This entry is based on an inspiring conversation and inspiring story I heard one day in the office. It was a helpful reminder for me to think more critically about my own criticisms.
Ladies waited at the bus stop. It was one of those waits that inevitably reconnects you to the town and people around you. In Africa people wait in a way westerners would never appreciate – magazine and headphone-free, without no air conditioning but the wind. Men and ladies in waiting fill the time with conversation and greet old familiar faces. And during a long wait in a small town, many old familiar faces pass by.
Loan officers know everyone. They stroll through town a little like politicians, always spotting friends and always stopping to say hello. And there’s a certain celebration in a Burundian hello – under the dry sun, big smiles and long handshakes rain down like refreshment. So even though he moved years ago to another province as loan supervisor, Louis-Perrot stopped to greet the women at the bus stop in Bugarama. These were some of his original clients in 2005, and clients of Turame Community Finance to this day. They were going to Uganda.
“You know I heard the American economy was once nearly all agricultural,” Christophe said to me. “When the country was born, 80% of people were cultivators and farmers. Imagine – a country of farmers growing into a great, developed nation. Your greatness sprouted in the fields!”
“I guess that’s true. But the great thing about American agriculture was how it transformed into an industry; using machines to produce more and better crops. The machines became more important than the plants. Do you think to be ‘developed’ you have to escape the manual methods?”
“You just have to keep thinking of something new. You don’t invent to escape; you invent to find what’s next. All you developed nations continue to develop. Just now you make Internet and spaceships instead of tractors and roads. Really, you’re developed and developing, all at once.”
Louis-Perrot remembered back to their first loan with him. They received sums of 60,000 francs, around $50. They used it carefully over four months and it germinated to a slight increase in capital, with which they repaid the loan and interest, and deposited their required savings as well. A bus to Uganda is 54,000 francs, nearly the price of their entire first loan. He smiled thinking what they would say to him if he had suggested, four years ago, that they could afford the bus to Kampala.
Before he started working at Turame, Louis-Perrot had been a teacher and director of a primary school. He’s not the only loan officer to make that move, and it makes sense. A desire to help people reach the next level, and a knack for imposing order on a crowded, stuffy room, are crucial qualities to both jobs. For him, he’s also got a love of learning that led him to pursue an online masters degree in microfinance. Between 2,450 regional clients and these studies at night, his hands are full of lessons in lending.
He introduced the ladies to his boss and Turame’s Operations Director, Christophe.
“I used to talk to people on the ground all the time. I would ask them – what is poverty to you, and what is wealth? You see you could have a house with a cement floor and hardly a roof. You and your family eat rice and beans on the hard floor, maybe not even swept. And someone sees that and thinks – my, you have a house! And that is something, and you are rich.”
“Poverty is relative,” I nod.
“It is, indeed. Not just relative to others who have more or less than you, but relative to your expectations. It’s a question of vision. When you look at your life and it doesn’t look like your vision, it’s then that you feel poor.”
The women shook hands with Christophe and his eyes smiled back from under thin-rimmed glasses. They told him how nice it was to meet him and he returned the same kind words. Then, perhaps to impress their old officer and his boss, they explained why they were going to Uganda. This was a business trip: they would buy clothes to bring back to sell in Burundi.
Ugandan materials have an interesting reputation in Burundian markets. Telltale signs of Ugandan goods are fluorescent colors, shiny plastics, and low prices. Your elite Burundian might avoid them, opting instead for more durable West African or Congolese fabrics. But whatever the stereotypes and regional goods castes, one crucial truth remains: Ugandan stuff sells. These women have found a sure way to support themselves.
Today they receive nearly 1,000,000 francs in credit at once. They are able to pay back in one year what once would have taken them four. Their strong history has not only brought them higher loan limits, but a longer repayment term and lower interest rates. Turame credit is a big part of their life, and they’re going to keep requesting it as long as they can. Maybe one day, the limits will be too low for their growing needs. Until then, they can count on receiving it, and through well-honed business savvy, they can count on multiplying the bounty.
“Burundi’s economy is 80% agrarian, like America’s was once. This is a land of cultivators. And these people have so few opportunities, especially financial opportunity. That is why I feel so passionate about what we do, why I don’t mind the long hours. There are so many people who need the financial services we give. They have hard lives. To be able to make those lives a little easier is a blessing. You let them live their lives.”
“There’s something frustrating about that though, isn’t there? Because, in the end, their lives are still hard. America’s no longer agrarian because people wanted better lives. Wouldn’t the best thing be to help them completely transform their lives?”
“But they do, you see. I hear such wonderful stories all the time. For example, I was in Bugarama with Louis-Perrot last weekend, and we saw some of his clients at the bus stop. Listen to this story…”
I’d be lying if I said I’m a full believer in microfinance. Each time I hear a client say they’re taking out their fifth loan to restock their shelves, I wince and wonder why they aren’t yet able to sustain such a small business without such small loans. I want so much to hear that the loan will go toward some innovation, I want to hear that they’re seeking to do more with their business, I want to hear that they dream of financial independence and they plan to step out of their fetters. I want to believe this work will do more than alleviate poverty, but really transform it into comfort or wealth.
And now and then, I realize it’s not my dreams that they’re fulfilling.
I think everyone is capable of achieving independence through innovation. I know the truth is not everyone will. What’s harder to accept is that freedom and achievement don’t look the same to everyone. I’m starting to learn, however slowly, that comfort is its own form of transformation. Endless loan applications and interest payments can seem like their own shackles, but far more repressive is the fear of not knowing if your children can eat breakfast, or start school next year. When a borrower finally knows that she can provide for her family, she has broken free from the fear of uncertainty.
My favorite American president named ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’ as two of man’s four essential human freedoms. When you think about it, microfinance provides financial relief, comfort, and those fundamental freedoms. It might not look like change the way I picture it, prettily packaged in home furnishings and bank accounts, but it’s personal transformation all the same. Like Christophe told me, it’s a question of vision. To twist his words: “When you look at your life and it looks like your vision, it’s then that you feel rich.”
And thankfully for us westerners who want our investment to spark material change, we can always find inspiring stories of women waiting at the bus stop thanks to the freedom their loans afford them and the success they’ve cultivated themselves. This is a land of cultivators, after all.