Friday, June 5, 2015

Learning together

Last week, I was in Togo with my colleague, Victorine Manga, attending a training on creating and supporting savings groups. It was Victorine’s first time outside of Congo, her first time to see the ocean, and her first time at an international training like this. Other participants came from several Francophone West African countries, including Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and of course Togo. Everyone was actively working for some development organization, empowering people who were economically vulnerable to support themselves and their families. As people shared experiences, advice, and wisdom throughout the training, I felt like my hope for this great continent of Africa was buoyed up again. I was so encouraged by the desire and effort put into approaching a problem and seeking to create a long term solution that was really in the interest of the poor and vulnerable in our communities.

A small group simulation of a savings group meeting during our training

Poverty, of course, is multi-faceted, and has many more ramifications than just lack of food or possessions. It affects physical health, education, social status, relationships, and can even impact (or be caused by) a person’s view of God and their eternal destiny. They often feel like they don’t have any options, or any future; they are locked into a life of suffering. Here in Congo sometimes people who are economically poor feel helpless to improve their lives – they are waiting for someone to come and give them the assets or opportunities that they think they need, like a job, or a house, or an education.

In Togo, on the second day of our training, we went on a field visit. We sat in an outdoor shelter in a rural village and watched a group of 24 women conduct their savings group meeting. In a very organized fashion, each woman contributed her savings for the week of about $3. The appointed money-counters spread out the money on a mat and counted it out in a very transparent way. They had a total of 1,300,000 CFA (about $2,000!). A few women then paid reimbursements to loans they had taken from the group, and others were given loans. Several of the women are illiterate, so they would sign for their loans using a fingerprint. The group also uses a system of memorizing the total amount of the savings fund and the loan amount each person has taken – so that those who are illiterate still feel ownership and an awareness of how the group is doing, rather than relying only on those few with access to the record book. At the end of the meeting, they prayed together, acknowledging God as the source of all gifts and the authority over all things, and asking God to protect their work.

The members of the savings group that we visited on our field visit

AVEC group boisson localeThis group member makes a local drink from sorghum and
sells it for her business. She treated all of us to a glass of it.

I watched these women effectively and efficiently facilitate their meeting and count out their savings.I realized that one of the biggest benefits that a savings group like this gives to people who are poor is the sense of empowerment as they are trained to manage their funds together, run meetings, and operate in a transparent way that gives value and voice to each person. At the end of the cycle, they receive their savings back with interest – a rare opportunity here. And the lump sum that they have then is often enough to buy goods, buy land, pay for their children’s education, or other significant ventures that were not possible for them before. And all of it is their own funds that they have contributed – you can imagine that the sense of accomplishment and celebration at the end makes for a great party!

Victorine expressed her amazement at what these women had accomplished, and her hope for women in Kasai to find that same hope and capacity for change. In Psalm 139 David expresses “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!” and “how precious are your thoughts about me, O God!”, and “You chart the path ahead of me, and tell me where to stop and rest.” (NLT, Ps. 139:14,17,3). One significant component of fighting poverty is helping people realize that they are loved by God, and just as valuable and capable as all of God’s children to fight against the struggles in their lives. When they are able to see that, they have hope, and are empowered to love others in a more healthy way, to learn from each other, and to work together to find solutions to problems in their communities.  The women we visited in Togo all wore matching t-shirts (bought and printed with their own money!) with the name of their group – “Assile-Assime” – hand in hand. We look forward to seeing what women can accomplish together in Congo! Please pray for the process of starting, as we mobilize and train groups and communities in the next few months.

The participants of the savings group training with our certificates on the final day

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