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Our Insight Trip to Meet the Microfinance Clients of Colombia

By Westina Matthews Shatteen

Our travelers gathered with Trust Group loan officers in their office to begin the day with morning devotions. The 15officers have 4,375 clients managed out of this particular office. Despite the heavy rain outside, there were smiles, warm welcomes, and lots of praise and worship inside.

The opening devotional song translates to: “Do your part, we will change the world.” Hands were clapping, a tambourine was playing, eyes were closed, and voices were loud. They knew all the words by heart. Lips moving in their own silent prayers, they prepared to begin their day.

Polet, cono ron pasas, platillo, choco cono, heladino, aloha, crem helado, bocatto–all ice cream and frozen treats for sale in the freezer case outside the store of Melvis, who began her business with only two cake pans–baking cakes out of her home. She is in her third loan cycle now, and sells 15 to 20 cakes a day, as well as party supplies like napkins and balloons, out of her little store.

Melvis’ story is inspiring. Initially, neighbors hired her to bake cakes, and then one had a room in a shop which she rent. She’s a smart businesswoman. Before we leave her home, Melvis pulls out a smaller cake and cuts it into slices. “Taste it,” she says, “so that you will buy when you get to the store.” We bought three.

…One leg, a wife, three children, two sisters, seven nieces and nephews, six hogs, four piglets and a dog–all living under one roof, sharing three rooms and a pigpen. Juan Torres Rim and his large extended family are originally from Choco, but are currently living in a two-tone pink home that they are “house-sitting.” His family–like almost 2 million displaced people who fled violence in Colombia–were victims of the paramilitary’s battles against guerrillas. He lost four brothers in the turmoil, Juan reported to us matter-of-factly, balancing himself on his crutches. (No, he lost his leg in a motorboat accident when he was a fisherman back home, he volunteered in response to our unasked question.)

With loans from http://www.opportunity.org/our-work/where-we-work/microfinance-in-latin-america/microfinance-in-colombia/Opportunity[/intlink], Juan has grown his businesses: buying more hogs, supplying snacks and fruits to sell, purchasing a bicycle taxi which he rents out, and growing his savings. He likes working with Opportunity International.

When we asked Juan what his dreams were for his family, he replied unhesitatingly, “to move ahead in life.” He explained, “We are very poor right now. The children must study and further their education. I never went to school. I want my children to get an education and be hard workers.” He would also like for the family to have a house of their own one day–no more house-sitting.

…Still, Juan’s family is luckier than some. We visited an entire community of impoverished, displaced persons. Three years ago, 800 families moved onto this piece of land overnight and remained here. We followed a muddy trail down a sloping, uneven path. A very young girl of ten–barefoot in the rain–greeted us with a big smile and became our unofficial travel guide as we carefully descended the hill. We passed homes made with cardboard and tin roofs, with makeshift walls.

…Seventeen individuals (two men and 15 women) make up the “Men and Women United Together”  Trust Group. We crowd onto the front porch of one of the members for their meeting.

They were in the ninth week of their third loan cycle. Ana used her first loan to purchase washing machines which she rents out to her neighbors. She laughingly shares how she puts the machine on her shoulder and carries it to clients on her back. “It doesn’t weigh much,” she reassures us. Monica sells fruits, makes breads and meat patties. Another client sells ice pops outside of the school each day, and rents out four motorcycles. Miguel and Juan–the only two men in the group–have little supermarkets.

…Two of this morning’s loan officers are waiting to take us back to our hotel. As they lead us up the hill, they are all smiles. How do they do this every day? I wonder. Where do they find their strength? And then I remember our morning worship service: eyes closed, praying silently, singing heartily. They are soldiers in this army, finding spiritual sustenance to go out and do battle on behalf of the poor.

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