Written by Dawn Duncan Harrell.
Remember that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey talks the Bedford Falls townsfolk out of a run on their Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA)?
The stock market has just crashed. Potter’s paying 50¢ on the dollar. Fearing the loss of their meager resources, George’s neighbors demand full withdrawals. Instead, George empowers them to take control of their circumstances by choosing for their community instead of hoarding for themselves.
“You’re thinking of this place all wrong,” he argues, “as if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Well, your money’s in Joe’s house. That’s right next to yours. And in the Kennedy House, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?”
Actually, the Bedford Falls version of community banking was the “Building and Loan Company.” The Burundi version is not exactly a credit union as we know them and most of the money is in a safe, a lock-box initially supplied by World Relief along with the training and oversight for small groups of 25 to start their own community bank.
“Twenty to 25 people, usually women, meet weekly, save little amounts, stretch their pennies,” explains J. J. Ivaska, Country Director for World Relief Burundi. “Eighty percent (80%) of Burundians live on less than $1 USD/day. So they build a pool. Then they can take small loans for school fees, medicine, small business needs like selling tomatoes. They pay back the small loans with interest. When they share out the money in the end [of the year], they get a picture of what they accomplished.
“Those VSLA loans amount to $10, maybe $20 USD, but they help deal with the small shocks in life and they strengthen self-confidence. [Women] really can build on their own resources and develop eventually strong businesses, which often leads to the next level.
“Africans live in the present. This is a challenge. In Burundi, over ninety percent (90%) of families earn a living by farming. Most years there are two harvests. Income arrives in two chunks that must cover the expenses all year. The discipline to save doesn’t come naturally. Social cohesion provides savings encouragement.
“The poor can save. They need savings more than the middle class because bumps in the road need a cushion”
Misika Habonimana’s Care Group Volunteer found her at home and encouraged her to join her neighbors at the malnutrition clinic. Five of her kids were in school, but she brought the younger two. Both measured in the red. The 5-year-old weighed 22 pounds; the 2-year-old weighed 15.
“I can get authorization for [free] busoma flour for porridge,” she told me. However, there is no local provider of the supplement. “It’s difficult to change the children’s food. I should use ground peanuts, fruits, and beans, but I have to buy the ndagala [small fish] and ground peanuts and I don’t have the means.
“There is a VSLA member near here. Some other groups reached the share-out. In two months, they are going to form a new group with me. It’s very good because when in need, it’s good to have access to loans.”
“People can’t do it alone,” Ivaska reminds us. “Families and mothers [in Burundi] know that better than we know it in the West.”
This month, Colonial Church begins another round of Innové, funding social entrepreneurs and providing them with mentoring, professional services, and networking. There are some things we do better together. That’s why Colonial runs Innové. That’s why Colonial partners with World Relief in Burundi.