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.


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