I was finally able to put together some questions, with help from Whole Planet, and do an interview with one of Banrural Grameen's clients. I attempted to stumble through an initial interview on Wednesday, only to discover that her Mayan-tinged-Spanish accent mixed with a familiarity of hearing said accent along with the typical Guatemalan accent did not bode well with my Gringo-marred-Argentine-influenced accent and likewise accent comprehension. The interview was pretty rocky and based on her seeming unwillingness to submit to an interview, I let it go and didn't take any pictures. In my defense, it was a small group that day and none of the women seemed extremely willing to tell their story to an American, one pointing out that she spoke no English. Anyhow, that was a bit of a discouraging event so I went out again yesterday (Friday) and attempted once again. This time I was able to speak with the center president and she was very happy to both have a visitor to the center and talk about her story—and the accents chose not to intervene so heavily.
This particular center is located about 45 minutes by motorcycle from the bank branch in Panajachel. The path from Pana winds up through the mountains giving way to views of steep waterfalls and thick forestry. A few fleeting views (marked as scenic viewpoints by the rest areas congested with roadside stands selling everything from bracelets to shirts) of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes always takes my breath away and I don't think I'll ever get tired of taking pictures of the sight.
As you emerge from the mountains the ride becomes much flatter and the signs of rural poverty are immediately apparent. Some communities obviously fare better than others but it's not uncommon to see a starving cow hitched to a post salvaging what it can of the stark roadside vegetation or someone lying on the side of road. I'm not trying to be snobby or presumptuous here, poverty is a harsh reality in Central and Latin America, and Guatemala is no exception. The landscape is beautiful but its history is not. The people here make the best of what they can and I've not heard anyone complain. Things get rough, but the only way to live is to keep on keepin' on (I'll admit the fault in the reference to rock lyrics…).
We finally reached the center in the small town of Camanchaj, and ducked through the branches of several apple trees straining under the weight of its offering for the season, a plausible sign that things are good here. Through a small apple forest we reached the place for the meeting: a decently sized square building, modestly constructed of bamboo walls and a tarp roof. This center is smaller than the others, a total of 10 members divided in three groups. The ideal center, again, is 6 groups and 30 members; no doubt this one looks to grow. As the field loan officer and I sat down I nervously looked around to the members present and asked if I could do a quick interview. We established that I was from the States and very interested in microcredit lending and just wanted to know a few things about how someone had used their loans.
One woman volunteered. Manuela Riquic Xaper, is the president of the center and has received one loan from Banrural Grameen. As president her responsibility is to arrive ten minutes early to the center and ensure that everyone is on time to every meeting (bi-weekly). She also must encourage the members do their best to pay on time and do everything she can to ensure the center runs smoothly in order to assist the loan officer. One of her first questions to the loan officer I was with was, assuming my Spanish was not functional, "does he export clothes and the like back to the states?" True mark of an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. She informed me that she had no children and the woman sitting next to her was quick to point out that that was because she is single.
Doña Manuela has lived in Camanchaj her whole life and attended primary school until the fourth year. She now lives in a small but functional house near the main road of the town. The location of the previously mentioned bamboo meeting space is located in her backyard, and the apple trees are hers. She informed me that the apples will be ready in August, they were still a bit young now.
She has received only one loan from the bank, amounting to 1000 Quetzales (roughly $125) and used the money to buy more fruit to stock her stand. Manuela runs a fruit stand both using the fruit she is able to grow at home and buying some from the market. She also sews blouses and hats in the local Mayan designs. Upon the end of the question and answer aspect of the interview, she brought me out a small basket of plums and apples with a small bowl of salt for the fruit. She told me the fruit was still a bit sour as it had not reached full ripeness but that it was still good. I happily took some of the fruit and quickly ate three small plums, each as tart and juicy as the next. Being a bit of a sweet tooth and not always having the ability to indulge here, the fruit was a very delicious gift.
After the meeting, I asked Manuela to show me some of her handicraft work. She only had a few hats at that time so she went inside and brought out some examples. I bought a couple of them both as a thank you and because I thought they were cool and have a story behind them for me now. Manuela told me of how she hopes to keep increasing her business so as to open up new stores in other parts of the country and to send her work to other parts of the world. She explained that the microcredit loans from Grameen bank give her hope that this dream may someday be achieved and expressed great appreciation of the bank for her current economic situation. The bank made her life greatly easier, she said, and allowed her to purchase more fruit for her stand, which in turn increased her customer base. Of her customer base she said she knows her customers well and many of her customers return time and time again.
Talking to Doña Manuela, I felt a certain sense of excitement. It was my first real one on one talking time with someone who has received a microcredit loan. She seemed genuinely excited about the whole loan process. It's really been an experience to get to see everything in action and days like this day make me all the more glad that I've had this opportunity.
I admit my interviewing skills need some practice, but I'm assuming that will come with time and learning from previous mistakes so as to get at least a little more information than I might normally get. Alomgir, the head guy at Banrural Grameen, handed me a Grameen Trust newsletter as an example and requested that I type up an article to present in this magazine. I'll be working on that along as some things to put together for Whole Planet Foundation in the next couple of weeks.
Hope everyone is well!