We head east and then south this morning toward Luchenza in the Thyolo district where GAIA’s micro finance program is headquartered. Again vast tea plantations along the way but more about that later. We arrive at GAIA’s local office, a simple but adequate facility, where the friendly micro finance staff brought us up to date on our work in this area. There are maybe 4 other micro finance entities at work in the district but GAIA distinguishes itself by its willingness to not only go to remote villages which require quite a long travel time form Luchenza but also, and importantly, to lend to not the “productive poor” but to women of dire poverty who have no business acumen whatsoever and indeed did not even know that such a thing as a loan to a woman might even be a possibility. So the GAIA microfinance program, run by a Malawian with experience in Malaysian micro finance, has been established with particular care and focus on the screening and training that is required to make for a successful program starting from such a base of inexperience as is represented by the women who eventually come to make up the lending groups to which loans are granted.
After going through details of the actual practices of our program, we drove about 45 minutes down a bumpy dirt road to arrive at a former MSF site now vacated where women from 3 of the lending groups greeted us with song. Their voices were lovely with very nice harmonies which I hope to have caught in a transferable way on my iPhone’s voice memo application! We made our way inside with the 23 women still singing and then went through introductions on both sides as well as a welcoming prayer.
A spokesperson for the women explained how they had come to be involved with the program – a few of them had actually come down to Luchenza to inquire – and then gave details of their training and how their groups operated. From her speech and subsequent short speeches by 8 – 10 of the other women, we learned that they were using the loan funds for all sorts of projects including brewing local beer, selling tomatoes, bananas, chitengas (sp?), groceries, and produce plus one piggery. Most moving were the descriptions from these now empowered women about what a difference this had made to their lives – one expressed gratitude and awe that GAIA had actually lent money to those others consider as “useless”… Another said, ” we were in the dark and now we are. In the light”… These women expressed from such a sense of strength and belief in themselves how their lives had changed. They have built homes, been able to pay school fees – even for private school in one woman’s case, been able to buy a bicycle for transport to the hospital for medicines for her medical condition which she could not otherwise have done, and even one woman has purchased a cell phone which enables her to conduct her trading business more effectively.
What particularly differentiated this group of people who have received support from GAIA is their own very clear sense of accomplishment that has resulted from their having received a loan, worked hard to make profits, and repaid a loan. Two of the women specifically commented on the fact that their husbands were also engaged in their work and helped with buying goods for resale or working in the garden. Many commented that their husbands now paid more attention to them, were more loving and were not wandering. This is also not insignificant in our battle against the spread of HIV where the fact that the men in this culture are prone to multiple sexual partners is a constant threat to efforts to reduce infection rates.
Our time with the micro finance groups ended with our country director encouraging them to continue the good work they have started as a way to bring themselves out of poverty. His message was that often people are trapped in poverty by their own lack of belief in their ability to escape it. He gave the analogy of a dog chained to the tree by the home each day when the family left so that he would not wander. One day when the family would be gone for the day, they left the dog unchained so that he could wander for water and such. When they returned, however, they found that the dog had spent the whole day in his usual spot by the tree. So it is with many in poverty who do not realize that they are indeed free to escape it if they will but do so.
These brave and newly empowered women sang us away with a GAIA song they had created for us – it was beautiful!
We had lunch we had brought seated on benches in the GAIA office back in Luchenza followed by a walk through the local market. We bought a few fresh vegetables for our dinner salad; one of us bought an ensema stirring spoon; for my part, I was tempted by a carved wooden bowl perhaps made for pounding grain but the 400 kwacha ($2.67) price was clearly exorbitant since it should have been kw 150 a 200 so I passed – would have been tough to fit in my suitcase anyway! Hmmm, that was only a little over $1…
On the way home, we passed the beautiful expanses of tea fields with occasional large tracts of untilled land laying fallow and then a small grouping of 1 to 5 houses randomly placed in the midst. So the freehold land taken over by the British was planted with tea and cannot be used by the local people. A few people here and there refused to move their homes – hence the occasional isolated home(s). It is not clear to which chief these people would be subject. Then there are the unused tracts of land owned by a now absent British landholder. These freehold lands are off limits to the local villagers in neighboring villages who often have insufficient land for their own sustainable farming. If they encroach on these lands they will be subject to ejection and worse, prosecution if the owner or his representative returns. In the Mulange district where village populations are dense as we have seen, the government has relocated people to Mangochi, northeast of there to lands purchased with global fund moneys. The people are displaced from their homeland, valuable funds used for the effort and those now living in Mangochi have extremely limited water supplies, insufficient some would say for living and farming. These attempts to rebalance the population distribution will be increasingly difficult in a country where the birth rate is now 5 children per family and will continue to put pressure on land use.