The FINCA train rolled into Lusaka, Zambia, this week for our annual board meeting. We always do one of our four FINCA International board meetings at one of the affiliates, alternating regions, allowing the board members a break from the powerpoints and a chance to meet the clients and our employees in the flesh.
Today we plunged into Lusaka’s largest market to meet with the members of the village bank “Tutalike” (“Let’s start”). The village bank was organized by three women in 2002, and has grown to over 30 women and men who meet in a dark wooden building with a roof of corrugated tin in the heart of the market amidst the stalls selling everything from children’s clothing,to dried fish, to CDs from Zambian rappers. We received an enthusiastic reception: the women danced, sang and ululated a song composed in our honor, gyrating their “sitting facilities” in ways that I’ve never seen outside of Africa. When they pulled me out onto the dance floor to join them I did my best rendition of the “Funky Chicken” — but let’s face it, if White Guys can’t jump, we’re even more inept at dancing.
Listening to the village bankers describe their businesses, it was hard to imagine that from this humble launching pad some of them routinely travelled to Tanzania, South Africa, and even China to purchase goods for resale. Others knitted shawls or school sweaters for children, or had grocery stores. Many of the clients had started, 9 years ago, with $60 loans, but with the expansion of their businesses were now borrowing many times that amount. Their gratitude to us an FINCA was, at times, embarrassing. After all, all we had done was make loans to them, which they had repaid, with interest. But they all said the same thing: if not for FINCA, they would never have been able to obtain the working capital to build their businesses.
Sadly, many had lost their husbands to the AIDS epidemic, and were raising their children alone. One was even raising her deceased sister’s children alongside her own.
But there was no hint that the people in this village bank viewed their lives as anything but blessed.
It took us a while to find our way through the maze of narrow footpaths between the market stalls and back out into the street. I looked around, and every one of us was smiling.