Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rotational Credit

          By the end of my Goma/Bukavu trip, I have been groped by a hotel watchman, propositioned by three married men, and my camera is stolen.  I miss the villages.  When I arrive home in Butembo, everything is beautiful to me, even lurching across the road rather than gliding feels great.  Asphalt is over-rated.
          I'm eager to get back to work with COPERMA and Maman Marie, so I head there first thing the day after I'm back.  They're all still hard at work and are excited to see me.  There's no place like home.  I promised Marcela, Devote, Stella, Noella, Hangie, Valerie and Esperance (the survivors of rape from the confrontation in Isale) that I would try to find ways to help them start small businesses, now that their fields are gone.  Marcela and Devote asked for a sewing machine, Hangie asked for peanuts, Esperance wants fish, Valerie wants to sell decades old clothes imported from the United States and Canada.  I feel like Santa Clause, except this kind of giving isn't fun.
          In the COPERMA office we sit around in our usual brain-storming circle and talk about the best ways to distribute the gifts.  I have decided on the arbitrary number of $30.00 for each woman, and although I could turn it into a micro-financing type loan, I've worked enough with these women and I want to simply give it as a gift.  Maman Marie comes up with a better plan. 
          Rotational credit, she calls it.  I'm sure it's something commonly done, but I personally have never heard of it and it sounds like a great idea.  Maman Marie draws an image for me on a blank piece of computer paper as she explains the system.
    -The seven survivors will be the Presidents of groups of ten.
         She draws seven circles, writes the name of each of the women next to each circle, and then puts ten dashes around the circle.
    -They will start with the $30.00 worth of an item, and it will be a loan, in a sense, but rather than paying us back the money, in three months, when they have made back the money plus enough to keep the business going, they will give the $30.00 to the next person in the group.  There will also be interest, and each President will guard the interest--two or three dollars--that will be saved in case one of the children of the group falls ill.
          I watch her hand flit across the page, making pointless little marks and scribbles.  Why would I even consider just giving one person $30.00 worth of materials when it could be expanded to help seventy people instead of seven?
          Maman Marie strikes again.
          I give the money to Man-Hangie, as we start calling him now that there's another Hangie in the mix, and he jets off on my motorcycle to buy the various forms of employment.  Maman Marie explains that it will be necessary to give a formation session, so the women understand the system and how important it is that they follow the rules.
          Urbain, Maman Marie, and about ten apprentice students head towards the rickety truck.  There's a woman named Helen who speaks French and teaches at the Kavingu Girl-Mother center.  She has one of the kindest faces I've ever seen and I find myself wanting to hug her every time I look at her.  Today she is wearing a t-shirt with a large image of Bart Simpson's head.  I try and explain that hie is a very famous character in the United States.  When I say he's a boy who gets in a lot of trouble and is badly behaved, her face immediately drops.
    -I won't wear it anymore, she says.
    -What?  No, that's not, I mean, he's not actually a bad person, I say.
          She wears this shirt all the time, and I just ruined her favorite piece of clothing.
    -He's just mischievous, I continue.  Pre-adolescence, that's all.
          She relaxes and looks down at the shirt for a minute, then looks back up at me and smiles.
          She climbs back into the back-seat of the truck where Urbain and Sylvain are already sitting.  I hate squishing four people into the three-seater, and I start to climb into the truck bed with the apprentice students.  Within a second, the truck erupts in a flurry of commotion.  Apprentice students are yelling at me, Helen is climbing out of the car, Maman Marie in the front seat is already starting the motions of climbing out.
    -I can sit in the back of the truck!  I can handle it, I say.
          I can't tell if they think I'm extremely weak, or it's a muzungu thing, but they never let me do this.  Once when we were bringing the Isale survivors into Butembo for treatment, I insisted on sitting in the back so more of the women could sit inside the truck.  The driver almost refused to drive off and made comments out of the window the whole way.
          Helen is probably about forty years old, and she's a woman.  In my mind, that means I sit in the truck bed, but nobody will hear of it.  As hard as I try, I cannot change the Congolese ladder of respect.  I shouldn't be as high up as I am, though.  I reluctantly climb into the back seat as Helen climbs in the back.  I don't comment on the two men sitting next to me not giving up their seat for Helen.  It's not my culture, I have to let it go.
          I sit quietly as the car chats and laughs in Kinande.  This used to bother me, make me feel excluded and lonely, but now I enjoy just hearing them laugh, even if I can't join in.  After about an hour we get to the soldier barrier that lets us know we're entering soldier territory.  It's been several months since the actual confrontation, and nearly all of the soldiers have moved down into the graben--valley--but there are still random sentries on the road.  I even see a rocket-launcher or two leaning against the mud huts, with a soldier not far away.  I can't imagine why someone would need a rocket-launcher out here, but I don't understand a lot of things about this war.
          At the barrier, there are two soldiers today.  One looks younger than me and looks like he could be a very successful model.  His eyelashes are thick and curl away beautifully from his eyes.  The gun hanging from his shoulder looks like it was made in 1932.  The other soldier is much older, and not handsome at all.  He starts chatting with Urbain and Sylvain.  They don't know him, but everyone pretends to know soldiers if they pretend to know you.  Even if the gun was made in 1932, it still has a powerful effect.  Behind the soldier is a man in a dirty blue jumpsuit making motions at me.  He puts two fingers up to his mouth, as if he's holding a cigarette, and then puts his hands out pleadingly.
          I get an idea and spit it out before I properly process it.
    -Ask the soldier if I can ask him some questions, and I'll bring them cigarettes, I mumble to Urbain.
    -Huh? He looks at me surprised.  I know he won't ask if he thinks it's too dumb of an idea.  COPERMA is the filter I never knew I needed.
    -I'll bring them several boxes of cigarettes, just ask if he will speak to me later.
          Urbain looks hesitant.  He is silent for a moment then makes a decision and poses the question in Swahili.  The soldier looks at me and says, "No problem," in French.  I make the same motions of smoking an air cigarette and he smiles and nods happily.  He steps back, taps the car and motions to the young soldier to lift the barrier so we can pass.
    -You have to speak to him on the way back, says Maman Marie.  Since we have to come back this way, we can't have him reflecting on what you say and changing his mind.
    -Absolutely, I understand that.
          She seems surprisingly okay with it.  When we get to Isale, we stop in a random place in the road, rather than the village center, like we normally do.  I follow everyone down a dirt path, past people and children sitting idly on the sides.  At the bottom of the path is a dirt alcove, with three mud huts in a half-circle.  Standing in the alcove are about 40 people, from two different villages, as Urbain explains.  Maman Marie sent a message ahead indicating who should be present.  I see Marcela and the rest sitting together in a group.  I am, once again, shocked by how beautiful these women are.
          Woman-Hangie, or Survivor-Hangie, seems to be a pastor of some sort and she starts things off with a "hallelujah!"
    -Amen! The group responds at once.
          She raises her hands in the air and everyone looks down at the ground as she speaks.  When she has finished the prayer, she claps her hands and begins singing in Kinande.  The others join in, and it's breath-taking.  I close my eyes and listen to the braid of their voices slide up and down in perfect unison.
          When the song is over, Hangie sits back down in with the group of "Presidents."  Maman Marie takes over.  She speaks for a few minutes before a man and a woman stand-up and come to the center of the circle.  Maman Marie introduces them and the villagers clap for each individually.
    -They are the chiefs of the two villages, Urbain says quietly to me.  We are standing on the periphery of the circle, both rapidly scribbling notes.
    -The woman is a Chief? I ask.
          I love it.  It's fabulously politically correct.
    -We're going to work together to begin the petite commerce, Urbain keeps translating as Maman Marie talks to the group.
    -You will be selling different things, including fish, clothing, oil and peanuts.  We're going to bring the things tomorrow.  It's necessary for us to form groups, first.
          A chicken with a string of five tiny chicks struts into the middle of the circle.  Maman Marie raises her voice over their chirping.  She finishes her introduction and the people immediately start chatting and moving around.  Maman Marie yells out "coupe couture," and about ten people raise their hands.
    -Go over there and wait for someone to speak with you, Marcela and Devote, you are the leaders of that group.
          Devote comes up and begins talking nervously to Maman Marie.  She is very pregnant at this point, and I'm glad the rape doesn't seem to have harmed the baby, as we were all nervous it would.  She doesn't look happy right now.  I walk up to them and ask what's wrong.
    -She says she changed her mind, she doesn't want to do sewing anymore, she wants to sell the palm oil.
    -Okay, Stella is already the President for that group, so Devote can't be the leader, but that's entirely up to her.  We'll have to find another person to head the coupe couture group, I say.
          The coupe couture materials were much more expensive than the rest, since you need a machine plus start-up supplies, so that group is much larger and will have two Presidents.
    -Where is the machine group?  Maman Marie yells in French.
          Someone in the courtyard points across to a clump of people standing behind us.  Maman Marie directs Dveote to the palm oil group, and heads over to the coupe couture.  I don't know the ropes or the languages, so I just bounce around, listening and watching.  There are now five distinct groups in the courtyard, plus a group of children standing up on a hill.  I wish I had my camera right about now.  Valerie walks by in a beautiful shirt-skirt combination made out of an African print cloth.  These women are living in extreme poverty, and they have to travel several miles to get water, yet everyone here is a lot cleaner than I am; and I have people who wash my clothes for me.  Their printed wraps and skirts are worn and old, but clean and cared for.
          The apprentice students have brought benches out of one of the houses.  I sit and watch the goings on.  Women are trading babies around like playing cards, when one starts to cry he is handed back to Mom and a breast is promptly procured.
          Everything is controlled and orderly.  Valerie smiles at me and I feel like eight hundred million dollars.  She walks over to where I'm sitting and speaks to me in Kinande, laughing at how I say Inga--yes, to everything she says.  After a few minutes, yes, gets old and she wanders off swinging her arms and chuckling to herself.  If I were a 58 year old man I would probably have a huge crush on her.  She has a glow that spreads when you're fortunate enough to be standing in it.
          The apprentice students are taking notes, as Urbain, Sylvain, Helen and Maman Marie explain the process of rotational credit to the various groups.  I see a woman walk by, barely holding on to two infants, one in each arm.  I get up and start to ask if I can hold one, but stop when I see each one is clinging to a nipple.  Her breasts point out in different directions to accommodate the little vacuums.  Twins.  The women laugh at my obvious surprise.
          I enter one of the huts where Maman Marie is talking to a group.  I sit on the floor and immediately people start yelling at me again.
    -Sit on the bed! Not on the floor! They say in three different languages.
          On the floor next to me is a strip of woven leaves.  I didn't even notice it when I sat down.  I slide over onto the mat of leaves, which is only about half an inch thick.  I look around at the women, as they listen attentively.  This is Woman-Hangie's group of peanut sellers.  One of the women in the group is wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt.
    -The six here are now your friends, Maman Marie is saying.  It's important you use the money to help eachother and not use it to buy drinks, or play around with it.  You are now children of the same family.
          This seems a little strange and forceful to me, but I figure it's probably cultural, and Maman Marie always knows best.  Something goes off that sounds like a toy fire-truck slowly dying.  I look up and see a plastic clock on the mud wall.  It's 1 p.m.  We need to leave relatively soon if I'm going to talk to the soldiers.
    -When all of you have benefited from the money, you will start the rotation over again, Maman Marie continues.
    -When you sing with your mouth closed, no one will hear you.  If you sing with your mouth open wide and your heart in the song, you will sing well and people will hear you.
          Maman Marie turns to me and explains why she just said that.
    -I'm telling them they must be clear in the work they will be doing, and do it with the others in mind.
          She turns back to the women and continues.  I'm slowing down the process, since she keeps having to translate for me, so I go back into the bright sun and sit on one of the benches.  Two little boys are sitting on the bench across from me.  The bench is long and empty, but they are squished all the way to the left as if it's packed with people.  I make faces at them and they laugh shyly, moving their eyes from me to the ground and back again.
    -Urbain! I yell.
          He's done talking to his groups and walks over to me.
    -I think we need to go soon.  Maman Marie told me there is a woman who was raped who is very sick in the hospital near here, and she wants to visit her today.  But it's getting too late and we're not even done yet.  And if she's going to die overnight, there's nothing we can do for her anyway.  I think it's best if we go tomorrow when we have more time.
    -Yeah, I agree, he says.  We're almost done.
          We can't be on the road close to dark, and it would be beyond stupid to be asking FRDC soldiers about raping women, as the sun is setting.  I want to visit the woman in the hospital, and I feel like a horrible person for moving her to the next day, but I know there really is nothing we can do for her, if she's that ill.  When Maman Marie has finished with the last group, we say our goodbyes in Kinande and head back up the dirt path towards the car.  I start thinking about what I'm going to say to the men in army green, who up until this point, have been just shadows of fear on the side of the road.


  1. Beautiful post/essay. Thank you for the updates.

  2. Hi Amy, Just to avoid "reinventing the wheel" so to speak I would like to suggest that the next time you are in Goma/Bukavu that you contact Christine Karumba the country director of Women for Women International in the DRC. This group has been doing microfinancing and job skill training for women in the Kivus for awhile now and I am sure they can provide excellent advice (how to avoid pitfalls etc)...if not actual assistance. http://www.womenforwomen.org/about-women-for-women/in-country-directors.php

  3. Good luck talking to the soldiers. Do you think it would be worthwhile for soldiers to see the women suffering in the hospitals? Kind of like a scared straight program? Would that create empathy or am I being ignorant? Doesn't seem like it would work, but the culture there is very different and maybe that sort of education would be effective.

  4. Amy, been following you're blog for a little over a week (via Kristof's blog). Great stuff, also super informative to hear from someone who is in the DRC living with the people.

    I find your story wonderful as I'm trying to break out of the 'status quo' trajectory in my life and look for directions to help work against poverty. Take care, I'll look forward to hearing more about the DRC and your work there.

  5. Hi Amy, I found your blog today via Nicholas Kristof's Facebook page. I read a few of your posts and really liked this one about Rotational Credit. Thank you so much for everything that you are doing.

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