To Catch A Thief
If you ask anyone in Kuria “siku za mwizi ni ngapi?” (how many days does it take to catch a thief?), the prompt reply will be “arobaini”. Forty days.
It doesn’t matter how they arrived at this particular number, the point is, it is finite. A thief WILL be caught. Stealing is taken seriously. Cattle, for example, are a prominent symbol of wealth and are often stolen. No matter what time at night it’s discovered, a team of trackers immediately forms to catch the thief. Walking around town between meetings, I’ll round a corner and suddenly be facing a mob of 10 to 20 angry men marching with machetes, bows and arrows. My first instinct is to dive into the bushes, but they pass with nods and greetings. They are hunting a cattle thief.
But while theft is taboo, it is a nuanced concept. In our Savings Club program, a group of members meets weekly to contribute an agreed-upon group savings goal. An elected representative records the amount contributed by each member in the group’s notebook, then takes the total amount to a Nuru Savings Club meeting. Nuru staff issues a receipt that the representative must then show at the next group meeting to confirm that all the money was transferred. Seems pretty straightforward, but in reality the groups aren’t disciplined about meeting, the representatives often casually collect money from individual members, and no one thinks to check the group notebook or receipts. After some time, members will show up to make a withdrawal from their group savings, only to find that their representative actually stopped attending Nuru Savings Club meetings months ago. It takes some tracking down, but eventually the representative is found and returns the money. For a community that so abhors stealing, this has happened a surprising number of times. And the members, while upset, are actually pretty tolerant of the person who quite obviously stole their money. There are no machete-bearing mobs here.
So does this mean that theft, if more subtle than outright stealing a cow in the middle of the night, is somehow less severe? Misappropriation of money, if you can get away with it, is acceptable? I would say 99% of our members are honest and hardworking. Out of 82 loans disbursed to date, only 2 have ever defaulted, and both were subsequently recovered. But that 1-3% exception could very easily tear down the program for everyone else. Preventing fraud in our village bank and savings programs is a huge priority.
We’re learning from our mistakes and trying to actively preempt new ones. We’ll be reverse brainstorming ways to break down and cheat our system so that we can prevent that from happening. And we’ll have to adopt a lot of security measures involving paperwork and checking IDs that isn’t really exciting to read about or do. It seems silly to be verifying IDs when the field officer knows the client’s entire extended family for the last 5 generations, which is often the case in our communities. But considering that there are 6 traditional Kurian names for firstborns (Chacha, Mwita, or Marwa for boys, Gati, Boke, or Robi for girls), at some point Peter Chacha or Joseph Marwa is going to figure out that there are 437 others in the bank with his name. So the un-sexy tasks of creating unique membership numbers, building a database of member IDs, setting up security protocols in our financial services, and tracking individuals across all Nuru programs are actually pretty crucial to our overall ability to sustain and scale.