A letter from Nancy Collins in Zambia (Regional Liaison for East Central Africa)
In the eyes of the world, to stand in places of weakness, humility, and vulnerability is to face annihilation. In the eyes of our God, to stand in those places is to feast on the power and glory of God.—Carol Harston, d365.org
Dear Family and Friends,
Matungru Parish Church in the Umutara Region of Rwanda, hidden deep in the Rwandan hills, was full. Having guests at such a remote location, especially “mzungu” (expats), was cause for celebration. People were eager to see the guests, and equally eager to share with the guests the ways their self-help groups (also called village savings and loan associations) are transforming their lives.
Rev. Mayshera, presbytery exec of Umutara, told us Matungru has 875 members plus 489 children. The congregation and its nine chapels are led by 32 elders and 32 deacons. The Development Department of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda informed the community around the church—composed mostly of poor subsistence farmers—about self-help groups and how they could help. The residents around Matungru have organized 12 such groups, each with 15–20 members. The groups are having a wonderful impact on people's lives.
After introductions were made, Albertine eagerly stood up to talk about her group. Albertine explained that the 20 members (11 women and 9 men) each committed to giving RF 200 (about 30 cents) at each of their weekly meetings. The group members together decided on the amount of the weekly “share” each contributes weekly and through their commitment to the process. Albertine indicated the group now has accumulated a loan capital of RF 200,000 (about $300). Members of the group receive loans from the capital for purchases and income-generating activities. Boniface, a group member, shared about receiving a loan to buy vegetables to sell in the market. Proceeds from the vegetable sales empowered her to buy a goat—a great source of nutrition for her family and fertilizer for her field. Another member, a widower with five children, used a loan of RF 8,000 to buy chickens. He repaid that and obtained a second loan of RF 15,000, which he used to buy maize seed and peanuts. He expects to harvest 300 kilos of maize and 50 kilos of peanuts. Through the proceeds from his projects he has managed to pay the school expenses for his five children.
“Why are there more women than men participating in these groups?” one of the guests asked. The women explained: “We are forgotten. We want to improve.” “We care for our families. We don’t like to beg our husbands for necessities.” “We are not shy to do small business. The men want a bigger amount.”
The women also talked about how much their self-esteem improved as a result of the groups. “We can now buy what is needed,” they said. “We contribute economically to our households. Our husbands now value us more.” “We have soap and lotion now. We are more beautiful!”
Cyrus stood up proudly to tell us how his wife, empowered through the self-help group she belongs to, bought him a pair of trousers as a gift. It was a new experience for Cyrus—and his wife—and for the whole Matungru community!
I have found self-help groups throughout my region—and everywhere the report is the same: they empower women in very significant ways. Cost is minimal to implement, and the impact is huge—one of the most effective means of reaching poor, rural households in Africa and across the globe. The program, based on traditional African practices, started in 1991 in rural Niger, and today, according to CARE International, over 4 million households have accumulated around $33.5 million in assets. Through the pennies the poor manage to save they are able to grow thriving businesses that pull entire families out of poverty. The self-help groups build women's and girls' financial skills and assets, empower children to go to school, enable mothers to receive proper prenatal care, and help participants develop leadership skills that can be used in their communities.
From time to time we find something small, something that appears insignificant, something that is so simple and yet so powerful that we praise God for the amazing gift. For me, self-help groups—village savings and loan associations—are one of those amazing gifts from God to God’s beloved poor.
Thank you to all of you who are partnering with international church partners and programs in my region. And thank you to those of you who are supporting my ministry. Without your help I would not be in Africa and I would not be able to share with you how God touches my heart through the wonderful ways God is working there. I covet your prayers and your financial support. Thank you.
I have now settled into an apartment in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the year—to reconnect with son Charles, now 21 years old. He was 16 when I left for Zambia. The apartment is furnished thanks to the generosity of members of First Presbyterian Church, Sand Springs, Okla., where my brother and sister-in-law worship. The apartment has been “Malawized” thanks to accessories provided by Rev. Judy Henderson, a frequent Malawi visitor!! I work either at the apartment complex business office or in an office at my brother’s business where I can access Internet. I am learning my way around Tulsa, and I see Charles most weekends. I feel a little disoriented and somewhat disconnected from my East Africa colleagues and friends. But I believe I am where I need to be at this point in time.
During this season of Lent, may your places of weakness, humility, and vulnerability enable you to feast anew on the power and glory of God.
Your sister in Christ,
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 141
Read more about Nancy Collins' ministry