Sunday, February 20, 2011

why i'm still here...

So the months of October and November were hard. After leaving village, beating malaria, and saying goodbye to the bulk of my friends in Peace Corps, I figured a quiet few months spent focusing on my work would be good for me.

But then my computer was stolen out of my apartment, setting my work back by weeks, shaking my trust of Malian character, and irrecoverably losing a treasure trove of photography. When I was mugged a month later, my disposition turned sour and stayed there. For the first time in over two years, I seriously weighed the option of going home.


Around that same time, I went out with a research team to visit Saving for Change groups in Western Mali. It was a good break from Bamako and served as a reminder of the myriad reasons I love Mali.

As we rolled up in many villages, we were greeted with drums and dancing. Our arrival was a break from the ho-hum routine of village life, and was therefore an excuse to party. Many of our hosts used their group funds to get spiffed up in matching outfits; some even killed animals so that we could share traditional fried rice with meat (in villages that are too small to support a butcher, meat is reserved for special occasions or religious celebrations – generally only a few times a year). It was a good reminder of the overwhelming graciousness of Malian hospitality.

Our interviews with SfC groups demonstrated again the program’s effectiveness in empowering women to gain financial control of their own lives, with tremendous rippling impacts in their self-confidence and other undertakings.

It was in one such interview that I met Tene.

Tene is what we call a Replicating Agent. When SfC first goes into a village, it’s with a paid agent from outside the village, who we’ve selected and trained and equipped. But thereafter, groups are to be trained by a Replicator like Tene.

Illiterate, about forty years old, and mother of eleven, Tene fits the profile of most of our Replicators. She was picked by her village because she’s smart and motivated; for most Replicators, this is both a tremendous honor and a burden.

That day, we attended a meeting with one of her seven groups. I admired her quiet confidence as she explained the saving procedure to this fledgling group. She patiently coached the group’s President and Treasurer as they attempted to run through the process for the first time. When they got it right, Tene led them in the SfC-hallmark 1-1-3-3-1 clap.

That day, my team’s mission was to evaluate the Replicators’ Guide, which is a pictorial instruction manual that guides people like Tene through the ten-meeting process of establishing a new savings group.

We pulled her aside for question-and-answer after the group meeting, and discussed her challenges as a Replicator.

Tene’s seventeen-year-old daughter is literate, and helps her to prepare for sessions. With seven groups, she spends about half of every day on SfC. She is not paid.

After a few minutes, Tene began to open up about the difficulties of being a Replicator. She hasn’t been to her peanut field in two weeks; one of her children has been sick, and between SfC and household work, she doesn’t have time for much else. Her husband is displeased, and thinks she should stop her work as a Replicator and spend more time at home. As we talked, she tended to her youngest, who is still breastfeeding. Tension was obvious in her face and her posture.

So when I asked her why she keeps committing to new groups, I was surprised by her sharp answer.

She knows how valuable this program is because of how much it’s helped her; when other women ask for help starting a new group, she can’t possibly refuse. And besides, among those groups of women, she’s respected. Her role has given her a chance to use her talents to impact her village. She has gained self-confidence and status in the village.


On our way out of the village, we made a point of visiting her family. I shook hands with her daughter, who seems every bit as brilliant as her mother described. I told her husband how impressed we are with his wife’s work. She’s talented, and her work helps other people a lot. It must be hard to have her away from home like that, and I appreciate his sacrifice and understanding in allowing her to be away that much.

Tene looked on with watery eyes.


And all of a sudden, the sacrifices I make to be here seemed pretty insignificant. Working with and for amazing people like Tene just might be one of the most important things I ever do with my life, and by that I am honored, driven, and humbled.

And it’s for people like her that I have chosen to stay.