“We can’t drive through the area where the explosions happened—security risks. The closest we can get is about 1.5 kilometers [about 1 mile] from it.” Upon my request, the staff had offered to give us a sense of the devastation in the area where explosions had rocked the city on March 4, when a munitions depot exploded in the middle of the city of Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. As we approached the 1.5-kilometer perimeter, the effects of the tragedy—even over a month later—were clearly evident. All windows were either boarded up or missing, and smaller houses with less-solid structures had collapsed altogether. As we looked in the direction of the explosion, we couldn’t make out any structures that resembled buildings. “This does not look like a conventional munitions depot exploded,” I commented. Our companion simply raised his eyebrows and nodded thoughtfully. The explosions happened at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, so most people were in their houses when it happened. Later, back in our accommodations, a friend showed me a picture of their room, with glass on the bed next to the window. “If it was not for the curtain in front of the window,” my friend said, “I’m not sure what would have happened to me.” The house was about three miles away from the explosions.
Now, comfortably waiting for my next flight in the Paris airport with coffee in hand, I’m struck once again by how different our worlds are. My life in the U.S. is primarily based on routine: waking up in the morning, going to the gym, work, lunch, dinner, running errands in the evening, hanging out with family and friends. Yes I do have worries. There are crises at times, but there are also a lot of safety nets: There is insurance, a government that tries to help when a disaster happens, and the opportunity to find a new job. My worries are more related to the longer-term future, and they are less about actual survival than about comfort and happiness.
The worries of our clients, it seems to me, are more about managing the daily crises of their everyday lives. The explosions in Brazzaville are, of course, an extraordinary occurrence, but it does remind me that sickness and the resulting loss of income, poor health care, the loss of a job, and the burning down of a market where clients have their business are actually crises that do happen, posing a grave threat to one’s family.
Someone once said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I think if there is one thing that we are all learning, it is that small changes implemented consistently over a long time make a big difference. If we rely on our government—or anyone else—to make big changes overnight, we are bound to be disappointed. Our clients make small changes to their own lives by saving small amounts of money every week for an emergency or business capital, or by taking out a small loan to grow their business just a bit. And they are seeing big changes over time. It gives me hope that with consistency, they are building their own safety nets. I count it a privilege that we can be part of this solution.