The three kiosks owned by Lumakanda Friends Church.
Rural Kenyans in Lumakanda are not capitalists. According to Wikipedia capitalism is defined as “an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit.” A certain amount of money is invested in an activity with the expectation that the activity will return more money — the more the better — than the initial investment. In this Report from Kenya I will explain how people in rural Kenya think differently.
The picture at the top of this Report is of three kiosks on the property of Lumakanda Friends Church. They cost 30,000/- ($300) each and rent for 2,000/- ($20) per month. Since I was brought up in a capitalist society, I immediately calculate that the church will cover its investments in 15 months and that the many months and years after that they will be earning a substantial profit. I conclude that these are good investments.
The members of the church don’t look at it this way. In order to purchase the kiosks, the church held a fundraiser for the necessary 90,000/- ($900). When they successfully raised that amount, they went to the iron-makers and paid them to construct the kiosks. I happened to be passing by the church when about fifteen male members of the church were positioning the kiosks at the corner of the property where they still stand. They had no difficulty in renting out the kiosks. But then they do not look at the rents received as reimbursement for their capital outlay. Rather the rents are immediately put into the church accounts to be used for the general expenditures of the church. There is no “profit” to be calculated, added up and reinvested in another activity. Why should there be since the church members have already contributed the capital needed on their own free will with the expectation that the rents would then be used for running expenses? Any good capitalist economist would be horrified by this attitude since the “profits” are not being re-invested to increase the capital of the church. Remember that capitalism’s rationalism depends upon continued increase — month after month, year after year, and decade after decade.
Let’s look at another activity from the church. Many years ago the women of the church, the United Society of Friends Women (USFW), decided to buy 47 plastic chairs to rent out at 10/- (10 cents) per day. They collected the funds among themselves and then asked Gladys and me to go to Kakamega and purchase the chairs. This we did. Then the church decided to buy 53 more chairs to make 100 together with a tent that would hold those 100 chairs. The tent rents out for 2,000/- ($20) per day. This would be used for special occasions such as funerals, weddings, celebrations, and so on. The problem here was that they only collected about 80% of the funds needed to buy the tent. Since the church had funds in numerous accounts for the church, the women, the men, the youth, and Sunday school, they could easily have “borrowed” the funds from these accounts and paid them back from the rental of the tent and chairs. They didn’t to this. Rather they paid the tent maker the 80% that they had in hand with the promise to pay the remainder from the rents. The church covered the arrears in a month or two. Again the rents received went into the church accounts and were not used as “re-investment”, for example, for the kiosks as a new fundraiser was held to purchase them.
Some years ago when we were still in our first house in Lumakanda, whose plot was too small to keep any cows, one of Gladys’ friends wanted to sell a large calf in order to pay for her child’s school fees. Gladys bought the calf from her, but we had no place to keep it. So Gladys had Shadrack, her relative who lived nearby, take care of the calf for us. Gladys’ grandfather and Shadrack’s great-grandfather were brothers. But the relationship was closer than that because Shadrack’s great-grandparents died and his grandfather was raised by Gladys’ grandparents. Shadrack took care of the calf for us for about a year. Sometimes we would need to buy Napier grass for him. We then decided to sell it. We got somewhat more than we paid for it, but, if the grass purchases were added in, I don’t know if we received any “profit” or not. That is immaterial because the purpose was to help her friend out.
Later when we built our second house whose plot was big enough to care for cattle, Gladys again helped out a neighbor by buying a cow to pay for her son’s secondary school fees. The interesting part here is that the cow was still giving milk and, after we bought the cow from the neighbor, she came to buy milk from us. When the cow stopped giving milk, we sold the cow for essentially what we paid for it. In summary these were not “economic” calculations at all so it didn’t make any difference if they were profitable or not.
This shop and the rental rooms behind the shop are owned by another relative of Gladys. I don’t know the exact relationship, but he always calls me “uncle.” He built the shop on the right a long time ago, but since we have been at our new house, about six years, this shop has never been rented out. The owner built the rented rooms in the back about a year ago and they also have never been rented out. In a capitalist sense this project is a failure since he put funds into the building and is receiving no returns.
Here is another example close by our house. The two shops on the left have been completed a long time ago and the owner is in the (slow) process of building the four shops on the right. Behind again are rental rooms. None of these have ever been rented out. There are many, many vacant buildings in town like this. Clearly people are not building them for capitalistic reasons to earn a return on their investments. Rather these buildings are assets and people want to put their surplus funds – from employment, farming, or other income-generating activities – into something concrete (pun intended). If structures are rented out, that is good additional income, but not necessary.
When Gladys and I had our tenth wedding anniversary in 2009 in Lumakanda, we were given three goats and three sheep. People often give us chickens and we give chickens to others often also. When Gladys’ father was still alive, we would sometimes take a chicken to him, but it would have been considered rude from him to slaughter the chicken we just gave him for our dinner; rather he had to slaughter one of his own chickens. The many fundraising events for funerals, weddings, celebrations, school fees, or medical expenses are also examples of the community working together. Most donations at these events are small, but many people attend so the total amount is often quite impressive.
I could give numerous other examples. The point is that the goal is not to make a profit, that is, to extract the most economic benefit as possible from transactions, but to work together as a community. Everyone gives and everyone receives. These transactions glue the community together. This is more important than making a “capitalistic” profit. In fact pursue for the highest profit would destroy the cohesion of the community. Has this already happened in the United States?
Above I brought up the relationship between Shadrack and Gladys because I want it to illustrate something additional. Gladys’ father was born in 1922 and he was the last born of eight children in his family. His parents were born in the 1880’s. This was before the British made Kenya a country, before there was money in circulation, and before Christianity impacted the culture. Gladys was very fond of her grandmother who had raised Shadrack’s grandfather. The connection with the traditional pre-colonial culture therefore is not so far back. In assessing this community caring-for-each-other culture today clearly goes back to that traditional culture when survival of the community depended upon mutual assistance. It is interesting to note, though, how money has been incorporated into the system without destroying it. I hope that capitalism, the “for-profit” culture, continues to be ignored by the Lumakanda community.
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