Updates from Grace: Microfinance and Working with African Time

January 7, 2013

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Journaling Before a Meeting

Now that I have been here for almost two months, I have a much more precise definition of what I am doing here. I am starting a micro savings and micro lending program for a group of women, organic farmers. Another Cameroonian woman, Guenolé, is working with me to start this program. It is the perfect mix: I have a lot of theoretical knowledge about microfinance and she has the cultural know-how. For example, how do you make an appointment with women who live hours away and have no phones or Internet access? On what day do you make the appointment when many of these women operate on an 8-day per week, as opposed to our 7-day per week calendar system?

This microfinance project is my main focus, but I am also working on producing some short videos and other PR outreach materials.

The work is slow moving but that is all a part of our learning process. To understand what I really mean, here are some examples of unavoidable losses in productivity:

  • Sickness. It’s inevitable.
  • Cuts in electricity. Electricity cuts out? There goes doing any work after 6:30pm when the sun sets and there goes your internet (if it’s working, that is!) Speaking of…
  • Slow Internet. Internet is slow and cuts out frequently. In order to get fast enough Internet to work on data heavy projects, such as our website, I take a 45 minute cab ride into downtown.
  • Access to water. Even in the capital city of Yaoundé, water is cut almost everyday due to shortages. In Bafoussam, where I work, we are lucky if we have water one day a week! Much time is lost fetching water and cleaning dishes the ‘old fashioned way’ out of buckets. Which leads to the next point:
  • Lack of modern appliances. Read: dishwasher/washing machine. I put aside an entire morning to hand wash my laundry. In the US, I can put a load of laundry in the machine, push a button, and get an hour of work done while I wait for my laundry.
  • What we call “African time.” On African time, meeting times are suggestions, not strict obligations. Time never makes one hurry here. Forced into operating on African time, we can really only make one appointment a day. For example, if you make an appointment at 11am, they might not show up until 1-2pm. But really—you never know when they might arrive—so you are stuck waiting (we learned quickly to bring books and journals with us to pass our time waiting). The meeting will last an hour or so, then it is oftentimes closed with some food or drink. The sun sets and the day ends. What did we do that day? Have one meeting.

Although frustrating at times, we have learned to pick up other projects that are much more in our control. Such as PR materials, video production, and blogging. These projects are done on our time and are only reliant on a computer battery charge—pas mal!

And in the larger scheme of things, Rachel, Sarah and I are all looking towards careers in sustainable development. Being able to have much more realistic expectations of the rate of progress on-the-ground, so to speak, will be forever valuable for us.


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