Adventures in Micro-Finance

[pullquote align=”left”]Every year for Tabaski, families gather to celebrate when Abraham offered to sacrifice his son to God in a show of devotion. [/pullquote]In West Africa, families slaughter a ram in celebration; the larger the ram, the better. Around Tabaski season, rams line the roads in herds that easily number in the hundreds, often guarded by a lone shepherd who is responsible for the care and eventual sale of his peculiar all-male flock. Rams are an investment, and large rams are incredibly expensive, often costing several months’ salary.  Rams are the social equivalent of sports cars; if one owns a well-kept ram, one is perceived as wealthy and privileged.

But this isn’t really a story about Tabaski, it’s an adventure in micro-finance.

The American concepts of savings, loans, and credit rarely apply in the Senegalese setting. As soon as funding is available, purchases are made. Sometimes this is taken to an extreme; even construction is completed in tiny increments. Partially completed homes waiting for the next load of 15 bricks dot neighborhoods. Purchasing holiday goods can be a strain, especially for families consisting of one husband, up to 4 wives, and multiple children.

Around Tabaski this year, some friends and I traveled to Thies, a city near the capital. We took a sept-place, a station wagon in American terms, used to seat seven people and any animals they need to move ranging from chickens to rams. After paying for our ride, a considerably large sum, we hit the road. Within minutes our driver pulled over at a gas station. We waited for the arrival of what turned out to be a his first Tabaski purchase: a large ram. It was promptly stuffed into a rice sack and tied to the top of the car. Within 25 kilometers, we stopped again to purchase a sack of charcoal from a lone man selling a single bag on the side of the road. A few kilometers later, our driver stopped to buy watermelons, then again to buy peanuts, and again to buy kosam (a milk product).  All-in-all, about an hour was added on to our trip due to shopping.

Finally, we arrived, and it turned out the driver and his families lived in Thies. Before we could be dropped off, we had to deliver the holiday meal to his two families, who lived in two separate households in town. We stopped at his first house, and he began unloading the watermelons, peanuts, wrapped meat, charcoal, and other goodies that he had stashed in the cracks between our backpacks and suitcases. He had a sweet wife and several adorable daughters which appeared ecstatic over the arrival of their father and the purchases. Next, we rode across town to meet his other wife and sons who unloaded the shell-shocked ram that had endured the 8 hour trip stuffed in a rice sack. I couldn’t tell who was more overwhelmed- the ram or the teenaged boys who had just received the black and white ram with curled horns and a prominent round nose.

That’s when it hit us: We had just financed a big chunk of this family’s Tabaski meal. Within one day, and with the help of one car of travelers, he had made all of the major purchases expected of him. This was the Senegalese spending model in action—his entire wages vanished, invested in a ram and side dishes. He ensured a protein and nutrient-rich meal for his family and maintained his social standing within the town by bringing back this haul.

We followed our money through an entire spending cycle: from our own pockets to the food on a family’s table. Rarely do we meet the people our money impacts down the line and glimpse into the lives we affect with our purchasing power.  During our adventure in micro-finance, we met the charcoal maker, the melon seller, the peanut picker, and finally, the family that benefited from their father’s wages. Within this system, one is more intimately connected with the people that provide services, food, and products. There is a communal sense to shopping. We introduce our friends to good service providers, and they, in turn, introduce us to their children. We know their homes, and they know ours. And in this way, every person that buys or sells is always on the verge of an adventure in micro-finance.

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