The sun in Brazzaville covers the city like a blanket of heat. Drying muddy puddles after a heavy rain, warming up concrete buildings and burning your skin. One particular day a few months ago the same sun was blazing down as I stepped out the HOPE Congo gate, clanging the metal door behind me as I squinted at the dirt road.
It was a bit of a walk to get where we were going: down the dirt roads of OCH, a more peaceful neighborhood that hosts our headquarters, and out to main boulevard where noise and crowds rush at your senses. Past the odd-traffic patterns with a traffic circle that barely deserves the name, having just enough space for a policeman to stand on, and over the train tracks where small stands and businesses start to spring up selling everything from pineapples and mangos to clothing and car parts. Green taxis and busses whiz past my left, stirring up clouds of dust from the road that fall down gently, covering everything with a layer of grit. Bright blue is the first thing that grabs your attention about her shop: it welcomes you into the store on the doors and pulls your eyes toward the shelves of pens, notebooks and chalk.
This is Christie’s school and office supplies shop, bright and cheery with the odd dolphin stuffed animal hanging from the ceiling. The first time I found myself here was back in March, but I haven’t been able to keep away. She does have the best inky black pens after all. Yet it is Christie’s contagious smile and her creativity that keeps me coming back to see what else has changed; what she added to her shop and what new employees are now working for her. It wasn’t long ago that the dream of a shop like this wasn’t even on the horizon. Back in 2011, Christie worked in the markets of Brazzaville selling miscellaneous food items such as fruit, rice and beans. So when she took out her first small loan with HOPE, it went towards purchasing more of those items. Market prices fluctuated constantly and having a steady income was difficult. Thus when food items weren’t selling as well in the markets as they used to, and Christie decided to begin branching out.
On her next loan of 250,000 CFA she continued to purchase food items in bulk and then divide them up into smaller packets, but she also began to buy items like soap and candles. On her third and forth loan with HOPE Christie saw a new market: school and office supplies. Why not branch out even further from home goods? And so she began buying paper and ink cartridges. On her fifth loan cycle, Christie graduated from a community bank group with HOPE to a solidarity group that gives larger loans. With this transition and a new dream fixed in her mind, Christie opened up her own shop on a main road.
When I last visited Christie a few weeks ago, she was just finishing up her seventh loan cycle and it showed in her shop. Three computers and two printers occupy the counters. School and office supplies line the shelves. Christie proudly showed me her new laser printer that she purchased with her most recent loan, explaining how it lets her print in color, a rare service in Brazzaville, and that she can now print quality imagines quickly. Brunel is one of her employees who knows me now, and always greets customers with a big smile. In addition to Brunel and his ever-present baseball cap, Christie has another full time employee and an intern that she is training. She frequently takes on other young adults as interns, paying them a small monthly salary for their work.
As I was catching up with Brunel and Christie, a torpedo of energy ran into the room and threw himself on Christie’s lap – that would be her three-year-old Moïse. In addition to being a businesswoman, Christie is also a mom. She proudly told me how her first daughter just recently passed her school exams and is staring high school. The success of Christie’s business has also had an effect on her marriage: her husband now sees her as a main contributor to the family’s income. Since starting with HOPE she has made enough extra income to be able to purchase her own car, and it one of the few women in Brazzaville to drive.
This car has been a blessing not only to her, but also to the rest of her family. In August her mother became extremely ill in the middle of the night, and there are no ambulances in Brazzaville available for someone of limited income. Yet because of her car, Christie was able to take her mother to the hospital in time to receive care and make a recovery. A similar situation happened with Christie’s sister in law who was pregnant and having complications. Christie was able to get her to the hospital when nobody else could.
It seems like Christie constantly dreams of creative ways she can advance her business. She prints up advertisement flyers and gives out her own business card. She offers a typing and printing service for students. Now she has come up with the new idea of expanding to start a Cyber Café, a creative solution that will both compliment her current business and cater to her clients (students and business owners).
Christie told me that, “Today, I’m a business woman thanks to HOPE!” – but she is so much more than a business woman. Christie is an entrepreneur, a mother, an innovator and a friend. So I went back outside in the bright sunshine, clutching my newly purchased pen and detaching myself from little Moïse, and I realized that there are some client’s smiles I’ll always remember.