She was the first client I interviewed, and I’ll admit I was unprepared. It was my second day in the field and I had planned on just sitting casually by and observing, seeing how another repayment meeting went, how HOPE conducted a bible study with its clients… apparently the day had other plans.
Her name was Stella Bassangouala, and she is just as beautiful as her name sounds. When we asked a small group known as ACF, named after the church where they first started meeting, if anyone was willing to share their story, she jumped at the chance and chatted away with me in rapid French as I struggled to catch everything that she said. Despite being slightly nervous, still turning my brain over to French and not having my interview notes, Madame Bassangouala told me her story with a wide smile.
Things started going downhill when her father married another woman and her mother fell sick. Left as the sole caretaker of her mother, trying to finish her schooling and without any money, Stella was working as best she could with at a market stand selling bags in marché total, one of the biggest markets in Brazzaville. One day it just so happened that a HOPE staff member was visiting a client in marché total and met Stella, telling her about what HOPE does, and how they give out small loans to entrepreneurs like herself. She decided to take him up on his offer of learning more about HOPE, and took out her first loan in 2011 of 250,000 CFAs, or about $500.
With that very first loan, Stella decided to diversify her business from simply selling bags to various other food items and purchased rice, flour and oil to sell as well. Her business did well and she was able to pay back all of her loan and out a second loan- this time 300,000 CFAs, about $600. With the income Stella was able to make after her first loan and this second cycle, she was able to open a small store. Then she took out a third loan with HOPE, purchasing additional goods to sell in her store: toiletries, sugar and other miscellaneous items. Madame Bassangouala was not one to just stop there however. She decided to expand her business from just a shop to a drink bar next door – using a forth loan to purchase a refrigerator, chairs and drinks to sell.
Stella was able to go from a small market stand just selling bags to her own store and drink bar – even owning her own property! “Everything is better!” she told me over the voices of other client repayment meetings going on all around the church. Stella was able to finish school, take care of her sick mother and now helps support a husband and three children.
I get the feeling Stella is the first of many incredible stories I’m going to hear during my time here in Congo. Here was a woman so excited to share her story with me, she didn’t even mind as my tongue tripped over words in French seeking the correct verb conjugation. She couldn’t wait to tell me about the impact that HOPE had in her life, and I was amazed to hear about her inventiveness and steadfast dedication. Running a business is not easy, let alone transitioning into a new one and expanding in multiple directions at once – that takes a certain boldness. The same boldness is evident in Stella’s declaration, “HOPE is my father and my mother.”
I made sure I had heard that right. HOPE was like her father and mother? It was a pretty bold statement. But it also made sense – Stella was able to completely change her life thanks to receiving business training and loans through HOPE. Is that a powerful testimony to the transformation of microfinance or what?
When I asked her about the future she smiled and immediately launched into yet another new business idea- she also wants to open a butcher’s shop. My guess is that she’ll accomplish that and move on to the next challenge.