The first week I came to MCDT, Justine, my supervisor, and Olivia, her supervisor, were looking at pictures of borrowers they were preparing to post to the Kiva website. They called me over to look at one person in particular, standing in the middle of a group of five and said, “You must meet Ruth!” They told me she was the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit and a real survivor. They told me how she’s living with AIDS and lost her husband to the disease 10 years ago. They told me how she as at least 5 businesses. I didn’t know quite what that meant until I went to visit her earlier this week.
Justine and I walked down the hill from the MCDT office to Kamwokya, the slum area where MCDT gave out its first loans. Walking through the narrow alleyways and jumping over a few gutters, we reached Ruth’s home. We went into the most cluttered house I’ve seen here in Uganda, but it was cluttered for a reason: everything would be used for some business purpose or another.
There was very little light in the house because huge bags of charcoal were stacked up around the outside (business #1). Inside, a woman sat on a stool waiting for Ruth to return to finish braiding her hair (business #2); next to that stood an ironing board with an iron heated with charcoal for Ruth’s laundry business (business #3). In the inner room, even darker than the first, with just a little light coming through a gap in the corrugated metal roof, Justine and I sat on a small sofa while Ruth sat on a mat she had woven and brought out other mats she had made and sells (business #4). She could have brought down one of three kerosene lanterns she keeps on top of a wooden breakfront that she rents out to people (business #5). In the lower right hand cabinet we could see several phones that she has used as pay phones, but the person she had employed to help her with that was unavailable. She was waiting to find someone to do that so she could start the payphone business again (business #6). To our right was a stack of baskets she had woven that she not only sells, but also rents out to people who are making a formal presentation to bridal families (business #7).
After a short visit, we went outside again to see Ruth’s grocery (business #8). Immediately to the right of the grocery is a small hut which is Ruth’s pub (business #9). We went into the pub, which is about 8’ X 10’ or thereabouts, where Ruth displayed her wares. (I asked if she had any waragi, or local brew, an alcohol made from sugar cane. She held up a bottle. Then she pulled out a plastic packet of vodka and said, “Mazungu waragi.” Yes, indeed.)
The first picture heres show Ruth standing between her grocery business and the entrance to the pub. You can also see the charcoal at her feet. The second picture shows her sitting in her pub.
As we left, Justine told me about some of Ruth’s struggle to make sure she pays her loans on time. She gave me this story as an example. Ruth travels out to the country to see to each shipment of charcoal, wanting to make sure to get good chunks rather than charcoal dust. One time, one of the coals was still burning and the whole shipment of charcoal burned before she even got it home. Because MCDT offers group guaranteed loans, Ruth could have said she simply couldn’t pay that week and depended on the other group members to pay for her. Instead, she got sugar cane on credit, chopped them into bite-sized pieces and bagged them, putting them out for sale near her pay phones (business #10). Somehow, she was able to scrape enough money together to pay back her loan each week on time. The dedication and integrity she has shown is simply remarkable. Goodness knows not every borrower is like that, but the fact is there are borrowers like this, and it is a real honor to meet them and know that these loans are making a difference when taken in conjunction with ability, spirit and will.