A micro-finance success story: Olive goes from oblivion to holding up her bit of the sky with pride.

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 By Anita Mpambara-Cox and Jaime Blatter, MCF Field Intern (2015)

It was the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong who said, “Women hold up half the sky.” Today, a book with half that title, “Half the Sky,” by Nick Kristoff and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn is a reference book of sorts for people who are in the field of women’s development.  After reading this book, one realizes that in this 21st century, there are millions and millions of women who don’t bother or even dare to look up to the sky, much less raise their arms with the idea of being part of “holding up” something as important as the sky that we all live under.  That is, until you look them squarely in the eye and tell them you believe in them and then give them a real opportunity to change their lives.

Olive welcomes MCF staff and volunteers with a smile. Photo: JBlatter

Olive, our microfinance beneficiary, was one of those millions.  Illiterate, poor and married with five children, the whole feeling of holding up the sky was not in her frame of reference before May 2010.  She and her husband had struggled to pay for the increasing cost of living. School fees were rising, and as they continued to have more children their daily expenses were steadily increasing. They worried whether or not they would be able to send all of their children to school or pay for medicine. Her children were attending Kengoma Primary School in Kabale, Uganda—a Mpambara Cox Foundation (MCF) supported school—when she heard about the call for women to come and listen to a proposed microfinance program at her children’s school. That program–Women In Support of Education (WISE)–was designed by MCF  to help mothers like Olive keep their children in school.  She was among the first women to show up at the school in early May 2010 and immediately knew she wanted to join a group.

At about the same time in Rockville, MD, 20 women were getting together over dinner to learn about micro-finance and to support the first WISE group.  After a briefing by MCF president, Anita, and WMI (Women’s Microfinance Initiative) president, Robyn, each of the invited guests donated $150 for each of the 20 Kengoma women.  This kick-started the MCF/WMI partnership to empower rural women in Uganda.  Now, almost six years later, that $150 has grown into a dream capital fund that is self-sustaining, banking over $50,000 per year. The fund is dedicated to the advancement of Elsie Lushaya Women’s Group (ELWG) – a group of impoverished mothers exclusively drawn from Mpambara Cox Foundation’s supported UPE (Universal Primary Education) schools in Kabale, Uganda.

The first WISE groups Photo: MCF

Olive survived the ‘peer-weeding’ process (a ruthless removal of those considered untrustworthy), underwent financial literacy training, passed the tests, attended  planning meetings and formally joined a group of 20 WISE women in June 2010.  The next month she received her first loan, 300,000 Uganda Shillings or $150 (at 2010 exchange rates). She made the all important “WISE Pledge”. The condition that her children were to remain in school and their attendance would matter—something she admits she never really fully understood at first. The loan would enable her to start her own business, she knew that this was her chance to help ensure her children would all receive an education. Olive then rented a small space in her neighborhood and began selling soda and beer to those living in her village. She began receiving shipments from beverage companies and selling the drinks both retail and wholesale to her loyal customers. For two years Olive continued growing her business with the loans from MCF, dutifully paying them back as scheduled.

Olive in her Nyakijumba shop
Olive in her Nyakijumba shop Photo: JBlatter

On March 6, 2013, she qualified to became a WISER Woman—a program that introduces responsible borrowers to main-stream banking with surety provided by MCF/WMI.  Olive underwent additional training and was able to borrow $600 or 1m Uganda shillings directly from the bank, effectively making her a millionaire in Ugandan currency.  Now, Olive’s beverage store is filled from floor to ceiling with beverage crates.  One expects that she would say she sells a crate every couple of days. “No,” she says with pride-filled smile, “I sell a crate in a couple of hours.”

MCF’s WISE program now adds over 40 women per quarter to the Elsie Lushaya Women’s Group (ELWG) that Olive joined back in May 2010. She is hailed as a success story in her village and is now a counselor to many other women that have since joined ELWG.  As one of almost 850 women in 10 spread-out villages, Olive remains illiterate but is no longer impoverished or marginalized. Each year she celebrates alongside her peers as they march through Kabale town in what is now a parade that aims to showcase these tough and hardworking women as beacons of success.

WISE Women march through Kabale town Photo: MCF

What is unique about WISE is the importance of delivering the message of education at monthly meetings and helping map the children’s futures through sensitization. Olive has attended many of these gatherings and now fully understands the idea that education is the one sure route out of poverty. How can we be sure? She is usually found imparting that advice to others, talking about the importance of paving the way for a smoother ride through the perils of obtaining a rural education in an under-resourced government-aided school.  Personally, she has also taken big steps to ensure that her children can get the best that she can offer. She recently moved some of them to a better resourced private boarding school! That is a true measure of success for a woman who just five years ago thought she would have to choose which of her children would remain in school and which ones would drop-out.

Olive, her husband and family with Peace Corps Volunteer Kasia  Photo: JBlatter
Olive, her husband and family with Peace Corps Volunteer, Kasia     Photo: JBlatter

Although it is still difficult to take care of a large family as the cost of living and price of education continues to rise, the income generated from Olive’s shop has allowed her and her husband to do more than they ever imagined possible.  “We continue to work hard to keep the family, happy, healthy, and educated,” says Olive. If she never looked up to the sky before May 2010 for fear of having hope, one gets that sense that she now not only looks up there, but can lift her arms high and feel like she is holding up her bit of the sky. She raises it that one small iota of distance that benefits all of us who live in our interconnected and shared world.  Looking at Olive squarely in the eyes, one sees a new found belief in self. Her dignity is restored. Her debts are paid. Her floor is cemented and her sales are soaring! Another important point that cannot be overlooked, her husband is a supportive partner.

And for MCF there is no greater satisfaction than knowing that her children will now have a shot at a better life by owning the most effective weapon against poverty: an education.


Edison’s Story

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Secondary school scholarship beneficiaries since 2010 Edison (left) and Joram (right)

Edison (on the left) is one of two students for whom MCF has made secondary school possible.  For four years, he and Joram (on the right) have been our pioneer secondary school beneficiaries who just recently completed their secondary school exams and are now headed to “higher” or the last two years of high school.

Edison receives scholastic materials
Edison receives his back to school supplies from Programs Coordinator, Enos

  This story is about Edison; his story illustrates the depth of MCF’s reach as a community program committed to bringing change at  many different levels.

was a primary six student in one of the first MCF partner  schools in 2009. Orphaned an at early age, Edison moved to the    village of Nyakijumba to live with his aunt and attended a  government school set on the side of a road. If you or I approached the school, a first impression would be just how dangerously it is nestled close to a thoroughfare that runs from Mbarara to Kabale town with cars, buses, trailers, and cyclists all zooming past the tiny school.

Edison, as one of the beneficiaries when the program started in 2009 with the commencement of a porridge program, was part of a 192 student body.  There was no running water in the school. The cooking program relied on ‘water fetchers’ to provide all the water from a stream about 1.5 miles away to cook the porridge and wash all the utensils. The water fetchers proved unreliable, sometimes not showing up when it rained for instance. On one such day, Edison’s aunt who had been hired as a cook asked Edison to go and fetch water before school hours. He rose at about 5 am that morning and went off to fetch the water. By the time the school bell rang, he had fetched enough water for the entire cooking day and was in his uniform ready for school!

His aunt suggested the MCF pay him a stipend to provide the water. The stipend of $10 per month would help him buy books , shoes, pencils and a mathematical set. For the next two years Edison did all the water fetching for the program at his school. Edison worked, fetching water, and never missed a day, rain or shine. If necessary, he made arrangements for someone else to help him or fill in.

In 2011, Edison sat for his PLE exams and passed well!  MCF, impressed with how studious he was, how committed he was to the program, and just how hard he had worked during the school year to pass the exams, offered him the first secondary school scholarship: the Global Fellows Program, which consists of a leadership training program. In this program, MCF works to ‘expand horizons’ and mentor fellows to help them break from their limited tribal borders and learn to appreciate the diverse country that Uganda is.

Sponsored secondary school students visit Kilembe Mines in Kasese – Jan 2014

With “Expanding Horizons,” Edison has traveled to over 10 Ugandan towns, learning about 5 different tribes of peoples who differ from his own. He has visited industry centers, mines, Uganda’s parliament, the premier University of Uganda, and will this year travel internationally for the first time.

Edson scholarhip student cropped.IMG_1782
Edison at secondary school                


Today, Edison sits for his “O” level exams. Compare “O” level to Grade 10 at the end of middle school. We know his resolve and we expect him to do well. MCF will then embark upon the journey to ensure that he completes his secondary school and enter a university to obtain a college degree. Edison aspires to become an engineer.

MCF is committed to providing scholarships for aspiring youths like Edison that show great promise. He will start an internship in a few weeks during his long vacation.

We wish him well.

My first week as a PeaceCorps Volunteer teaching at Kengoma Primary

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 By Kasia, Peace Corps Volunteer serving with Mpambara Cox Foundation, Kabale, Uganda

Kasia and Arene with board in background
“This is Arene, she is 9 years old and is an orphan, she has a warm smile,” says Kasia.

Arriving to Kengoma Primary School, I was greeted by all of the teachers and pupils. It was a very warm celebration filled with singing and dancing, which made me feel very welcome at my new school. Although I have been in Uganda for eight months, it was the nicest welcoming to receive from the staff and pupils, knowing that I will be spending the next 18 months with them. I am thrilled to be working with such proactive and enthusiastic Ugandans who are pleased to have me teach at their school.

I spent my first day at the school observing the P4 pupils and the P4 teacher, Christine. Christine is a wonderful teacher who is enthusiastic and it is very evident that the pupils benefit from her teaching. The second day at Kengoma Primary School, I introduced myself to the pupils and they introduced themselves to me. The P4 pupils were very shy at first but I believe with some time, they will become comfortable with me and we will create success together. I also spent some time with the teachers, getting to know them and watching their teaching methods. Education differs from education in the United States so it was significant for me to be able to acknowledge those differences.

Kasia first week at Kengoma_reading cat in the hat July 2014Kasia with book cat in the hat

My main purpose while I am in the PeaceCorps is to promote literacy, teaching P4 pupils how to read and write in English so that they are better prepared to further their English education. I focus on P4 students because this is the level at which they start transitioning from their local language to English. Mainly, I will be conducting reading groups, introducing new vocabulary words, and structuring grammatically correct sentences with them. If necessary, I will be starting with basic phonics of the language, such as letter and sound recognition, and then continue building onto the language. With these skills, I believe that P4 pupils will have the basic foundation of the English language so that they are successful with furthering their education.

 My first few days teaching at Kengoma have gone well. We made name tags so that I can memorize their names efficiently. They wrote their names and colored them with crayons on a piece of paper.

Kasia student Joel
Joel enjoyed coloring his name tag with crayons!

It was a simple assignment but I feel as though it helped them to become more comfortable with me.  The second day, I read them “Hop on Pop” by Dr. Seuss, which they loved. Then I had them try to read a page each, since I only have 10 P4 pupils in my class. They are still very shy because they have never been taught by someone whom is not Ugandan, but they tried their best. It also helped me to evaluate their reading level. I believe that with some time, they will become very comfortable with me and we will be able to accomplish a lot together.

I hope that they will learn a lot from me but I also have confidence that I will learn a lot from them.