A Face of Microfinance

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There is not a cloud in the sky and the huge noonday African sun shines bright and hot, but still it is hard to make out the contours of Rose’s thin face inside this dark, damp handmade structure she calls home. Built with mud and dung from her mother-in-law’s compound, sticks hauled in on her back from far away villages and scraps of tin pulled from local junkyards, none of it belongs to her. She has no legal rights, at least not under customary law. Rose Ambrose’s husband died in a car crash in Arusha when their two children where just 4 and 1. Rose had left her birth family for her husband’s; they paid the meager dowry expected of an impoverished rural village family; and she is not welcome back. She belongs to her mother-in-law now, and her job is to help pay for her husband’s siblings and their wives and their children.

Now 28 years old, Rose completed only Standard 7 Primary from a typical overrun, understaffed, poorly equipped government school. She speaks no English and has no marketable skills. For the past eight years she has survived by waking before dawn each morning to walk far beyond the Arusha city limits, purchase tomatoes and carrots as cheaply as possible from small farmers, and walk back with her load balanced on her head to then attempt to find buyers who would give her a few more shillings than she spent. Rose and her children come last in her in-law’s compound and for years they’ve faced starvation on and off. Shortly after her husband died, the director of the Cheti orphanage came and offered to take her oldest child, a boy named Brian. Rose agreed. She gave up her son in hopes that he would receive regular meals and perhaps even a proper education.

Last summer when Rose heard about the new women’s loan program being run by her respected neighbor, a trusted Mzee in the community, Mr Elias Shayo, she immediately trekked down the long rocky road between them to knock of his gate. Mr Shayo awarded her a 400,000 Tanzanian shilling (TSH) loan. About $218. At the end of 12 months she is expected to repay $250, and if she does she will be eligible to receive a larger loan.

Rose used the money to purchase second-hand clothing from a local wholesaler. The clothes donated to Goodwill and the like here in America, those that never sell, eventually make their way on cargo ships to East Africa and other ports across the developing world where they are sold for pennies in large tied up barrels. The clothing barrels are then broken up and sold to individual store owners and walking shopkeepers, like Rose, who spend their days on their feet, exploring streets, pathways and neighborhoods, dawn until dusk, carrying used clothing items folded neatly in piles on their heads and on hangers draped over their shoulders.

So far, Rose is happy with her new business. Since she started three months ago, her profits have consistently exceeded those of her carrots and tomatoes. In fact, she has been so successful that she has been able to pay the 20,000 TSH/month (~$10) school fees for her 8 years old daughter Belinda; she has purchased maize and beans for her mother-in-law; and she has even been to visit Brian.

The cost of the 3+ hour bus ride to Abosoweto Maasai village where Brian lives is 3,000 TSH (~$1.64), and each time she goes she is expected to bring such gifts as sugar, soap, rice and socks for all the children (an additional 15,000 TSH or ~$8). Prior to receiving her loan, Rose visited Brian less than once a year. After receiving the loan, she has already been three times – once each and every month.

The day after I sat with Rose there was an unusual and untimely torrential rainstorm. The road to her compound was flooded, and she wasn’t able to get out to make any sales for two days. I called Rose to discuss the situation, and in a quiet timid voice she expressed concern that unless she quickly finds many buyers, she will fall behind on her loan payments. Mr Shayo knows this. He knows well that his small-but-growing group of women receiving microloans each have no collateral, no safety net of any kind… In fact, any unforeseen sickness, accident, death, political unrest or demonstration, or even a change in weather patterns can quickly derail the best of plans and intentions. This is the nature of life when one has nothing to call her own; a fragile, tiny and tenuous income; and is living with her children hand to mouth.

Despite her set back, Rose has big dreams. She finishes our call by explaining that she wants to apply for another loan next year to open a real roadside stand to sell high priced cooking oil. She is hopeful that one day she will earn enough money to move out of her mother-in-law’s compound and live closer to Brian so that she and Belinda can be more involved in his life.

Whether or not Rose is able to achieve these goals, they are dreams she wouldn’t have dared entertain just months ago before Mr. Shayo chose her for his loan program.

This slight shift in perception — of self worth and of what is possible –- is what plants the seeds for personal empowerment and long-term change. This, I believe, is the most powerful gift that comes out of such grassroots, small-but-impactful micro loan programs like this one run by a local trusted elder with a passion for giving back. Slowly but surely, with a little faith and an even smaller investment, the impoverished and marginalized women can rise up and change the nature of life for themselves, for their children and for the generations to come.