“It’s important you share what you’ve learned, but do not include my name. I feel that this is my personal information.”
We talked a bit about her daughters, one of which I taught in the bilingual school, and touched on current issues like the community’s water pump that broke and a number of neighbors she was suspicious of. The usual.
Don E, her neighbor, came over and entered the conversation. They talked about a meeting to deal with the water issue and reflected on past difficulties. She had her fair share to tell: single mother of ten and living on sporadic income meant money was always in multiple directions at once. Thirty a week for her parent’s health, three hundred for the water problem, a few hundred to the school, and onwards.
She told Don E that where she used to live, in Siete de Abril, she could simply bike into town and find a day’s work to pay for things. Now, further out of town, she relies mostly on her small convenience store. Don E let her know they would have the meeting in thirty minutes and then excused himself, but not before buying a bag of rice.
Once he had left, She pointed to the rice and told me that things were looking up. Indeed, that is partly why I came to visit her in the first place; She has worked with La Ceiba for nearly five years. We’ve watched her raise her convenience store up and crush her repayments. While we’ve never been the sole beneficiary of her store, we have always been around if needed, so we were concerned when she suddenly stopped repaying in late 2014.
She had contracted an infection at the base of her neck making it difficult to do everyday tasks. When I saw her again in July her handshake was noticeably softer and she said the pain had spread to her head and finger tips. This meant she was housebound and kept mostly to sleeping in the hammock and tending the storefront. Other sources of income became difficult when her son went out of work.
One day she showed me a prescription written by a visiting medic. Apparently, both would treat her infection, but she didn’t know how much either would cost her. Before I left her home that day, I scribbled down the names of both drugs. On my way into town I stopped by the pharmacy and recorded the price and dosages. I handed them off to her that weekend and didn’t see her again for another two months, when I came at her request, seating myself in her living room, with Don E and herself.
We got down to business. I told her all her payments were late.
“So if I do take out another loan with you guys…”
“It will have to be the smallest one we offer I’m afraid.” I said.
She asked why and I explained. She asked for more details, and I explained some more. She wasn’t entirely satisfied until I explained every option, at which point she leaned back in her chair and looked at me.
“I see now,” she said, “that makes sense. Okay, that’s good then. I’ll do that.”
I blinked. Now it was my turn to ask why.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, “because I have another loan that I think is better…”
She explained to me that she was in the second stage of a group loan with another microfinance. It involved six other clients. Those who made their payments on time would be eligible for an individual loan at the fourth stage. Her friend had convinced her to join the group and use the money to get back on her feet. After some thought, she elected to be the sixth lady and used her first loan to buy the medicine I priced at the pharmacy.
Her health improved. There seemed room for potential again. While she was sick, she trained her oldest daughter living at home to count the money and run the store. Now, with things relatively stable, she set her sights on finding other work. The loans were going to help her get there. She told me her plan.
“I’ll use some of the money to invest in my business. The profit I make will go into the house, but I want to use the rest of your loan to pay off the group loan. Then I’m going to use the next group loan to pay off yours, and do that for a while as I move into the individual stage. Meanwhile, the other lender is putting some of my money into savings as I go.”
At this point we had been talking for two hours; the water pump meeting long forgotten.
I knew she had used her loan to pay off other debts in the past, but this time my brow furrowed. I asked a few clarifying questions. After a moment’s pause I told her the plan concerned me. An endless cycle of debt could occur and that would be bad. She might find herself in real trouble and unable to pay off either. La Ceiba would certainly still give her a loan if she wanted one, but I didn’t think her idea was a good one.
Her face seemed indifferent, but her eyes were leveling. They said ‘after all you’ve heard and after all the times I paid you back, you still think you know.’ She proceeded to explain why she didn’t agree.
“My goal,” she said, “is this: as I go along with these loans I want to save up enough money with the other group (I dream of 20,000 LPS but maybe not) so that when I’m finally able to, I can withdrawl all of it, pay both of you off, take the rest for my family and be done with loans all together.”
And just like that, we were equals.
She made it clear we were passengers on her journey, advice be damned. I made it clear that the wheel was hers, but that didn’t preclude us from back seat driving – plans be damned. This understanding evaporated all racial, linguistic, and socio-economic constraints from the room. I felt them leave through the window on the breeze.
I love it when microfinance gives us these moments of social clarity. We call them ‘La Ceiba moments’ in our circle. What’s more, I love the questions they produce:
Do I still think her plan is a bad one? Of course. Debt consolidation is always a huge risk with few outs and little stress relief. Could she be right? Yes. Who are we to tell her different? I could have a damn PhD in finance, but that only gives me the body of the issue; the bird is hers. It’s her livelihood and her ten children. It’s her journey and not mine. I didn’t suffer a six month infection and fund the drugs to get myself well. She did. I only tipped her some information to help her get there. We are sidekicks to those who want to end their own poverty. It is not our place to demand and control. We only control that which we are responsible for, the question then being: will La Ceiba come after her if/when her plans fail and she doesn’t repay? The answer?
We’ll take the loss and forgive her debt into donation. That’s what makes us different. That’s what makes us La Ceiba.