by Mara Seibert, reposted from www.maraseibert.com
HOPE recently welcomed three communications fellows, who’ve traveled to the field for a year to report how God is moving in those programs. In this blog post, Mara Seibert, serving in the Republic of Congo, shares her first experience witnessing a community bank meeting.
Makélékélé. The trick is learning to spell it first. The pronunciation just rolls off your tongue … mah-kel-eh-kel-eh. The next trick is getting a taxi to take you there. We took a green taxi to get there, Précy and I. Not that there is anything special about a green taxi in Brazzaville—all of the taxis are a vibrant shade of forest green, populating the streets like a metal forest. Winding through the streets of Brazzaville from HOPE Congo’s office to the neighborhood of Makélékélé is not an easy trek for taxis because of Marché Total: an enormous sprawling market with an ever-present traffic jam going through the middle of it.
As we drove, Précy kept up a running commentary about city life, how most of the population uses the green-painted public transportation: taxis, buses (vans painted green), and even bigger vehicles. Buses are cheaper than taxis but also more crowded. For Précy, they have their own appeal: “Buses are my favorite means of transport. You hear a lot of things. Lies, truths, news …” Taxis squeeze by each other in seemingly incomprehensible patterns with millimeters to spare that left me holding my breath—that would also be because of the wafting aroma of petrol. Finally we arrive near the church of Makélékélé and walk past small stands and businesses selling anything and everything from wine to used clothing, backpacks to hot food, and walk into the group meeting.
This is my first visit to the field with HOPE International, tagging along with our director of spiritual integration (S.I.). “Hello!” comes the unexpected call from the loan officer. “Hi!” answers the group automatically, gathered together at one of their weekly repayment meetings. I was thrown off to hear English among the sea of French words, mixed with Munukutuba, the local language. Try saying that five times fast. The call and response is how every repayment meeting starts at HOPE—a way to get the clients’ attention and focus the group. My role was simply to observe—to see a repayment meeting in action and how it is carried out by the loan officer.
The group we visited named themselves Peniel, after the place where Jacob sees God’s face in the Bible (Genesis 32:30). Peniel is a baco-high group to use HOPE’s language—meaning the loans they take out from HOPE are between $400 and $1,000. Composed of a little over 20 members with four elected officers, Peniel meets every week for 16 weeks to repay the loans they have taken to improve their businesses bit by bit. At repayment meetings, the large group is divided into subgroups of three to five people. Each subgroup is responsible for bringing all of the repayment money to a meeting. If one member of the subgroup misses a payment, the others have to cover for them (as happened today). Each subgroup also has an appointed leader to collect the money, which they turn in to the treasurer of Peniel. The treasurer is one of four officers every baco-high elects: There is also a president, vice-president, and secretary.
Amid the sounds of birds chirping, voices bubbling from the shops next door, and motorcycles passing by, the meeting passed like clockwork as each element was carried out, counted, and approved. All repayment meetings follow the format of the 5W’s: welcome, worship, Word, work, and wrap-up. For the welcome, all members greet one another and simply see how people are doing. Then the group moves into singing. A beautiful mix of harmonies fill the air with commonly known worship songs in French and Munukutuba as the group members stand and sing.
For the Word part of the meeting, they open the Bible and go through a short passage, each week building on the last. This week was Mark, and everyone took turns reading, analyzing, and applying the passage (9:20-29). The majority of repayment meetings are spent in the work portion—the process of actually repaying the loans and recording all the details to make sure everything is accounted for.
The group graciously allowed me to take some pictures of them meeting and wrapped up with a prayer after all of the bright yellow passbooks were returned to their owners. Each member gets a passbook in which all of his or her loan cycles and repayments are carefully recorded. Shaking hands on the way in and on the way out as is the HOPE welcoming custom, it was a beautiful introduction and good learning experience on the most basic and essential practices of microcredit.
Today a colleague walked into the secretary’s office where I sometimes work with a “Hello!” to all of us present. My immediate response in chorus with the others in the room: “Hi!” Looks like I’ve passed stage one of initiation to become a proper member of HOPE Congo.