7am. Early enough in the morning that clouds still covered the sky and the air was cool. Children in blue and white uniforms walk to school and Brazzaville is waking up. Breakfast in Brazzaville depends on where you live. Some people prefer bread and eggs, others substitute manioc for the bread, and then you have one of the most bizarrely cross-cultural meals I have witnessed: spaghetti with beans and mayonnaise. Some of my colleagues eat it for breakfast, and the bite I had was surprisingly good.
One of my favorite Congolese breakfast items though would have to be beignets. In the US we’ve probably only heard the word “beignet” in reference to New Orleans – essentially a doughnut with powdered sugar on top. Here, beignets and riz-au-lait (sweet rice in milk) are made by Congolese mamas all around Brazzaville early in the morning, and on this particular morning I was finally going to try some of Mama Ghislaine’s beignets.
Driving through the still-sleepy streets of Brazzaville to arrive in the district of Ouenzé, HOPE’s driver M. Adrien and I spied the street corner where Mama Ghislaine’s neighbors pointed us and hoped out of the car. As soon as she saw me, Ghislaine waved and broke into a smile, quickly greeting M. Adrien and I in French, “Hello Mara! How are you?” She graciously ushered us over to her covered stand and chatted away answering my various questions. Three types of freshly made beignets lay before us on platters- smaller, denser banana beignets, medium-sized flour beignets, and finally beignets twisted into a knot called “patachou.” Their sweet smell drifted up towards me and my stomach grumbled.
Making up a new batch of the regular flour beignets, Mama Ghislaine walked me through the process, “First you make up the batter- it’s just flour, a little bit of sugar, yeast, and a pinch of salt.” A handful of this liquid batter is scooped up in a well-practiced motion by Ghislaine and thrown into a large pot of oil to crisp the outside and cook the soft interior. Turning them over to over to brown the other side, Mama Ghislaine left the batter to cook while she served some passing clients- mothers with their infants securely fastened to their backs with a swath of cloth and school children clutching their 100 CFA coins.
As customers left clutching their newspaper-wrapped purchases, Ghislaine scooped up the freshly cooked beignets using a giant spoon full of holes for the oil to drain through, and placed them in their respective basket. She slid them back onto the table still steaming and asked if I wanted to taste them. Mama Ghislaine has been perfecting her recipes for years and I couldn’t wait to try them.
Even before starting with HOPE Congo Ghislaine made beignets in the morning. With a family of five children to support and now a grandson, Ghislaine started out with just a table selling beignets, fruits and vegetables. It was in 2011 that she first learned about HOPE and took out a loan of 250,000 CFA ($500) which she invested into her food stand, purchasing flour and sugar for her beignets and additional fruits and vegetables. She was able to make a profit off her investment and found herself on a second loan cycle – and this time she started her first ever savings account.
“Now I have a bank account!” she told me proudly, “Something I’ve never done before.” Her first savings account ever, opened as a grandmother. HOPE lets clients open savings accounts for free, charging no interest but providing a safe place where people can save their money, something many have never done before. Through client training sessions with HOPE, Ghislaine learned how to effectively manage her savings and other business expenses. Soon after, Ghislaine began to diversify her business. It was difficult to make a profit solely selling food, which spoils quickly, so Ghislaine started buying cloth to make custom clothing orders. Here the word is “pagnes,” which refers to the brilliantly colored and pattern fabric traditional clothing for women and men is made out of.
With her third and forth loans of 350,000 CFA ($700) and 400,000 CFA ($800) respectively, Ghislaine bought cloth and food in bulk, simultaneous running both businesses out of her home. Life became more stable. She was able to keep her children in a good school and buy better food. With loan number five Ghislaine continued to expand, buying a refrigerator, drinks, water, and yogurt to sell cold. She is now on her sixth loan with HOPE and is bursting with creative plans for the future.
A convenience store, a restaurant…”I’ll need at least three refrigerators for that, but I have one already so I’ll only need to buy two,” she mused aloud. Ghislaine has it all planned out already. A perfume shop, a butcher’s store, the ideas tumbled out one after the other eventually turning into her dreams for a better future for herself and her children. She dreams of her children all finishing their studies at the top of the class, and of one day being able to travel herself.
Yet Ghislaine’s impact hasn’t just stopped with herself and her family, it touched others in her community. Mama Ghislaine also makes bissap juice (made from hibiscus leaves) and employs two others to go around selling it. In her words, “Now I can contribute [to my community], now I can help” – two other people are now bringing an income into their homes. Ghislaine’s daughter Saraelle was even inspired to join a BACO group at HOPE, although she is currently on pause so that she can finish her studies.
In fact, another one of her daughters, Nadine, was helping her cook the beignets that morning. I requested a mixed bag so I could try all three kinds, passed a bag along to M. Adrien and we received a surprise as Mama Ghislaine pressed two bottles of cold homemade ginger juice on us, “You have to try it!” she said. Cool and slightly spicy, the ginger juice was refreshing alongside the still-warm beignets. I could do this every morning.
With promises to come and visit one of her group’s repayment meetings soon, I wistfully waved goodbye clutching my bag of beignets. Mama Ghislaine thanked me for coming, but it was I who was thankful. Her story embodies what HOPE is all about- giving people an opportunity and watching them run with it. It was humbling and beautiful to witness and experience her generosity and warm welcome. One small, simple thing that struck me: with everything Ghislaine is managing, she still remembered my name.