Tag Archive | Garden

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.

image

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.

image

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.
image
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

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?

image

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.

image

Day Lilies: We Choose How We See the World

Day Lilies at Carondelet Pottery

Day Lilies at Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing pots at Carondelet Pottery, I usually take a break and sit in the garden. And when I do, I make a choice. I can choose to focus on the weeds that need pulling or the fence that I have been meaning to paint, or I can choose to see day lilies blooming.

Every day we have times when we choose how we see the world.

Later that morning as I was emptying the trash at the studio I saw two men fishing for cans in the dumpster. This presented me with several choices.

I can choose to ignore them.

I can choose to inform them in no uncertain terms with only a glance, not words, that they shouldn’t be fishing in the dumpster and that they had better not knock trash into the alley.

Or I can choose to say, “Good morning.”

Which is what I did. And they responded with “Good morning” as well.

We had a brief conversation about the beautiful weather, the nice people at the Methodist church a few blocks away, and the price of scrap metal. All three of us made a choice about how we saw each other that morning.

And it was the beginning of a lovely peaceful day.

Day Lily, Carondelet Pottery

Day Lily, Carondelet Pottery

Robins Know Their Own Minds

image

When I was in Ireland I stopped at a country fair where local craftsmen were selling their wares. I brought home a nesting box for robins simply constructed of pine with a slate roof. It is charming. In the three years I have had it up in the eaves no robin has nested. Obviously my assumption about what robins think is wrong.

Recently, I spent several days with a colleague, Jane. Her boss had stopped her with some questions about a project as she was leaving for a three-day conference but she was in a hurry and as they finished their conversation she made a flip remark.

She doesn’t know her boss very well. Her boss is relatively new and she finds her hard to read. Their last conversation weighed on her mind and Jane was convinced her boss had found her remark offensive or rude. I suggested that she e-mail as a follow up on the project and in passing mention that she hoped her comment hadn’t been taken the wrong way.

Even after Jane did that, however, she was still worried and continued down the path of assuming she knew what her boss was thinking. Then she received a message that her boss wanted her to call, a message that engendered more speculation about what her boss was thinking and why did she want to talk to her.

As it turned out, she just wanted to confirm a few details about the project that they had discussed. And perhaps the motivation for the call was an effort on her part to put things back on an even footing, or even to reassure Jane that no offense was taken.

We can’t assume we know the mind of another.

When I went to the studio the other day, I walked past an old gaslight by the steps and was startled to see a robin sitting on its nest inside. Evidently, robins know their own minds.

Bluebells Emerge

Bluebells at the Studio

The sun is finally warming the north-facing garden at the studio dappling crisp silver maple leaves that blanket the shade garden. Bluebells are the first to emerge and their drab 1930s green leaves provide a soft frame, holding stalks topped with startling sky blue tassels and buds tinged with a faint sunset pink. Within two months there will be no trace left–just bare ground.

I am glad I left clay wet on the wheel for a quick glance.

Joy in the Unexpected

Tower Grove Park

On Saturday I was thinking about setting out the leaf lettuce in the studio garden and on Sunday I awoke to a day-long snowstorm. Ten inches of snow later, my plans for gardening are postponed indefinitely. It’s time to take joy in the unexpected.