The driver carved his way across northern West Bengal through territory unknown to most, including the mapmakers. Our SUV eventually rolled to a stop at the end of a dirt road where a group of village women dressed in their best and brightest saris were seated in a semi-circle on the ground. They had been waiting for hours.
And they were waiting for us.
We were just photographers, storytellers coming to collect some impressions for Five Talents, a microfinance organization. But the women gathered for us like we were royalty.
“What if we don’t live up to their expectations?” I wondered as I took in all their expectant faces at once.
I couldn’t fashion a better lesson in humility.
On an average day, India overwhelms. Our travels overland from its southern states to its northern border with Nepal taught this day-in, day-out. The colors never end, the cities are beautifully cacophonous and the simplicity of rural life contrasts starkly with everything a Westerner knows.
But this time was different.
If you have ever wondered what has kept me on the road for over 1000 days, I will give you a hint: it’s not the ruins and the beautiful landmarks. It’s the bumpy-road rides to remote villages like this where a group of 13 women take a loan of 175 dollars, turn it into a 350-dollar profit, and the profit ripples its way to a crossroads of social transformation.
This is microfinance at work. This is microfinance at its best.
As we depart for the Andean hill town of Huancavelica, Peru to work again with Five Talents, I'm reminded of our first project with them and the rural women and microfinance groups we encountered in northern West Bengal.
Microfinance: Balancing Theory with Reality
For over a decade, I have been reading books and articles about microfinance organizations like the Grameen Bank. Through textbook definitions I understood what microfinance could do: provide small loans to help families and communities make their way out of poverty by developing small businesses.
What I didn’t gather from my reading was the potential of microfinance programs to challenge social norms and to alter perceptions of women in society. Microfinance is not a cure-all for poverty, but it can offer opportunities where none stood before.
In this series we’ll share with you the unique story of each village we visited in the Indian state of West Bengal, and how microfinance played – or could play – an integral role in changing villagers’ lives there. Hopefully you’ll get a sense of the India we saw and the complex historical canvas of poverty, caste, and British colonial tea plantation legacy that serves as a backdrop to today’s opportunities.
Seedlings, Literal and Figurative
The women of Deep Colony (yes, that's the name of the village) were proud of their accomplishments. But they were shy. In turns, they diverted their eyes when we caught their stares, but stole curious glances when they thought we weren't looking. Children hopped from lap to lap. Who was whose? It was difficult to tell; each child was equally comfortable with everyone. The feeling of community was evident.
After introductions, the women showed us their enterprise: a seedling nursery. The thirteen women in the group used a small loan plus their own investment money to start their business with 7,000 rupees ($175). They used the money to buy seeds and rent a plot of land from a fellow villager.
Each member of the group was paid for her labor. And each earned a share from the profits ($350) and took home 50 seedlings to sell or to use at home. The nursery was successful; the women were making plans to buy a plot of land in the group’s name in order to expand the following year.
Chipping Away at the Walls of Caste
As the leader of the group described its business, four women squatted in the dirt and began tending the plants. Before the days of the seedling business, these women of varying castes and social groups did not interact much, if at all.
Now, they worked side by side.
The group leader, a widow raising three children on her own, explained how being part of the group has allowed her to earn enough money to send her children to school. Her self-confidence has grown so much that she had recently been elevated by her peers to the role of group leader. Her body language – in fact everyone’s gestures — reflected this newfound self-esteem and dignity.
“What is the best thing about being part of this project?” I asked the entire group.
Without a pause, one woman answered: “We earn as much as our husbands.“
I looked around; all the women – young and old – smiled, nodding in approval, as if they were offering one another silent “high fives.”