I first met Deborah, an 11 year old girl, when I was looking for the trash cans outside my building. She happily showed me the way and started chatting me up. Then I met Colom, her older sister, who is 18 and very sweet. We became friends, and they asked if they could visit me sometime. I said, of course, anytime! That same night, when I walked up to my apartment building from work, they were both standing there with a younger boy waiting, and holding a grapefruit as a gift for me.
That first night we talked for a long time. Colom said she’d just moved here one month ago from the Congo (Brazzaville), to be with her mother. She misses her friends and her life in the Congo, and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to go back. Meanwhile she’s in school here, and enjoys her studies. Deborah and her brother teased each other and played around. They were both engrossed in my French grammar exercise books, and Deborah pointed out to me that it would be better if I wrote in pencil so that when I was done with the exercises perhaps someone else could use the book as well, and then it would not be wasted. She is a smart girl, and I hope we get to spend more time together. That night we played music, and had a good time together.
The next day I saw the girls, and they invited me for a visit. They came to my apt to fetch me at the specified time, and we went down to their apartment together. There I met their mother, Maman Fannie. Maman Fannie has a bright smile, and said that she’d heard the kids were very excited to meet me. While we talked, she sat and filled plastic bags with water. She has a big freezer in her living room. She filters the water from the tap through a cloth stretched across a plastic bottle and uses that as a funnel into a plastic bag. Once full, she ties the bag tight, and puts it in a pile to be loaded into the freezer for sale in the market the next day. She explained that she’d had a filter on her tap, but it broke recently and so she wasn’t able to filter the water as well. We talked about why I was here, for microfinance, something she’d never heard of. So I explained it to her. My first thought, of course, is that she is the ideal candidate for a loan. And she too had that same thought! I didn’t want to get into the technical loan process details on my own, so we agreed to meet on Tuesday and I would take her down to AE&I for her to meet with a loan officer.
From there our conversation moved from business to more personal subjects. She told me that when she first moved to Cote d’Ivoire from the Congo, she came with her husband for his job. They lived in a large house in another neighborhood. The house had eight rooms, and they had several children together. She told me that they had a housekeeper and a chauffeur. The chauffeur took the kids to school each day, and spent a good deal of time with her as well. After living with her husband in Cote d’Ivoire for several years, and over ten years of marriage, he abandoned her. The chauffeur and housekeeper arranged for him to meet a younger woman, and he left Maman Fannie to marry this other woman. He sold the house where they lived, and left her with the children, and no way to get home to Congo. Shortly after he did this, he lost his job, and left to live in France with his new wife. He never provided her any support, and has had no contact with his children since he left.
Now picture this woman sitting in front of you, filling up bags of water, and smiling- a big smile- as she tells this story. I could hardly believe it. This happened only three or four years ago. She now lives in a one bedroom apartment on the first floor of my building. In this apartment she takes care of Colom age 18, Germe age 12, Deborah age 11, and Manu age 5. While I was there, another daughter Sandrine visited, and her oldest son, Christian. (As a side note, I am not entirely clear on the exact biological or adopted relationship of each of these children. And so in my previous post I thought Colom had two children, which she does not. It seems a moot point to try and clarify these things immediately, as it doesn’t affect the fact that they’re all family and take care of each other as such.)
The children had all been going to high-priced private French schools in Abidjan. She could no longer afford these schools, but still she pays for every one of the children to go to a private school, and she works with them each night on their homework. Because she cannot afford to send them to the best schools, she emphasizes the importance of studying even harder so that one day they will have more opportunities. Tonight Colom took me for a walk to her school. It’s a fenced-in school, with a beautiful tree in the center of its courtyard, and a sandy play area for soccer games. The schoolgrounds were clean and well-kept. We visited her classrooms on the second floor. The classrooms have two large chalkboards along one wall, and several rows of wood desks and benches. In the warm spring air, I could smell the wood from the desks as I entered each room. Each room was a quick look into the day’s lesson. In the first room there were English sentences on the board. Next door we found Ivoirian history, and further down was a science lab with tiled desks, and kinetic Physics equations on the board.
Colom is currently in her 3rd level. I’m not entirely clear on the French system, but high school goes 6-5-4-3-2-1-Finished. So in three years she will take the Bac (the super tough French exit exam that determines where you can go to university), and apply for entrance to a university. She wants to be a lawyer. She said that there are many people in her family who have education but never went to work, or never completed school. Maman Fannie counts heavily on her to complete her studies, and pass the Bac with a good score so that she can advance herself. Then she told me that she is an orphan, that her mom died in the war in Congo. She wants to work to improve the lives of other orphans, and help them find a better life too.
I spoke with Ladji, one of my co-workers at AE&I about Maman Fannie. He said that she sounds like an ideal client- cold water sales is a very strong business model in Abidjan (because it’s hot here!!). He said that I will see what happens after she first takes one loan, pays it off, and then takes another loan and expands further… They have clients who started out with a small stand selling one vegetable who now have entire stores of merchandise. He pointed to a store the size of a New York hotel room- small, but it serves its purpose. I asked how many years that must’ve taken- and he pointed out that AE&I is only four years old. With the right person, microfinance can enable them to accomplish great things very quickly. I am looking forward to Maman Fannie’s appointment on Tuesday… and for my next eight months in Cote d’Ivoire.