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.