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Julian Lazalde is a former Project Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Underneath the Mango Tree

As we filed off the overly air conditioned minibus and felt the rays of the strong mid-morning sunshine in the village of Pounkouan in southern Burkina Faso, my immediate thought was, “it’s only going to get hotter.”  However, before I had the opportunity to process that thought, I heard a pulsating, rhythmic beat followed by chanting, singing and the guttural screams that, for many, personify the ‘Dark Continent’ that is Africa.  Having spent three days in Burkina Faso at that point, with diocesan leaders in Hispanic Ministry from across the country as a part of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) delegation to Burkina Faso and Ghana, I knew this was not something to be skeptical, wary or afraid of.  Instead, as all 13 of us made our way down a dusty, dirt path around a small cluster of mud brick huts our eyes converged on the source.  Underneath a 20-foot mango tree in the center of the village were two columns of ladies dressed in stunning beige, black striped dresses adorned with large red keys and keyholes; singing, screaming and moving to the beats in unison and with a purpose. 

The ladies of the Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC) group known as ‘Dikidini’ (‘Let’s try and see’ in their dialect of Cassena) were welcoming us to their village with traditional song and dance, but what we were there to witness was anything but traditional.  We settled into white plastic deck chairs and wooden benches in the shade provided by the majestic mango tree and as the gentle mid-morning breeze wafted through the air the ladies of Dikidini showed us how and why the SILC project was more than a financial success.  It was the flipping of traditional gender roles.  It was newfound love for one another and social cohesion where there was none to speak of before.  It was dignity on the march.

As the shares were divided amongst the group members, the women – 29 in all and 3 men – strode to receive their hard earned money and many danced in celebration.  Arms raised in triumph, bare feet pounding the soft earth below in excitement at seeing the small amounts of West African Francs they dutifully saved away turn into sizeable sums of money.  Perceptions of what is possible began to change.  Coins turned into paper money.  Hopeful expectations turned into confirmed reality.

So how does this work, exactly?  With technical support from CRS Burkina Faso, group members are organized and trained to save small amounts of money on a monthly basis, which is entered into a communal account.  From the account, group members are encouraged to take out loans with interest that will boost their ability to generate income in other ways that are not exclusively linked to the growing season, which is becoming increasingly risky considering Western Africa’s volatile weather.  And just like that, credit is readily available where there was none before.  The result is a self-perpetuating machine that allows people who occupy the margins of society to begin setting a more stable path for themselves and their families by relying on each other.  Solidarity and the common good in action before our very eyes.

One such person is Nathalie Oudiebou.  Like so many in the village, she was skeptical of the SILC program at first.  After 8 months in the group, she saved and earned enough to pay for her children’s school fees and still have a little extra on hand for such luxuries as soap.  Luxury.  Soap.  When asked if she plans on continuing to be a part of Dikidini, Nathalie gave a quick smile and simply replied, “yes.”

This is a small snapshot of the work of CRS.  CRS works internationally in the name of US-based Catholics.   Giving hope to a world of need.  In your name.  Programs such as SILC speak to the best of the Catholic Church and speak to the best in all of us, regardless of creed.   Now that you know more about this amazing program, it’s up to you to spread the word far and wide!  SILC works, SILC is obliterating perceptions of what poor people can do, SILC is Catholic Social Teaching at work.

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