Friday, November 27, 2009

"Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day." — Virginia Woolf

It seems almost poetic that the last day of the volunteer part of my journey was Thanksgiving. This month has certainly put in perspective in such an acute and emotional way how much I have to be thankful for.

I spent the past couple of days in Kabwe, Zambia. Kabwe is a remote community about two hours outside of Lusaka, which is the capital of Zambia.

My project was to work with a group of women who started SLA (Small Loans Association.) It was incredible to meet with this group. They were beyond impressive. In a world that is still ruled, for the most part, by patriarchy (especially in developing countries), these women have taken the bull by the horns to amazing results. All of these women have risen to be the primary breadwinners of their family. And, are both so incredibly savvy from a business perspective; and, also so generous with their profits. It was inspirational to learn from them (even though ostensibly I was there to 'teach" them.)

From the book "Half the Sky":

Bill Gates speaking at a conference in Saudi Arabia with a segregated audience. 4/5th men and 1/5th women. Partition separating them. Someone asked if it was realistic that by 2010 SA would be one of the top 10 in the world in technology. Gates said, noting the segregation "Well, if you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top ten."

Well, in Kabwe, Zambia, the women have taken upon themselves to be utilized. SLA was started about three years ago by a group of 20 women. These women had no choice but to start this group. They did not have the means individually and on their own to acquire loans through banks. And, as women they are at a gender disadvantage. In the welcoming speech that Mary Kombe (chairwoman) gave she described the group as such:

SLA is a small women led group. We try as much as possible to help women and widows to improve on their living by giving small loans. Each member gives a small contribution weekly and can borrow money. After three months they are required to repay with a small interest. The interest is what we use for our operations, and to help other members in our community, especially the vulnerable children orphaned by AIDS. The small loans we get as members may seem small to others but in our hearts and in our community they are big and offer a huge change in our lives.

At the end of the year, they divide up the savings and earnings based on what each contributed. They all used the loans to start small businesses. And, to a person, they said they could not have started their business without this microloan. Some of the businesses they have started include: raising chickens; selling cosmetics; selling homemade sweaters and baby clothes; opening a small general market; etc.

They use a portion of the money they make to give back to the vulnerable children who are orphaned by AIDS, the community school, and the community clinic. (Our collective donations contributed to each of these efforts; as well as giving some more seed money to SLA.)

These women are very poor and are responsible for so many members of their extended families and yet they feel it's their responsibility to give back to the community who are suffering in way that is worse than them.

Many of these women are widows. Their children have died of AIDS. They are caring for their grandchildren by themselves. Some of the women have children who are living in their household with their children but are unable to get work. The economy here is really troubling and the unemployment for someone in their 20s is quite high.

I found this concept and the spirit of giving back, even though they themselves are struggling, so incredibly moving and inspiring. And, fitting to hear this on Thanksgiving.

While I didn't have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year with family and friends, I was treated to an incredibly generous home-cooked meal. The entire SLA group gathered us in the home of one of the members. We gathered on couches and chairs and floor space. They sang songs of love and thanks. We ate a delicious meal of stewed pumpkin leaves, cucumber salad, rice, chicken and nshima. I missed my family but I have to say, it was a nice way to spend the day.

They did not have any awareness of Thanksgiving but they were still so grateful for our generous donations to their organization.

A friend of mine emailed me today the following:

"you know, in the ripple effect of life...when we went around the table last night to say what we were thankful for and we weren't allowed to say 'family and friends' i could only come up with the context that your trip has provided, even to me. i.e., it's been such a crap year for me i didn't really have much to be thankful for, but i certainly could be glad that i'm not an aids orphan living in africa. things could be SO much worse; when we say things like, 'my life sucks', or 'my life is a disaster' i really have to take a beat and think twice. i live in an apartment that for most people in the world would be the lap of luxury. i can go to the supermarket and buy food. i sleep on clean sheets at night. no one is abusing me. i don't live in abject fear all the time. it's hard to remember on a daily basis, but i do think it's important to try to every now and then. your experience, the blog, etc. has certainly provided the impetus to Keep Things In Perspective..."

These women struggling to survive but feeling emboldened by SLA and their contributions back to their community was as clear a symbol of Thanksgiving as I have ever seen.

As my friend so eloquently related to me....we must keep all things in perspective. Life indeed has a way of adding day to day. Let's all try and make the next day better than the last day.

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