2 octubre 2011 domingo
Last jueves I stepped even more deeply into the lives of my women’s group in Xeabaj. Our jewelry-making activity was put on hold due to the visit of their CEDEPEM advisor, Victor. First, I got congratulated on my promptness despite my 45-minute walk, while those who live nearby sheepishly arrived late. Due to construction on our main road, the visitors were delayed so the members of the group and I chatted casually. There was some joking as vivacious Elvira kept receiving various calls…. “Es mi novio” (it’s my boyfriend) was the excuse for the 1st call. By the 3rd call, I joked, “Si tiene tantos novios, puede prestarme uno?” My question brought peals of laughter. I had asked, “If you have so many boyfriends, can you lend me one?” Such a delight when my Spanish and a humorous thought gel nicely together.
Taking advantage of the wait, I asked more questions regarding the group’s financial past and present…from Don Celso I learned that 7yrs ago this group sought assistance from CEDEPEM, a Guatemalan NGO, which supports economic development for Guatemalans with few resources. Each member of the group had to open a saving account with a minimum of 100 quetzales ($12), with a promise to keep saving a minimum of Q25 ($3.40) each month. Every member then received a loan of 1500 quetzales ($220). The NGO put in money to help pay for the interest and has slowly been working themselves out of the financial support….when Victor finally arrived, he said their hope was that group members could pay off their loans within 5 yrs, but 7-10yrs is more realistic. Every 2wks the group meets to collect the savings deposit during one meeting, then 2wks later they collect the interest payment from each member. Compliance is strictly enforced so that they keep their good standing with the bank. One meeting I watched an hour-long deliberation regarding one woman’s inability to pay for several months…a mini crisis for the group. I felt her individual pain as she described school costs for children (uniforms, etc.) and that her husband in the USA had not sent his usual payment to her.
Pep, a Spanish photographer, soon arrived with Victor to photograph some of the women going about their daily activities, to be used for a photo gallery at the Microcredit Summit Campaign to be held this year in Spain (http://www.microcreditsummit.org/). Elvira was to be featured as a particularly successful member. Victor confided in me that 7yrs ago, Elvira had very little to her name and was afraid of opening a bank account. Now she has 8000 quetzales in her savings account ($1000 is an incredible amount in Guatemala), and with her loans has purchased 4 cows (the toros cost Q2000 and the cows cost Q6000), 4 pigs (including the VERY ugly one featured here), and multiple chickens. She now has a steady source of income and a financial cushion, too!
As I navigate my way as a Peace Corps volunteer, it is these “ah-hah” moments that help me to define my role here. I have been working with our Comision de Fomento Economico (Economic Development Commission) for several months now. This group is comprised of 4-5 representatives from each of our 11 villages who will be receiving economic development projects from our city council (greenhouses, pig and chicken-raising, and weaving-making). I’ve been concerned about several aspects of these projects…they are the result of top-down planning, so villagers were not consulted as to their own areas of expertise and what projects they really wanted, nor was much thought given to the market for some of these products). I spoke with Juan Mejia who works for SERJUS, another Guatemalan NGO, supporting this commission. I told him, “Juan, we need to invite Victor to come talk about the success of his program in Xeabaj! It would be so good for others to see that they, too, can achieve economic success…and I’d like to invite Elvira to come talk about her journey along this road.” Juan was interested, and I will indeed ensure that this story gets passed along and replicated!!
What is most heart-warming is the resultant self-reliance and pride generated amongst the group members…no waiting for a handout from a foreign or Guatemalan NGO!! Just a loan from CEDEPEM and the bank, BanRural, to get them started on their own projects. If this can work in one group, it can definitely work in others….so I want the women in my Paxboch group to learn from this. Even though my Paxboch group will be gifted by the city council with pigs to raise, they need to dream of expanding their capital. So yes, micro finance has worked in my town to empower women and improve the quality of their lives. We’re talking about SMALL amounts of money…an initial loan of 1500 quetzales ($220) per member, and opening a savings account with 100 quetzales ($12), with a minimum monthly deposit of Q25 ($3.40). For us Americans, that loan amount is a typical shopping trip at Sam’s Club or Costco, the savings account is a fast food lunch and their monthly deposit is a cup of coffee….all of those are luxuries for us, yet that same amount of money has so much greater positive effect here.
In summary, I am VERY impressed with the discipline of the group members in this whole process, their regular savings deposits and meeting their financial obligation, which has been rewarded with additional bank loans to expand their projects. And yes, I am still waiting for my prestamo (loan) of boyfriends from Elvira….I’ll even pay interest on this loan!!!