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Becoming known in Siaya town

For the past year, I served as the Field Director in Kenya and led our team to deliver more than $3 million to poor households. Since transitioning to a New York-based role recently, I’ve been reflecting on how far we’ve come in a year.

When I arrived in Kenya, our office was aptly described as “a series of boxes under the stairs”; now, we have a real office that will be able to accommodate our team as we continue to grow. Lydia Tala was our sole full-time employee; now we are 30. Field officers who used to refer to GiveDirectly as “you” now include themselves, saying “we.” But by far the most interesting and surprising marker of our growth is how well-known we have become in Siaya district and even Siaya town, the urban center.

Enrollment field officers live in Siaya town and travel long distances by motorcycle to the villages where recipients live. When I first arrived, a field officer going into a village would have to introduce himself and sometimes even show his identification badge before being recognized as a GiveDirectly employee. Now, just walking down the street to buy groceries, field officers are frequently recognized by their backpacks, which are not particularly distinctive, but are all similar in style and marking. Almost daily, recipients or family members see the bags and stop our staff to express gratitude or ask questions.

GiveDirectly staff are not only recognizable – they’re thought of as part of the community. As the below interactions highlight, recipients regard field officers as family, don’t hesitate to come to their aid, and even name children after them! Recipients also clearly feel great pride in the accomplishments they’ve made as a result of the transfers, and are more than eager to share them. Below are some of the field officers’ favorite stories:

  • Erick was in town before heading out for a day of fieldwork when two older women greeted him, saying, “Hello, our son!” He had previously led a village meeting and visited these women in their homes, and they had just received their second transfer. They were in town making purchases with the transfer money when they saw him.
  • Joe and Lydia were leaving a village and flagged a motorbike driver on the road. The driver, who happened to be a recipient, recognized Lydia and explained that he had bought the motorbike with the transfer.
  • Anne was at the bus station, negotiating her fare with a particularly stubborn bus conductor. A recipient, whom she didn’t remember, saw her arguing and stepped in to help. He told the conductor to give her a good rate because she had changed his life — he had used the transfer to buy a water pump that he then used to start a car washing business. The conductor was so impressed that he reduced her fare!
  • Witness Ochieng Gumbo had just completed a meeting in a new village being brought into the program, when people from a neighboring village came to pressure him to register them as well (which, of course, he couldn’t do). The host village came to his assistance, and a community member who had a motorbike gave him a ride back to town.
  • Witness also has a namesake in baby Ochieng Gumbo Loka! A follow-up staff member heard a rumor that a baby in a village where Witness had conducted registration had been named after him. Witness called around until he found the child.

The fond feelings towards GiveDirectly staff are likely a reflection of both the impact the transfers have had on the recipients’ lives, and the field officers’ role in facilitating the transfers. George, a field officer, recently conducted a follow-up survey with Mr. Owegi, a musician by trade, who spent some of his transfer on a guitar. Mr. Owegi now plays in several venues in Siaya town, and, according to George, sounds great. He wants to compose a song for GiveDirectly – so it looks like soon we’ll have a local musician literally singing our praises throughout the town.