una vista diferente

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I’m backtracking a bit here, but I wanted to write about Cartagena while it was still fresh in my mind.  I also wanted some time to reflect upon what I experienced last Thursday.

By the way, I’m experimenting with larger photos.  Do you like them?  Or do you prefer the smaller versions in the previous posts?  I want you to know that I am here for you.

For those of you that know her, this will be old news, but for those of you who don’t, I want to tell you a bit about Mary Jo’s work for the Grameen Foundation.  Usually she is based in Washington D.C., but last year she was promoted to a position that requires her to travel and set up shop abroad, working for several months at a time within the Social Performance Department of Grameen.  The Social Performance Department specifically works with a Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI), a tool that Grameen developed to measure the poverty levels of the people who take out the loans and their progress over time.  Before Medellin, she worked for eight months in Manila.  I visited her in December of 2010, and she was able to take some time off so we could travel around the Philippines together.  Last week she received some extremely exciting news:  she’s been promoted to PPI Product Manager.  In June, she’ll move from D.C. to Seattle.  Yes, it’s true.  My friend kicks major ass.  Cheers to you, MJ.

I am certainly not qualified to wholly describe what Grameen does, but now that I’ve started, I’m going to attempt to describe the rest of what I do know.  (I apologize for just how simplified this is).

GF’s mission is to help people around the world to escape poverty through their own entrepreneurial means by assisting them with loans that they would never be able to borrow from a commercial bank.  For example, one woman might apply for a $1,500 loan so that she can buy fabric, machines, and other materials necessary to start her own sewing business.

One of MJ’s goals in Medellin was to hire a new PPI Specialist for the Latin American/Caribbean region.  She did.  His name is Sergio.  As part of his training, Sergio has had to visit both urban and rural settings with loan officers to get an idea of the actual process of lending/borrowing.  Last Thursday, he was to visit Rionegro and Marinilla just outside of Medellin with an officer from Interactuar, a separate microfinance corporation also devoted to helping people achieve their dreams and to escape poverty.  Interactuar offers specific professional development classes, such as in bartending or culinary or pastry.  They offer English classes for people wishing to work in tourism, and they also provide accountability training, which focuses on teaching people to separate their personal finances from their business finances.  I had the fortunate opportunity to tag along with Sergio and Monica, a loan officer from Interactuar.

Marta and Beatrice, two other women who work for Interactuar, picked us up in Medellin and we drove thirty minutes or so to Rionegro.  Rionegro has a definite small town feel.  I kept comparing it to New Ulm, where my mom’s family is from, of where I would spend a good amount of each summer when I was younger.  There are, of course, innumerable differences between a town in Colombia located high in the Andes, rich with over 400 years of history, and a German town in Southern Minnesota known well for its local brewery and the third largest copper statue in the United States.  But small towns can be similar to each other, I think because they can be some of the most interesting places on the planet if you’re willing to look close enough.  Now.  Since I’ve written this, I’ve looked up demographics of both places to find that as of 2005, Rionegro had a population of 101,046.  New Ulm?  13,594 as of 2000.  So perhaps Rionegro isn’t so small after all.  But if felt like it to me, in the best way possible.  Even the church at the main point of the plaza in Rionegro reminded me of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm.  It could have been the incense…

We rode with Monica for the entire day, visiting several approved borrowers in and around Rionegro.  Monica had the kind of warm yet gently authoritative demeanor that made her seem meant for the work she was doing.  We first met a borrower named Eugenio. We drove from Rionegro to Marinilla.  We passed acres of farmland – cilantro, broccoli, lettuce – like in the photo above.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  Eugenio recently moved from Medellin to Marinilla, where much of his family also lives, after his wife left him for another man.  Eugenio’s friend owns the property where he stays, and Eugenio maintains the farm in exchange for free stay.  He figured it would be a good place to start over.  Eugenio told us that his dreams of spending his last days on a farm appeared to be coming true.  He looked to have years and years of life ahead of him, but maybe there was something I didn’t know, or maybe such a reinvention of one’s life is cause for thoughts like these.

As we arrived at the foot of the dirt path leading to the house, Eugenio jumped out and rolled opened the fence made of barbed wire and stick, much like the fence in the photo above.  As we drove up to the house, we passed a strange looking tree.  I looked closer:  avocado.   They lined the driveway, dozens and dozens of avocados begging to be plucked from their branches.

The house came into view, a splash of mustard yellow with deep green shutters against a backdrop of more  mountains.  Two dogs greeted us.  Cows moo’ed.  Horses whipped flies away with their tails.  Pink and red potted geraniums hung from the roof, surrounding the patio that wrapped around the house.  Eugenio walked us to his chicken coop.  This would be his business:  raising and selling chickens.  He spoke about the loan amount he was hoping for, and Monica explained that he would be approved for a portion of that amount initially.  If things went well, and he proved to be a successful borrower, he could apply for additional loans.  Eugenio seemed happy with her response.  He signed some papers, and we left to meet Monica’s second client.

Gloria was twenty-two, a wife, and a mother.  She wanted to expand her clothing business, to be able to buy the materials needed to make and sell her product in her brother’s shop across town.  Just before we left, she hurried into the kitchen and came back with three glasses of coke on a tray.  It was astounding to consider her maturity at such a young age.  Not only was she raising a child, but she was also managing her own small business and taking out loans to do so.  And she was a participating member of a working marriage.  I left a pair of pants at a restaurant last week in Cartagena, and I hadn’t even been drinking.

After we left Gloria, we visited another house of a married couple, their daughter, and the mother of either the husband or wife.  Grandma was in one room sitting up in bed.  The mother was in the kitchen, directly across from the sitting area where we gathered, producing something that smelled indescribably good, peeling guayaba, or guava, chatting and laughing along with her husband as he explained their immediate and long term goals for their project (part of the loan they were applying for would cover costs to start up a mop factory).  She quartered a guayaba and offered it to us.  She asked her daughter to bring in some herbs from outside and then added them to a blender with the peeled fruit, whirred it until smooth, and poured it into a big pot over the flame.  I wondered what kind of alluring and authentic dish called for blended, cooked guava.  I understood practically nothing of what was said, but the unity of this family was palatable.

Sergio and I sat down at the end of the day, and he answered my questions about each client.  It was interesting to learn where my inferences were correct and where they were completely off.  As we drove home, I cried.  It isn’t everyday that I have the privilege to see what I saw that day.  I was touched by the determination of the people we met.  By their grace, and by the pride they each had in their abilities to be financially independent.  My feelings about the whole experience were, and still are, complex.  I feel ashamed, embarrassed for feeling fortunate, humbled, ignorant, discouraged, yet inspired.  Affected.  And very, very, human.

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  • Nikoline

    Wow. What an amazing experience. And you describe it all so colorfully. Nice work J. Seriously. Beautiful. Miss you!

    • jlgabel

      you’re, like, the coolest for writing such nice things. I’m really, really looking forward to sitting on your deck with you over negronis in the middle of May.

  • Diane

    Love your well expressed thoughts/insights and photos of your Colombian travels. You are a talented writer! I’m so excited that you are able to spend so much quality time with MJ.