by Mara Seibert, HOPE fellow in the Republic of Congo, reposted from www.maraseibert.com
This Mother’s Day, HOPE is honoring the creativity, dedication, and love of the women we serve as they work to provide for their families. Join us in honoring the many roles mothers like Ghislaine play through our “We Heart Moms” campaign.
7 a.m. Early enough that clouds still cover the sky and the air is cool. Children in blue and white uniforms walk to school, and Brazzaville is waking up. Breakfast in Brazzaville depends on where you live. Some people prefer bread and eggs, others substitute manioc for the bread, and then you have one of the most bizarrely cross-cultural meals I have witnessed: spaghetti with beans and mayonnaise. Some of my colleagues eat it for breakfast, and the bite I had was surprisingly good.
One of my favorite Congolese breakfast items would have to be beignets—essentially a Congolese doughnut, sweet and fried in oil. Here, beignets and riz-au-lait (sweet rice in milk) are made by Congolese mamas all around Brazzaville early in the morning, and on this particular morning I was finally going to try some of Mama Ghislaine’s beignets.
Driving through the still-sleepy streets of Brazzaville, HOPE’s driver M. Adrien and I spied Mama Ghislaine. As soon as she saw me, Ghislaine waved and broke into a smile, quickly greeting us in French, “Hello, Mara! How are you?” She graciously ushered us over to her covered stand answering my various questions. Three types of freshly made beignets lay before us on platters—smaller, denser banana beignets; medium-sized flour beignets, and finally beignets twisted into a knot called “patachou.”
Making up a new batch of the flour beignets, Mama Ghislaine walked me through the process, “First you make up the batter—it’s just flour, a little bit of sugar, yeast, and a pinch of salt.” She scooped a handful of this batter in a well-practiced motion and threw it into a large pot of oil to crisp the outside and cook the soft interior. Turning them over, Mama Ghislaine left the batter to cook while she served some passing clients—mothers with their infants securely fastened to their backs and school children clutching their 100 CFA coins.
As customers left with their newspaper-wrapped purchases, Ghislaine scooped up the freshly cooked beignets and placed them in their respective basket. She slid them back onto the table still steaming and asked if I wanted to taste them. Mama Ghislaine has been perfecting her recipes for years, and I couldn’t wait.
Even before starting with HOPE Congo, Ghislaine made beignets in the morning. With a family of five children to support and now a grandson, Ghislaine started out with a table selling beignets, fruit, and vegetables. In 2011, she first learned about HOPE and took out a loan of $500, which she used to purchase flour, sugar, and additional fruits and vegetables. She made a profit and found herself on a second loan cycle—and starting her first savings account.
“Now I have a bank account!” she told me proudly. HOPE lets clients open savings accounts for free, something many have never done before. Through client training sessions with HOPE, Ghislaine learned how to effectively manage her savings and other business expenses. Soon after, Ghislaine began to diversify. It was difficult to make a profit solely selling food, which spoils quickly, so Ghislaine started buying cloth to make custom clothing orders.
With her third and fourth loans of $700 and $800 respectively, Ghislaine bought cloth and food in bulk, simultaneous running both businesses out of her home. Life became more stable. She was able to keep her children in a good school and buy better food. With loan number five, Ghislaine continued to expand, buying a refrigerator, drinks, water, and yogurt to sell cold. She is now on her sixth loan with HOPE and is bursting with creative plans for the future.
A convenience store, a restaurant…”I’ll need at least three refrigerators for that, but I have one already so I’ll only need to buy two,” she mused aloud. The ideas tumbled out one after the other, eventually turning into her dreams for a better future for herself and her children. One of her daughters, Nadine, was helping her cook the beignets that morning, and Ghislaine dreams of her children all finishing their studies at the top of the class and of one day being able to travel herself.
Yet Ghislaine’s impact hasn’t just stopped with herself and her family. Mama Ghislaine also makes bissap juice (from hibiscus leaves) and employs two others to go around selling it. In her words, “Now I can contribute [to my community]; now I can help.”
I requested a mixed bag so I could try all three kinds, and Mama Ghislaine pressed two bottles of cold homemade ginger juice on us, “You have to try it!” she said. Cool and slightly spicy, the ginger juice was refreshing alongside the still-warm beignets. I could do this every morning.
With promises to visit one of her group’s meetings soon, I waved goodbye clutching my bag of beignets. Mama Ghislaine thanked me for coming, but it was I who was thankful. Her story embodies what HOPE is all about—giving people an opportunity and watching them run with it. It was humbling and beautiful to witness and experience her generosity and warm welcome. One small, simple thing struck me: With everything Ghislaine is managing, she still remembered my name.