By Jess Littman
“Reward her, reward her,” the ladies sang in Swahili as they wrapped me in a colorful kanga fabric. They spun me around and danced with me, admiring how I looked all wrapped up before handing around soda for the whole group.
It was my last visit to Sumawe, one of the five villages where WMI’s partner GWOCO operates in Tanzania. As a WMI Fellow for the past year, I have been visiting each village once a month or more for loan repayments, group meetings, business visits and seminars.
Now I am preparing to depart, and the borrowers are eager to give me beautiful mementos of my time here. At each village goodbye ceremony I have been entreated not to forget them – as if that would be possible. How could I forget Sweetness, from whom I buy delicious breakfasts at her stand across the street from my house? Or Paulina, who cracks jokes throughout loan repayments to keep everyone smiling?
The ladies who will always be at the forefront of my memory are the ones who have served on GWOCO’s board during my year here. There is Martha, the quiet woman whose math skills and amazing memory make this program possible. There’s Eliminatha, who had 11 children before her husband abandoned her, and who then built up her business to support her family on her own. And there is Levina, whose house is full of other people’s children whose care she has taken on as a leader of her community.
I have learned so much from these ladies. Levina’s verbal smack down of a man who objected to our preference for lending to women will stick out in my mind every time I fight for women in the future. I hope that I have imbibed some of Eliminatha’s ability to find hilarity in virtually everything.
WMI’s borrowers in Tanzania are the strongest, funniest, bravest and wisest women I have ever met (besides, of course, my strong, funny, brave and wise mom, who inspires everything I do). They face obstacles that I cannot believe, from abusive husbands to droughts, with positive attitudes and determination. I believe that they can do anything, and they have taught me that I can do anything, too.