Friday, July 24, 2009

Self Help Groups Help Women Become Self Sufficient

Sunday morning we visited two Self-Help Groups in a very poor section of Kabul. We drove through a very, very poor section of the city along the dried up Kabul River, filled with trash and empty water bottles. We got out of the vehicle and had to walk through an alley with a trench built in the middle to carry sewage and garbage. It smelled awful, and flies were everywhere, but it's funny how when we are going to visit these people, we don't mind trudging close to this stuff.

And amazingly, when we went through the makeshift gate to the first house, the small courtyard was planted with vegetables, growing virtually in dried mud, extremely hard soil. How they ever get such success is hard to say. We left our shoes at the front door, which is customary in Afghanistan, and walked into a small room filled with women sitting on toshaks (cushions). There was an old carpet on the floor and even small curtains on the windows. The walls were dried mud, but in one of the homes, the walls were brightly painted. Even poor women want a beautiful house!

And the ladies were dressed in their best clothes. After all, women like to impress other women. Some had on simple clothes with their bracelets and earrings, and some even had sparkly dressy dresses with matching headscarves. Only a few had their burqas on, naturally pulled off their faces. They all seemed genuinely glad to see us and proud of what they'd accomplished.

A Self Help Group is basically a group of women who get together in an organized way, with a trained facilitator who teaches them the basics of saving money and working together to help each other. These women are not used to any form of working together, or even having close friends. The women meet once a week in one of the homes, and the facilitator teaches them through stories and pictures about the basic concept of helping each other to get ahead.

The women in these groups are the poorest of the poor in their small community. A representative from Women of Hope Project selects the communities on the basis of their poverty level. Once a community is identified, the representatives go from house to house, assessing the need of the family, and making sure that all the women who are selected are in such need. For example, a woman may have a husband who is unemployed, and have 8 children to support, but she has a carpet on her dirt floor. The woman living next to her may have similar circumstances, but she has no carpet on the floor. The woman with the carpet is therefore deemed wealthier than the one without, and she would have more power over the other woman, because she has the carpet. Therefore, every effort is made to have all the women participating in the Self Help Group to be as close to equal in "wealth" as the others. Once the women are identified and selected, and their husbands agree they can join, a self-help groups is formed, usually consisting of 18-20 women.

When the meeting starts, roll is taken, but not as we normally consider it. The leader of the group, who is chosen every week, merely makes a mark down the side of a page of their "attendance book" for each woman attending each week, and you can tell from the columns how the attendance varies each week.

The facilitator, who is paid by Women of Hope Project to run these groups, welcomes the women, thanks them for coming, and then asks what's new in their life. But most importantly, she wants to know if anyone has started a business and how it's working out for her.

Each woman is required to contribute money each week to be saved in a community fund. The normal contribution from each woman is about 2-3 cents per week. Not much by U.S. standards, but for these women it's a lot of money, and they save all throughout the week to be able to contribute. All of the money goes into a locked box; one woman keeps the box, another keeps the key, so there can be no stealing the money. Each woman has her own passbook, and when she contributes her money, it's recorded in her passbook, as well as a master cashbook of all money collected that week. They select a bookwriter, or scribe (who is usually one of the children who is learning to write in school). This child keeps the 4 books: a minutes book, passbooks, cash book and attendance book.

When enough money has been collected, one of the women is selected to take a loan in order to start her own business. She is required to pay back the loan, a little at a time, and also required to use the profits to roll back into her business to help it grow. As enough money is collected again, another woman can take out a loan and begin her process.

While this may sound like a very simple concept to most of us, bear in mind that these women have no business sense at all. They are poor, uneducated, and very seldom even have the opportunity to get together with other women, much less to participate in such an activity that is so foreign to them. Not only do they learn, but they also have the opportunity to form friendships, again, something that in many cases is foreign to them. Many of the women living in this community don't even know each other, because their husbands don't always let them go outside of the home without them or another male escort. It's something we can't even imagine in the U.S., but very typical in Afghanistan.

In the first group we attended, one of the women told us she had used the loan to help her husband start a business selling chips, which are really like our crinkle cut french fries. She prepares the food and he sells it on the street. They have been successful with it, and she is starting to pay back her loan, and even considering using some of the profits to start another business. We told her how one of our ladies in another group had started a business selling soup. She made a pot, and her son sold all of it on the street within an hour. She used her profits to make even more soup next time, and she is becoming quite successful.

In the second group we attended, a lady brought a bag of children's dresses she was selling to show what she was doing. She'd bought the fabric from the tailor shop, made the very ornate dresses, and then sold them back to the tailor for him to resell in his shop. When questioned about costs and re-sale prices, we determined that she wasn't making very much of a profit and suggested she raise her prices a bit for the finished items.

One of the women added that the loan she had taken had enabled her husband to open a little store in the community. We passed by it on the way to our car. It was little, just a 5x5 indentation in the mud brick wall,. But is was his, and he was selling things his neighbors needed, and he was making money! An inspiration for us all!

After that, the facilitator told a story to the women about a poor man who had no money to be able to eat. The first picture showed the man, and the next one shows a friend giving him a fishing rod to catch fish; now he can feed his family. The final picture showed how this can lead to the man being able to catch enough fish so he can sell them to the village people to earn money and be in business for himself. Very elementary but this is how you have to teach those who are illiterate and don't understand such concepts.

As we were leaving, we were struck by the sheer determination of these people. They have virtually nothing, but they do have pride in their hones and their families, and they want to succeed. Handouts don't do it; they have to be taught how to earn their own living. Only then will this country become self sufficient once again. It does't happen overnight, and it won't happen over the next year. It happens day by day, familiy by family, woman by woman. The smiles on the faces of these women, especially how they acted when they told their stores, made it all worthwhile.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Selling Product in Afghanistan

Friday was the day to go to Camp Eggars and "set up shop". They have a bazaar on base every weekend and we're the only NGO (non-government organization) allowed to sell merchandise; all the other vendors are actual Afghan shop owners. The military men and women stationed at Eggars love to stop by and purchase some of our products as gifts for friends and family back home.

Setting up here is not too much different than setting up our other shows here in the States. Except we had to go through a lot of security checks to get our badges to go on base, plus wait an extra 30-45 minutes for them to let our car and driver on the base with all of our boxes and trunks or merchandise. We're all outside, but we have a large fold-up canopy for shade, not only for us, but to protect the product from the heat and direct sunlight. And it gets very hot out there when you're doing an outside sale in Afghanistan in the summer! Setup here was actually easier, because they'e done it so much, they have it almost down to a science. Tablecloths and tablerunners go in one place, pillow covers another, scarves in another, dolls in the trunk, clothes on the rack, etc..... Took less than a half hour to set up. We were ready to go way before the bazaar officially opened.

Business was steady all day long. We met so many wonderful military personnel, many of whom are some of our donors, and we felt like we already knew them. Everyone was extremely gracious and very interested in the work we are doing here. Thank you to all of our military personnel who supported us on Friday, and who support us all through the year! And thank you for doing such a wonderful job protecting us around the world!

Of course, we did make time to go around to the other vendors at the bazaar, and we were lucky enough to get some good deals on local merchandise. One of the vendors was a 15 year old Afghan boy who is an artist. An extremely talented artist who paints some of the most beautiful oil paintings we've seen. He's been painting since he was 9 years old. The details in his pieces are absolutely amazing. Three of us bought paintings from him, and one of them will be on display at one of the next Women of Hope Project sales in Virginia Beach/Chesapeake. Please watch this website or the Women of Hope Project Facebook page for dates.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Meet our Embroiderers!

Thursday was the day to meet all the ladies who do such lovely embroidery on our products. Again, we are so sorry that we can't get pictures up of all of their work, but as soon as we get back, we will do that. Or if the internet here decides to speed up we'll do our best.

The ladies arrived throughout the day to bring new items they had embroidered, and to be paid for the items sold the previous week. Many of these ladies also took orders for new items, for things ranging from embroidered coats, cosmetic bags, clothing, tote bags, etc. Many of you have purchased items in the past from us, so you are already familiar with their work. And we are close to having the ability to take orders through the website. We hope to have this feature up and operating for the holiday season. Keep watching the website for the announcement, and we will also be sending out an announcement in our newsletter.

And if you're not a newsletter subscriber already, please send your email address to and we'll add you to it.

The products the women make (clothing, table cloths, place mats and napkins, dolls, pillow covers, aprons, etc.) are all carefully examined by our design staff to ensure they are good quality, and suggestions are made for improvement when necessary. When items are accepted, they are sold on consignment, both here in Afghanistan and in the U.S. We are constantly looking for retail establishments to carry these items, and if you know of anyone who would be interested, please email us at the address above.

The Embroidery and Design Project started by accident. A women came to the Center to meet with the Director and showed her a beautiful piece of embroidery which had been done on a dirty gray piece of cloth. That gave WOHP an idea that if the women were this talented, we could help them develop their talents into marketable products. When the project first started we had just a handful of women coming with their work. But before too long, there were more women than the project could handle. So, it was decided that there would be a limit of 100 women that we would work with personally, but that they could have others working for them, making product. These women would then be in charge of paying the others, thus starting their own business. At last estimate, we probably have over 1,000 women working under WOHP's Embroidery project. And because of the money they are making, all of their children are able to attend school.

The women we met are all different types. Some wore burqas, some just hajibs. (headscarf) Some were dressed in sparkling dresses, and some in simple outfits. Some brought their children. All of them, of course, walked here to the Center because women don't drive in Afghanistan. Not that we blame them.

Their embroidery work is amazing. If any of us sat in a chair for a year with a needle and thread, we couldn't make anything so beautiful. We wouldn't even know where to start. They don't use patterns -- and the back of the piece looks as good as the front. The women were wonderful. One of our ladies is married to an artist. He draws the pictures on the fabric, and she does exquisite embroidery for the pillow covers. We have requested a number of special order pieces from her, and hope to have some of the samples when we get back. In all honesty, we've never seen such magnificent work.

By the time the day was over we'd probably met with at least forty women, if not more. If only we could have talked personally to all of them, but we only had one interpreter, and she was extremely busy. Most of the ladies spoke only Dari, some a little English, and one woman brought her daughter who was practicing speaking English with us.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted, but it was a good exhaustion. Actually meeting these wonderful women for the first time was an experience none of us will forget. We have made new friends, even though they are across on the other side of the world.

Trip to Ben-Warsak

We spent Wednesday at a new community called Ben E Warsak. This is made up of former refugees who had returned from the war only to find all of their homes gone. They didn't know each other in the beginning, but they banded together to form this new community. Women of Hope Project had found this group almost three years living in a bombed out building in Kabul and began working with them on our hydroponics project, to teach the ladies to grow their own food. Since the soil is poor in Afghanistan, hydroponic gardening is a perfect solution because it is soil-less and uses recycled water.

About two years ago the Afghan government moved these families out to their own land. It was land. Only land. No tents, no houses, no wells, no bazaars. Nothing. Women of Hope Project helped get donated wells and helped install them. We also helped get tents donated so the people would have a chance to survive the bitter cold Afghan winter. WOHP also got wood donated for the roofs of their houses, and assisted the people in making mud bricks to make these homes. These people had to start over once again.

The community was just outside of Kabul, but it took us lmost 2 hours to get there. The traffic congestion was crazy. Driving in Kabul is undescribable. Cars coming from all directions and converging at one point. Never mind if there's no room! They just go.

We arrived at the camp visited the 3-room school that Women of Hope Project helped build. It had started out in a tent. The tuition for the kids had been set at ten mud bricks which would be used to build the foundation of the school. Now the school is in a small rented house. There are 165 children that attend, including girls. They go in shifts in order to accommodate all the students. The walls are mud bricks and the roof is wooden beams and thatch. The dirt floors have carpets spread over them. The kids sit on the floor while the teachers teach.

We had the opportunity to look at some of their schoolwork and ask them about what they were learning. The girls sang us a song, led by one of the older girls. One of our team members is a dancer and a school teacher, and she taught the girls a couple of American dances.

The opportunity to see these children in their school, and to see how appreciative they are that WOHP has done this for them has made the entire trip worthwhile. Thanks to many of you for your donations, we have been able to provide this service to the kids, which gives them a chance to step above their situation and hopefully have a brighter future.

As we left the school, all of the kids surrounded us to have their pictures taken. We also got to see how the trees were doing that we had been given for our Tree Planting Project. The majority of the fruit trees are thriving. We had fir trees planted in the spring along each of the streets, and most of them look like they are faring well.

After visiting the school we went to the village leader's house for lunch. We sat around the room, which I guess we can call their dining room. There is no furniture, only carpet with toshaks (pillows) around the entire perimeter of the room. Traditional Afghan style. Our team leader was given the seat of honor, at the far end of the room. Before being served, the Village Leader's son and another young boy came around with a beautiful pitcher and bowl to pour water on our hands and wash them. After this, one of the men rolled out a vinyl tablecloth on the carpet and began bringing out large round pieces of nan, which is traditional Afghan bread. A piece was put in front of each of us, almost like a plate. Then the men brought out the feast, and what a feast it was!

Along with the nan, we had plates of rice, lamb, vegetables, french fries, yogurt, coke and watermelon for dessert. The men were on one side, we women were on the other. Although we didn't speak the language, we had brought along two interpreters so that we could discuss what was going on in the community during the meal. Afterwards our team went in the back room to talk to the Leader's wife who had prepared all of the food. The women and her children were not allowed to come in with us. She is a lovely, sweet, gentle woman, and was genuinely happy to see us and pleased that we had enjoyed her food.

While our team leader stayed behind to meet witht he Village Leader, the rest of us were served tea by the Leader's wife. Even the poor families take pride in the serving tea properly, and she had the traditional tea ceremony complete with two dishes of hard candy that you are supposed to put in your mouth to sweeten the tea.

After another bumpy ride back to Kabul, dodging potholes and making our drivers stop for scenic photos (which we'll publish when we get home because the internet is slow here), we ate dinner at a French restaurant. Yes, that's right. It's one of the many restaurants here that the westerners eat at. Security is tight, and we were searched before entering. Armed guards sat outside and blocked any traffic from driving past the front of the building. After having our purses searched, we had to go through two other doors in little dirt-floor rooms. Since the outside didn't look real inviting, we were wondering where we'd been taken. But then we went through the last door and the room opened into a big garden area, complete with swimming pool! It was amazing! The food was wonderful, and we even had two extra dinner guests, as the owners' cats wandered around the dining areas to see what they could beg for dinner.

All in all, we had a full dinner, and a memorable one! Meeting the people we are serving is an experience I can't even describe.

Next day will be meeting the women who make our beautiful embroidery products. More to follow.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Our first day in Afghanistan!

We arrived in Kabul early Tuesday morning, at least we think it was Tuesday. We tried desperately to stay awake as long as we could and then crash--trying to get used to the new time zone.

We flew in on "the best airline in Afghanistan." Not sure, but we think this was supposed to make us feel more confident. The 5 of us were seated in the exit row. Unfortunately, there were only 4 seats -- the window seats were removed because of the exit door. Guess they didn't realize that when they assigned one of us the window seat. Anyway, at some point during the 2-hour flight, a man crawled up and laid down in the aisle created between my seat and the non-existent seat -- right there in front of the emergency exit and the big sign that said don't block exit! Our leader of the excursion immediately pointed out to the flight attendant how bad it was to have the emergency exit blocked while we were flying. She saw the man and said, "Oh, no!!", and then went up to talk to the pilot.

We were sure it would be handled by one of the men in charge, but a few minutes later she came back and said to us the pilot told her "no problem, big engine." Huh? That's supposed to make us feel certain we won't have to use the emergency exit? OK, then! On to Kabul!

The city itself shows the scars of decades of war and oppression. The poverty is indescribable. We don't understand anything about real poverty in the United States, and these people have no government assistance; no food stamps, no welfare, no free medical care. On the drive from the airport, our leader pointed out a middle class housing complex, which made our worst housing projects look like million dollar mansions!

The streets were filled with pedestrians, animals, carts and donkeys, buses, cars, and rickshaws...and POTHOLES! There are no rules of the road, so it's a free-for-all. The only rule seems to be "honk at least 20 times a minute so everyone knows where you are." There aren't even traffic lanes, so you just drive where there is a free spot and barrel your way in. We saw a lot of cars with dents and scrapes and broken side mirrors!

When we got to the Women's Center and had all our introductions, we had a great lunch of typical Afghan fare while sitting around the floor, Afghan style -- like a big picnic! The people we've met so far are really wonderful. The Center is a typical Afghan home -- a house and yard surrounded by a large cement wall. We even have 2 chokidoors (guards) and an interpreter -- one of the chokidoors and our interpreter will go with us everywhere.

We had a tour of the Women's Center and Embroidery Project showrooms. The work of the ladies is incredibly beautiful. We get to meet all of them on Thursday when they come to bring us their new merchandise.

We had planned on uploading pictures to go with our blog, but the internet here is very slow at night, and it's taking so long to try to upload pictures, we'll have to save that for another time or add them later.

We'll post more tomorrow. Stop back by keep up with our visit.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Arrived in Dubai!

The team has arrived in Dubai! After a long flight we got in about 9:30 at night, Dubai time, which was about 12:30 PM our time. Five people, 12 suitcases. We were so happy to arrive at our destination and get some rest. The next day we have to get visas for Afghanistan and then spend what little free time we have left for shopping, Check back with us for more updates!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tomorrow is the Day!

The team leaves tomorrow. All five of us. We're busy doing last minute packing, getting our travel documents together, itineraries, and coordinating meeting up in Atlanta at the correct gate for our flight to Dubai. We'll be in Dubai for about a day and a half, then fly on to Kabul.

One of our stops will be at the Women's Design Center that many of you contributed funds for the annual rent last month. It's a wonderful place for the ladies to come and bring their work.

These are two of the showrooms where the ladies's work is displayed. We've worked extremely hard to make this a beautiful place to not only show our ladies' work, but to make it a comfortable, safe place for the women to go and bring the items for sale, have tea, and just relax and talk to other women. We are looking forward to meeting each and every one of them and getting to know all about them and their familes. Each one has a story, and we hope to be able to share some of them with you.

Check back with us soon. We will keep you all informed of what is going on with our trip as often as we can.