Makélékélé. The trick is learning to spell it first. The pronunciation just rolls off your tongue… mah-kel-eh-kel-eh. The next trick is getting a taxi to take you there. We took a green taxi to get there, Précy and I. Not that there is anything special about a green taxi in Brazzaville- all of the taxis are a vibrant shade of forest green, populating the streets like a metal forest. Winding through the streets of Brazzaville from HOPE Congo’s office to the neighborhood of Makélékélé is not an easy trek for taxis because of marché total: an enormous sprawling market with an ever-present traffic jam going through the middle of it.
As we drove, Précy kept up a running commentary about city life, how most of the population uses the green-painted public transportation: taxis, buses (vans painted green) and even bigger vehicles. Buses are cheaper than taxis, but also more crowded. For Précy, they have their own appeal, “Buses are my favorite means of transport. You hear a lot of things. Lies, truths, news…” You could probably write an entire magazine with the information and gossip learned on buses. Taxis squeeze by each other in seemingly incomprehensible patterns with millimeters to spare that left me holding my breath – but that would also be because of the wafting aroma of petrol. Finally we arrive near the church of Makélékélé and walk past small stands and businesses selling anything and everything from wine to used clothing, backpacks to hot food, and walk into the group meeting.
This is my first visit to the field with HOPE International, tagging along with our Director of Spiritual Integration (SI) who is going to observe the meeting as a manager to see how the loan officer does. “Hello!” comes the unexpected call from the loan officer. “Hi!” answers the group automatically, gathered together at one of their weekly repayment meetings. I was thrown off by hearing English amongst the sea of French words, mixed with Munukutuba, the local language. Try saying that five times fast. This call and response is how every repayment meeting starts at HOPE – a way to get the clients’ attention and focus the group. My role was simply to observe – to see a repayment meeting in action and how it is carried out by the loan officer.
The group we visited named themselves Peniel, after the place where Jacob sees God’s face in the Bible. Peniel is a BACO-high group to use HOPE’s language- meaning the loans they take out from HOPE are between $400 and $1000. BACO stands for “banque communautaire” or community bank. Composed of a little over 20 members with four elected officers, Peniel meets every week for 16 weeks to repay back the loans they have taken out to improve their businesses bit by bit. At repayment meetings, the large group is divided into sub-groups of three to five people. Each sub-group is responsible for bringing all of the promised repayment money to a meeting. If one member of the subgroup misses a payment, the others have to cover for them (as happened today). Each subgroup also has an appointed leader to collect the money, which they then turn in to the treasurer of Peniel. The treasurer is one of four officers every BACO-high self-elects I discovered: there is also a president, vice-president, and a secretary. Each role helps to run the weekly meetings and record the new repayments.
Amidst the sounds of birds chirping, voices bubbling from the shops next door and motorcycles passing by, the meeting passed like clockwork as each element was carried out, counted and approved. All repayment meetings follow the format of the five Ws: welcome, worship, word, work and wrap-up. For the welcome, all members greet one another and simply see how people are doing- one goes around to every member of the group. Then the group moves into singing. A beautiful mix of harmonies filled the air with commonly known worship songs in French and Munukutuba as the group members stand and sing. For the word part of the meeting, they open the Bible and go through a short passage, each week building on the last. This week was Mark and everyone took turns reading, analyzing and applying the passage (9:20-29). The majority of the time in repayment meetings is spent in the work portion – that is the process of actually repaying the loans and recording all the details to make sure everything is accounted for.
The group graciously allowed me to take some pictures of them meeting, and wrapped up with a prayer after all of the bright yellow passbooks were returned to their owners. Each member gets a passbook in which all of his or her loan cycles and repayments are carefully recorded. Shaking hands on the way in and on the way as is the HOPE welcoming custom, it was a beautiful introduction and good learning experience on the most basic and essential practices of microcredit.
Today a colleague walked into the secretary’s office where I sometimes work with a “Hello!” to all of us present. My immediate response in chorus with the others in the room: “Hi!” Looks like I’ve passed stage one of initiation to become a proper member of HOPE Congo.