Micro-Lending Circles: From Mongu to St. Louis

a presentation to Women’s Voices of St. Louis
March 13, 2014

At the Zambezi River, Zambia

At the Zambezi River, Zambia

Mongu

In the weeks leading up to my trip to Zambia with Women’s Global Connection, I was excited about my upcoming trip to do workshops on micro-lending and fundraising in Mongu. And then the day of departure actually arrived and I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. While development workshops were something I could do in my sleep, what I knew of micro-lending was strictly out of a book. With fifty pounds of navy blue uniform shorts in my suitcase, a backpack of protein bars and cheese crackers, and a small carry-on, I took the 18 hour flight to Lusaka.

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The next day we departed on an eight hour bus ride through the baking bushlands on roads that looked like rolled cookie dough with ragged edges overtaking the dry beige dust. Waves of dry heat distorted the sparse trees in the distance.

The OK Restaurant greeted us upon our arrival in Mongu. Entrepreneurs were everywhere–setting up shop in little corrugated buildings of ultramarine, orange, scarlet and grass green selling wood block stamped fabrics, bottled drinks, hard boiled eggs on sticks.

I was prepared, powerpoint presentation in hand, to present a workshop the next day to a group of Lotsi tribeswomen so that they could begin their micro-lending circle. The women arrived in brightly batiked dresses. One woman had lost her home to a fire in the past week. Many had seen family members die from AIDS. All lived with limited means. Despite this, the women were happy and optimistic. They had recently formed a rice collaborative to capitalize on the high demand for the famed iron-rich rice of the western province and had been given land to farm by the tribe. That was a big step.

We sat to begin our circle. They spoke Lotsi–I spoke English. The handouts made great scrap paper. Sennana, an Oxford-educated princess of the Lotsi tribe, served as an able translator and I discarded my presentation and started with questions:

Why did they want to create a micro-lending circle?

What could the funds be used for and what projects were outside the circle?

Who could participate?

What was the amount for a loan?

How long could you take to pay it back, and what was the interest?

The women had their own circle process. For each question they would start at a different point in the circle. The reason for micro-lending was simple. They wanted to start businesses–that should have been obvious to me given that the entire town was given over to small entrepreneurs. Funds could be used for micro-enterprises, for their children’s education fees, for funerals, but not for bottle–liquor–stores.

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They quickly settled on loan terms and interest rates. Actually they were so efficient that they completed the micro-lending design in the morning and took the afternoon to develop a business plan for their rice business.

And then they danced.

St. Louis

When I returned to St. Louis I was determined to bring the micro-lending concept here. The Incarnate Word Foundation provided $5,000 in seed money to each bank. Women came together at Midtown Catholic Community Services, Haven of Grace, Let’s Start and East Side Heart and Home to begin their own circles.

There were no rules. Each group developed their own lending policies, repayment plans and interest rates. Most of the banks have interest rates that hover at about 5%. Usually loans are for no more than $500 and can be used not only to start a micro-business, but also to buy an appliance, provide a down payment on an apartment, or repair a car.

A partnership with the St. Louis Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) took the micro-lending circles to a new level. After an initial grant form the Incarnate Word Foundation the NCJW took the micro-lending circles to a new level by providing a mentoring component and focusing on women had suffered from domestic violence or limited economic opportunity. In two years they have expanded to five Helping Heart Banks serving women connected to Lydia’s House, Safe Connections, ROW, and the YWCA. Their efforts have also expanded to credit repair as they link women who are paying their loans back with the Credit Builder’s Network so that the women are able to repair their credit scores.

Banks like the Women’s Helping Hands Bank continue to make loans based on a “face check” not a credit check. That particular group has gone on to develop a cooperative farmers market, City Greens, as well as a matched saving program for neighborhood youth. The bankers of Women’s Helping Hands Bank have not only developed a handbook on micro-lending but also presented at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington. That trip was a highlight not only for them, but also for me as I sat and listened to them tell other leaders how they had started a micro-lending circle that had blossomed into other enterprises.
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What does it all mean?

For me the most important outcomes from micro-lending aren’t repayment rates or bank assets. What really matters is empowerment.

Each bank begins with the women themselves. They set the agenda. Their opinions are the ones that matter. After years and sometimes decades of being told what to do they are now the decision-makers. In one instance the women began by saying that they couldn’t do it–they didn’t feel they had the education or ability. But inspired by the example of the Lotsi women, they went ahead and did it anyway. No one stepped in to do it for them; instead other women walked with them to reassure, encourage and celebrate.

The affirmation that the women bankers and clients experience is the heart of each bank.

What does it feel like to finally be able to make decisions?

When does apprehension evolve into trust?

How does empowerment change our relationships with our children?

How does empowerment change how we see ourselves and the world?

I went to Mongu to teach women about micro-lending and the women of Mongu and St. Louis ended up teaching me.

City Greens Market

City Greens Market

Blessed

The Bellerive bees in winter

The Bellerive bees in winter

Midwest winters can be hard. The last bit of green obliterated by the snow. The beauty of snow riddled with soot deteriorating into slush. Fierce nights. As I glance out window as temperatures hover around zero I see the bee hives buried in snow. All during the fall I had chastised myself for not getting around to taking the honey from the hives and now I hope that might be a saving grace.

The weather mirrors my life as I find myself in the role of caregiver while a family member recovers from surgery. Even though I know this will pass, patience is increasingly in short supply. Daylight is limited, but it is time to take a moment to see.

Sometimes I need only stand wherever I am to be blessed.
Mary Oliver

  • A handwritten letter arrives, bringing me back to an afternoon spent sitting with a nun in San Antonio who has generously become my friend even tough her days are precious, whisps of words carrying her strong spirit.
  • A blue heron flies over a lake at my friend’s new country house.
  • My daughters call, one during the day to invite me to a spontaneous lunch; the other near midnight just because she knows I miss her so.
  • Sadie gives me a sleepy Labrador wag from the sofa.  I dig my fingers into her rough coat and tell her the story of the first dog who comes to the first fire.
  • I pick up my knitting.

    Sometimes I need only stand wherever I am to be blessed.

    The next day the weather breaks and temperatures skyrocket to the 50s. And the Bellerive bees miraculously appear flying in and out of the hive.

    The Lake, Pat Thibodeau

    The Lake, Pat Thibodeau

    Knitting in the Round: Casting on a Circle of Story

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    Usually when I knit I use circular needles. Lighter than straight needles, circulars are flexible, nimble quick to the touch. Circulars make it possible to knit in the round.

    Recently, Mia, a young dynamic young social worker with sparkling dark eyes, asked me to teach her to knit. We had met on a social justice retreat where I was knitting socks on two circular needles. We briefly chatted over a lunch of mung bean soup and warm multi-grain bread, and I was pleasantly surprised when she e-mailed me several weeks later about knitting.

    We met for coffee and pulled out the needles. I started to cast on, knit one pearl two, create ribbing. Mia talked about her commitment to counseling women who struggle with poverty and abuse. I smiled at her excitement on becoming an advocate for justice for these women. As she reflected on what had lead her to that path, I saw her childhood in the crisp golden autumn of a Michigan upbringing.

    The conversation turned to my daughters so close to her in age and to Aunt Margie who gave me my first set of needles decades ago–to my story.

    Finally, we talked about faith.

    • What keeps the spark of the divine within us alight despite the failings of religious structures?
    • How do you get past rhetoric and dogma to hold what you know is true?
    • Where does integrity lie?

    At the end of the morning I wasn’t surprised that we had only completed a few rows. Instead we has created a circle of story.

    Next time, perhaps we will knit socks.

    The Cloud Appreciation Society: Just Breathe

    Clouds over the Tractor Road , Ashley, Illinois

    Clouds over the Tractor Road , Ashley, Illinois

    Not too long ago, a link popped up on my facebook page. Underneath a blue sky and cumulus clouds were the words “Cloud Appreciation Society.” It sounded like something whimsical out of a children’s book. Without hesitation I “liked” their page.

    Now every few days I receive a photo of a cloud formation. Stratocumulus, altostratus, and anvil tops. Prior to that my experience had been limited to clouds of the nimbus, cumulus or cirrus variety. The Cloud Appreciation Society takes clouds seriously.

    But beyond the cloud classifications, I began looking at the clouds in my own skies. Cloud billows high above the oak pillars of Tower Grove Park in the morning. Cloud wisps drifting past my office window. Receding clouds at sunset, reflecting the opalescent pinks and lavenders of the innermost whorls of sea shells shot through with fiery reds and exploding nova yellows. Cradle clouds cushioning a full moon.

    Each a unique moment. Impossible to capture. Life-giving.

    As the sun set while I was driving home from Nashville I watched the clouds changing. The beauty of each moment was such a distraction I took the exit for a town called Ashley and pulled off onto a tractor road to just breathe and savor a unique purply sunset, and then continued upon my way, glad to be a part of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

    Receding Clouds over the Tractor Road, Ashley, illinois

    Receding Clouds over the Tractor Road, Ashley, illinois

     

    How Are You in Your Heart?

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    Several years ago, I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, with the Incarnate Word Sisters. We touched down in Villahermosa in inky darkness and traveled to the heart of the city where bars were doing a brisk and noisy business. The next morning we traveled by bus up through the clear air of the mountains in Chiapas.

    Our home base was a coffee plantation owned by the Ch’ol Indians. The sisters have been partners in Nich Klum Cafe for decades, working with the tribe to build an international coffee company. During that week I learned the mechanics about growing organic coffee–from seedlings in the greenhouse to beans forming in the fields. That the best coffee was shipped to Europe, the second-best to the United States, and the rest was left for Mexico.

    Gregorio was my guide. He spoke four languages–I speak one. At the start of each day his greeting translated not as “How are you?” but as “How are you in your heart?”

    When people ask “How are you?” the expected answer is “fine” or at the very least “okay.” It is a superficial question.

    “How are you in your heart?” That is a deeper question that places us in relationship.

    Although I don’t say, “How are you in your heart?” I try to keep that question in my mind and read between the lines as I go through the day.

    • How is my friend who lost her husband six months ago really doing?
    • How is my relative who is recuperating from a broken hip at home alone really coping?
    • How is a colleague who has a new supervisor really adjusting?

    And I take an extra few minutes to listen. To see the day through their eyes. To give encouragement, a kind word or an unexpected note in the mail. To be present.

    How are you in your heart?

    I hear their heart and I hear mine.

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    Butterflies and Bees: Sharing Opportunity

    My Garden

    My Garden

    A few years ago my friend, Ann, brought me a bouquet of Mexican sunflowers as a surprise. In their overblown lushness they are the my garden’s equivalent of Betty Boop flowers. This morning a butterfly went from flower to flower doing the work of pollination. After a few minutes the bee arrived and took up the task.

    I thought back to something my friend, Chris, had shared with me. I had been invited to serve on a Board by a nonprofit agency. It was a busy time–when isn’t a busy time–and I was telling him how frustrated I was because I had to take on one more thing.

    That’s when Chris quietly said, “You should give someone else the opportunity. What is a burden for you is an opportunity for them.” And he was right. I had been focusing on myself, not on what would be best for agency Board or on how another individual could happily bring their talents to the table. What could be burdensome for me was an opportunity for someone else.

    I didn’t join that Board and somehow they managed just fine, perhaps even better, without me. Someone else served instead.

    The bee can pollinate the sunflowers as well as the butterfly. It is only a matter of sharing opportunity.

    Bees in the Garden

    Bees in the Garden

    Prayer Flags and the Four Winds: What Is God Telling Us?

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    My friend Pat just sent me a set of her prayer flags. Bright symbols of faith and aspiration are tossed by the four winds in my garden. Each morning the bright colors, symbols and messages catch my attention. They are beautiful and it is easy to not notice the wind itself.

    At the foundation where I work, I often go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret’s office to debrief after a meeting or a phone call. She possesses a tart realism leavened with affection and wisdom; she is an excellent colleague and mentor. Her German practicality is the ideal counterpoint to my Irish intuition.

    There are times when I’ll tell her about a particularly frustrating meeting. Or I may have encountered what appears to be an unjust situation that hurts those who are powerless. Perhaps it is a project that is going awry, a set of policies that actually mitigate against accomplishing the goal.

    When I voice my aggravation and annoyance, Mary Margaret’s response is not to commiserate, but to say, “What is God telling you?”

    My first thought is usually, ‘I don’t really care what God is telling me. What I care about is how bad or wrong this is and how frustrated I am.’

    But later I return to Mary Margaret’s question: What is God telling me using this situation?

    And that question leads to others.

    What is the underlying message that I am missing when I focus on situation itself rather than on what we are working toward?

    How can I stay attuned to what actually needs to be accomplished rather than get mired in negativity?

    What is the other perspective that is present and what is the good to be found in that perspective?

    Where can we turn to move past the obstacle and build consensus around a solution?

    How do I emphasize the inherent value of human relationships rather than get bogged down in being political?

    I take time to feel the wind. Because while it is important to see the prayer flags, it is the wind that makes them flutter and dance.

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