided to head back home and listen to his radio. He was curious if the local evening news broadcast would mention the ground breaking ceremony and the solar power project.
Obongo boarded the first matatu to Ngegu on Friday morning. He went straight to the group members’ homes but all four of them were out fishing on the lake. He was assured by the member’s kin that the 100 Shillings were ready, but he should return in the afternoon and speak to the men before collecting the money. It was almost noon when Obongo reached the bank in Homa Bay. He was hoping that the bank officer would ask him why he was withdrawing so much money from the group’s account. The bank officer simply verified Obongo’s and the treasurer’s signature and handed him the KSh. 2,550. He advised Obongo to maintain a small balance in his account before moving on to the next customer.
“The bank officer did not even care to ask me why I am withdrawing so much money! These young people don’t know how to engage with customers,” Obongo walked out of the bank disheartened. The DC and DO were not in their respective offices and he left a warm invitation for them with their secretaries.
The next stop was Philip’s brother’s shop. Peter knew nothing of Philip’s whereabouts and refused to pay his brother’s dues. Without pressing the matter further, Obongo rushed to the matatu stage. Thankfully, the bus to Kisumu left soon and dropped Obongo at Ngegu thirty minutes later. He was able to quickly collect dues from all four members. They insisted that the next project be situated in Ngegu so that they didn’t have to travel such a long distance. Obongo promised them another solar project that would be the pride of Ngegu. He was glad that everything in Ngegu worked out well. He put the KSh. 3,950 in a plastic bag, neatly folded it up and put it in the inside pocket of his old grey jacket. Obongo was disappointed. He was 50 Shillings short. He would surely lose face if people would find out that he had not managed to put together the KSh. 4,000 for the signboard.
Obongo would have just added the 100 Shillings from his pocket. Over the years, he had contributed thousands of Shillings to various group projects. Then, three months back, he refused to buy his daughter a cellphone but contributed 500 Shillings to a cooperative farming project. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Janet did not take very kindly to Obongo’s judgment. The farming project’s failure added fuel to the fire. After a lengthy argument and a week-long cold war, Obongo promised to never contribute any funds besides the regular monthly dues. Given the importance of this event, Obongo considered seeking a waiver from Janet. After considerable thought, he decided to save the favor as a last resort. He started praying that Godgift would make a spelling mistake. The budget for the sodas and ice was bothering him too. That night he lay awake for two hours tossing and turning – acting and re-enacting how he would tell Godgift that his work was only worth KSh. 3,900 Shillings…or even worth KSh. 3,800!
Saturday morning was full of excitement. Over 35 people had gathered at the site to commemorate the installation of the signboard. When the signboard finally arrived on a bicycle, it was covered in newspapers so that it would not get dirty. Godgift insisted that the newspapers be kept on the signboard until the actual ground breaking ceremony. “At that auspicious moment, the MP will tear off the newspapers and inaugurate the signboard.” Godgift even brought along a few of his friends to support his idea. Everyone seemed to agree with Godgift’s plan. After a heated two-hour debate, Obongo had to concede defeat. He also ignored his promise to Janet and added personal funds to hand out the KSh. 4,000 to a delighted Godgift, who quickly counted the crumpled notes, put them in his pocket, and walked away. Obongo was an honest man and resolved to make a candid confession to Janet about the extenuating circumstances that led him to add the paltry sum of 50 Shillings for the signboard. Four volunteers had come forward to guard the signboard overnight until the formal inauguration. Obongo had lost interest in the signboard now. His thoughts revolved around having a soda with all the important people on Sunday.
Sunday morning was very hectic. Chief Achieng had called a number of times to check on the preparations. He informed Obongo that the SUVs were on their way to Kochia, picking up dignitaries – local chiefs (and their relatives), civil servants, businessmen, NGO workers and others along the way. The ground breaking ceremony was to commence at 10 AM. The school headmaster, Mr. Masinde, had promised to bring his children to perform a folk dance for the esteemed guests. The SUV Foundation had arranged for a megaphone system so that the speeches could be clearly heard by the 200-strong audience anticipated at the inauguration. The foundation also provided the groceries for a meal of ugali, sukumawiki, beans and goat stew for all the guests. Under Janet’s leadership, a team of twenty women had been toiling since early morning to prepare the meal. All the Empower Kochia group members and a few other guests brought in fresh pineapples from their farms to share with everyone.
Finally, crowds started gathering around 11:30 AM. As promised, the Reverend arrived with his entire congregation and Mr. Masinde arrived with his 60-member school dance troupe. The Reverend was not the kind who would waste a minute. The school children were a captive audience and a long sermon followed. Screams of “Yesu nakupenda” and peals of laughter from the children as well as adults reverberated in the air. Rev. Ndiege was adept at preaching to young people in an intelligent and entertaining manner. There was a sense of euphoria that comes with great hope and engagement in a community that one can truly identify with. Obongo was happy. He had five big bottles of soda in a plastic bucket full of ice hidden away in a safe place.
There was great jubilation in the crowd when a dust storm kicked off on the horizon. People scurried around and informed everyone that the officials had arrived. Obongo looked at his watch – it was 12:45 PM. “Thank God, everything is going as planned,” Obongo cheered the women who were now busy slicing juicy pineapples. “Please make sure that the meals are ready at 3 PM sharp.” He rushed back to gather everyone and welcome the dignitaries.
The fleet of six SUVs, specially decorated for the occasion, arrived at the project site in style. Obongo and the chair holders of the Empower Kochia CBO were standing in formation to greet the visitors. Chief Achieng and the District Commissioner were the first to alight and greet everyone. The dignitaries and guests from the neighboring towns poured out from the SUVs and engaged in an elaborate round of greetings and handshakes with the crowd.
Chief Achieng held Obongo’s hand and pulled him aside, “I have a message for you. The MP himself called me this morning and pledged his support to the project. He had some work come up today and could not join in the festivities but he has promised to pay a visit to Kochia very soon.”
“I understand,” Obongo drawled. He took a deep breath. “And what about the District Officer? He called me just yesterday evening and promised that he would grace the occasion.”
“Unfortunately, he is also very busy. You know these fishermen keep breaking the law by using very fine nets. He had to resolve some problem regarding that issue. Let me assure you that he is also very supportive and will be here once the project has started!”
“Many people have been asking me when the project will actually start,” Obongo remarked. “Please address that question in your speech.”
“I have been trying to find that out myself,” Chief Achieng confided. “It is beyond my control. Let me assure you that I was instrumental in making sure that this project comes to Kochia. I am committed to you people. Now that we have started the project, with God’s support, I am sure we will also complete it someday.”
Obongo commenced the celebrations with a welcome speech. He invited the Reverend to say a short fifteen-minute prayer. This was followed by the school children’s folk dance performance and speeches by the District Commissioner, Chief Achieng, and the project engineer. Okello was called on by the crowd to translate the engineer’s speech into simple words. Okello stepped up to the occasion and explained in details how the solar power project will eventually change the lives of the people of Kochia by providing them light while saving time and money. Okello responded to a barrage of questions posed by the audience. A few guests made formal speeches to express their gratitude to the SUV Foundation and other sponsors and expressed their excitement in seeing the project begin. Chief Achieng was requested to explain the timeline for the project. In a circuitous manner, he indicated that the solar panel installation would be initiated within three months. Much to Okello and
Innauguration of the Solar Power Project
Obongo’s dismay, he refused to provide a specific date when the project itself would be inaugurated and people would be able to get their LED lanterns and cellphones charged. Obongo pleaded with Okello to hold back and not challenge Chief Achieng in front of the entire crowd. Okello relented and walked away from the project site without looking back.
At 3:30 PM, it was finally time for the groundbreaking and the inauguration of the signboard. Godgift ran ahead and moved everyone away to make space for the dignitaries. He occupied a prime spot right next to the signboard.
“The correct person to inaugurate the signboard is our MP,” the DC declared over the megaphone. “But as you all know very well, our MP is a busy man and could not make it to Kochia today. He has pledged support to this project and on his behalf, Chief Achieng and I will officiate the inauguration.” There was a loud applause from the crowd as the DC followed by Chief Achieng shoveled some mud and collaboratively tore off the newspaper wrapped around the signboard.
“Yai Yai Yaiii! Didn’t I warn you…?” Reverend Ndiege exclaimed as Obongo stared at the ground and scratched his head. The crowd cheered and danced as a beaming Godgift gave a theatrical bow and joined in the revelry. The “Salor Power Project” was thus inaugurated.
“Today is a historic day for Kochia,” Obongo proclaimed over the loudspeaker system, “The Government of Kenya, SUV Foundation and Empower Kochia CBO are working together shoulder to shoulder. This has been possible only because of the hard work of the DC, Chief Achieng, and, of course, our MP…who, as you all know could not make it here today. He has promised us a visit very soon when I am sure we will have a feast that rivals today’s celebrations. As this sign proclaims, we have started a very important project and very soon we will have light in Kochia.” The crowd jubilated and continued their celebrations while the women started serving the meals. Obongo switched off the megaphone and turned to the DC and Chief Achieng, “Today has been a very tiring day for you and now it is time to have something. So, please…” He led the way to his humble home where Janet and the Reverend were waiting with five ice-cold large bottles of soda.
 1 US Dollar = ~84 Kenyan Shillings (KES. or KSh.)
 Matatus are 11-seater or 14-seater vans widely used for public transportation across East Africa. The motto of a matatu is “There is always room for one more!”
 M-Pesa is a mobile-to-mobile money transfer system operated by Safaricom.
 Karibu Tena = You are welcome (Kiswahili)
 Bob = Slang for Shillings.
 Sukumawiki = Kale. Sukumawiki literally translates to “push the week” and is a staple food across East Africa.
 Chapatti = Indian flat bread made from wheat flour; another staple across Kenya.
 Ugali is a staple food made by boiling cornmeal until it has dough-like consistency
 Yesu Nakupenda = I love Jesus (Kiswahili)