The conversation around our breakfast table took a marked turn for the worse about three weeks ago. One topic was the Kony 2012 campaign.
“Who is Joseph Kony?” Katharine, our seven-year-old daughter, asked. I figured that since the filmmaker, Jason Russell, told his four-year-old son on camera about the world’s most wanted war criminal, I was probably okay in answering, ”He is a very evil man in Africa who is abducting children and making them kill people, sometimes even their own families.”
“I would never kill anyone,” says Harriett, our nine-year-old. “And no one could ever do anything to make me.”
”I would rather die first,” finishes Lila, 11.
Another morning, it was the Rwandan holocaust. I am sure that my husband David and I were simply too busy frying eggs, steaming milk, locating missing shoes, packing snacks and lunches, and checking to see whether all homework was completed to notice where the conversation was headed. “Why did they kill each other in Rwanda,” asks the very precocious Lila.
In attempts to condense, oversimplify, and keep the morning train moving, I said, “In Rwanda there were two groups of people, the Tutsis and the Hutus. A long time ago, the Tutsis were chosen by the formerly ruling French to be the elite—the favored people—and the Hutus, the masses, were jealous. In the early 1990s, the Hutus were told a terrible lie that the Tutsis were planning on killing them, and that they must kill first. So they did. Tens of thousands of people picked up pangas, knives, spiked clubs and bats, and slaughtered their neighbors.”
The girls were flabbergasted, of course, and their questions flow all the way until we pull up at school drop off.
David attempted closure: “Girls, when one group of people have all the power and control all the resources, life can become very dangerous.”
Have a good day!
“Is this really the truth about human nature?” I wonder as I left David at the train station for his day job. Could this be our truth?
Last month, I spent time in the small rural village of Mvuleni, set at the foothills of the great Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. There, sitting on a wooden plank held up by two logs to make a low bench, I attended a village bank meeting. VICOBA is what they call it—“liberation for all women.” In front of me sat the 30 women who made up this VICOBA in four rows of makeshift seats. They wore matching bright green kangas, headdresses, and t-shirts that were printed with the words VICOBA-WEECE.
WEECE is the Women’s Education and Economic Centre of Moshi and the organization that organizes, often funds, and makes possible the VICOBA. Mama Mrema, the director of WEECE, is sitting by my side.
The bank itself is a box; a clay-earth-colored metal box with three padlocks on each side. The fourth side is the hinge. Each night, I learn, these locks go to different villages with different women for safety reasons.
The women stand in front of us and begin to sing. The sing a prayer that together, through VICOBA, they will conquer poverty and ignorance, they will be honest and hard working and that they will relieve themselves and their families from suffering. After the women sit down, three different women come forward to unlock the bank. The VICOBA chairwoman opens the box, takes out 30 small blue booklets labeled with numbers, and hands them out. The women each stand when their number is called. No names are spoken.
In front of the bank sits the treasurer, the accountant, the loan officer, the double-checker, and the disciplinarian. Each of these women have been elected, along with the chairwoman, by the group. The disciplinarian enforces the rules, which are made up by the group. Here, if you are late, if you speak, fidget, stand, or even daydream out of turn, you are fined. Because this is a poor rural village where the women are mostly illiterate, the agreed upon fine is less than it is in most VICOBAs, 100 shillings, or about $.03.
The women begin to deposit their savings. Each comes forward, pulls a fistful of paper shilling notes out of their bras, and declares her investment—one goat, two cows, three chickens. Money is never mentioned, whispers Mama in my ear as she attempts to explain to me what is happening. The treasurer takes the money, counts it, and hands it to the double-checker who does the same. Once agreed upon, the amount is written in the VICOBA ledger and the woman’s blue booklet is stamped. In this VICOBA, one goat equals 1,000 shillings, about $.80. One cow is 5,000 shillings (about $3), and one chicken is 500 shillings, $.30.
This goes on for the next 45 minutes, until all 30 women have deposited their hard-earned money. During this time, all you can hear is the breeze through the trees above, the bleating of distant livestock, and the soft voices of the women whose turn it is to speak. Everything is orderly and the only ones fined the whole time are Mama and me—for talking. I pay my fee, times 10, happily.
Finally it is time to distribute the loans. Today 300,000 shillings have been collected (about $200). The chairwoman removes the stack of loan applications from the bank box. The top five—numbers 13, 7, 24, 17, and 5 are the lucky ones today. They now have the funds they need to grow their small businesses, to buy produce for their roadside market, to purchase another pig for their herd, to buy fertilizer or seed, to transport a cow to market, etc. Interest payments of 10 percent are paid on the spot, and that money is then pooled and distributed as another loan. The women work to keep as few funds as possible in the bank itself. Having actual money around is simply too dangerous.
Each loan recipient has a group of four women who vouch for her, who will pay her loan if she defaults. No one has ever defaulted in this group, says Mama. These women are the lifelines of each other. They work to rebuild each other’s homes when they disintegrate in the rains, they care for each other’s children and aging parents, they share food when others are hungry, and they help each other through illness and pregnancies.
Later, after the meeting has ended, I ask Mama, “Why don’t they call each other by their names? And why can’t they mention money?”
For safety, Mama explains, their own and others. With all those numbers and stamps, no one can keep track in their heads who is making money and who isn’t.
“Why would it matter?” I ask ignorantly.
“Because,” says Mama, “they would want to steal. They would begin to fight. They would resent the ones who had the money.”
“Kweli?” I ask. “Is it true?”
“Of course,” she says matter-of-factly. “It is just human nature.”
WEECE is one of UNITE The World With Africa’s partner NGOs in Tanzania. Together they are working to advance microfinance programs for women and role out a new health training program to teach VICOBA women—including those from Mvuleni – to become lay midwives.