As usual, I was the first to arrive at headquarters that morning in Dakar. Familiar with the lateness that ticks Senegal’s clock, I wondered when I would slow down now that I had chosen to be part of a team. As the other researchers arrived, fear and excitement converged. I went to the bathroom to fix my hair as if grooming would make imminent change less overwhelming.
With three colleagues, I was ushered into a white SUV that would take us to unknown Kedougou, a largely rural region over 350 miles away from the capital. We were going to study a microfinance project that provided women with new tools to save and autonomously manage their money. Like theories praising markets and businesses as the crux of poor women’s emancipation, laissez faire was the name of the game as rush hour thickened with near accidents and taxis beeping frustration. As we finally picked up speed in the open countryside I dozed off, soothed by a sense of purpose and the illusion of a linear trajectory.
A few hours later I awoke abruptly to the car’s screeching turns; the driver was navigating around potholes with varied success. The smoothly paved road had deteriorated into sand pits surrounded by patches of blacktop. At first I joked with my colleagues that we were on a bouncy amusement park ride. But the novelty quickly passed. That morning I had set out with a mental image of women with microfinance-funded sewing machines saving the world, eradicating poverty one colorfully designed garment at a time. But as I reconsidered that notion of development, I wondered how much change women could catalyze when facing structural problems like virtually impassable roads. While I valued the human contact that grassroots initiatives involved, the challenges that micro-entrepreneurs faced when transporting their goods to more profitable, outside markets were very real. Expanding access to financial services was important, but after my arduous voyage common goods like roads seemed like priorities worthy of investment too.
The First Meeting
We drove to the village of Niemenike, which would be my home for the next six weeks. Our hosts welcomed us into the courtyard of the Imam, the Islamic leader’s family compound, where the microfinance group members had been waiting. As everyone got settled, a project administrator from Dakar commented that the group’s trainer, Mariama, could have gotten a basketball scholarship to the States. Over six feet tall, Mariama hopped off her motorcycle and confidently shook our hands, striking me as a fish swimming between Western and African cultural waters. After the women started the meeting by summarizing their saving and lending rules, Mariama translated our questions about money management into the local tongue. In awe of the dialogue that Mariama was facilitating, I pledged to work towards such fluency.
The Imam wrapped up the meeting with a community prayer, and then the group president, Fatou, presented the research team with a clucking chicken as a token of the women’s thanks. One of my senior colleagues, Nabil, jumped in right away and declared that we could not accept the poultry offering. Mariama countered that gift exchange was a tradition we should respect. Nabil insisted that we couldn’t "let tradition kill the villagers." Accepting the gift would further impoverish the community our project was trying to help. Fatou argued that it was a gesture that recognized all that the microfinance program had brought to the village, but Nabil still refused. In the end, we compromised that Mariama would take the chicken home. I was embarrassed as the team drove away, covering the women and me in a cloud of dust. Left to learn about the village’s economy and to make the best of my simple surroundings, it would be the first of several encounters I experienced that were full of good intentions and cultural misunderstanding.
Without running water or electricity I adopted the villagers’ habit of rising and retiring with the sun, eventually establishing a routine that worked for me. About two weeks into my stay, I was wrapping up an interview when my host mother rushed in to announce that I should accompany her to the fields. At first I refused but at her stubborn insistence we headed out together. The sun was already burning in the sky at the outset of the two-mile trek. Not used to such heat, I became dizzy and faint. I detached from the discomfort, and arrived in the fields like a zombie too exhausted to speak. I sat under a large tree where older women tended to babies who were too little to be far from their mothers’ breasts but too big to be strapped onto their working backs. In the distance there was a large group of people steadily picking cotton in the fields. I became angry with my host mother for turning my perfectly productive morning into physical depletion. After a few sips of water I managed to gather my strength to head back home. As I walked I resented my host mother’s seemingly provincial behavior. Maybe there was some truth, I thought, to this idea of village backwardness that development experts bought into when they spoke of helping poor women from their air-conditioned offices back in Dakar.
Determined to get back on track the next morning, I ploughed forward with a new appreciation for the difficulty of women’s work. At the same time, unexpectedly, villagers were more open to my presence. At that time I attributed this change to the mere passage of time. My work progressed, and I gained a deeper sense of what I was looking for. From my interviews, I was surprised to learn that women tended to share small loans with their family members instead of directly investing in small business activities. While mainstream microfinance logic emphasized individual financial benefits and empowerment for female borrowers, such community dispersal showed that at least in this rural setting women preferred to invest in their social relationships. Theory was not translating into practice. Not yet able to put the pieces of the development puzzle together, I started to doubt the fruits yielded from the microfinance field I had learned to idealize back at home.
Eureka in the Cotton Fields
Like art critics who cannot paint, I worried about not being able to do that which I was studying. Interviews were fine for report writing, but I wanted to participate in daily life as well. A woman named Niary propelled me to action when she invited me to a kilé, a day of collective work. Her neighbor needed help harvesting her crop, and Niary’s job was to spread the word that a day had been set aside for the community to work together. She would pick me up on her way to the fields the next morning. I was nervous as I went to bed since I had been so fatigued the last time I had attempted to pitch in.
The next morning I rose early with the first rooster’s crow and waited, but as the sunrise burst into the sky and faded into soft morning streaks of light, Niary still did not come. I sliced gooey okra for my family’s lunch as I waited to join the next woman going to the fields. Soon one who could have been my grandmother passed by. Having exhausted our shared vocabulary through greeting exchange, we didn’t talk much as I skipped after her in the bush, impressed by this woman’s sprightliness.
We arrived in the fields just as the sun started to heat up. There were at least 25 women and a handful of men already hard at work. They were surprised to see me tie a scarf around my waist to gather the cotton I had only read about in history books on American slavery. Bent over picking prickly flowers, my mind rested for the morning as I got into the collective work rhythm. As the sweat poured down my back, a mental snapshot of my mother gardening in our Philadelphia backyard reminded me how far I had traveled to arrive at this precise intersection of space and time. I did not feel displaced, but very much at home.
For lunch, 75 people hunched around shared bowls of rice and bitter vegetables. Hard mint candies sweetened the transition back to the afternoon’s labor.
Just as I thought I could not work anymore, the women started singing softly. A few voices unfolded into a spontaneous chorus thanking each individual who had come to work that day. My throat tightened to hold back tears when I realized the women were including me in their song. I had actually managed to grasp membership in their group if only for a moment. Women broke out into electric dance circles, with legs flying and hands clapping that made me dance like no one was watching. My personal ambitions quieted. I was one only so far as I was part of a whole.
Walking back to the village at dusk, I hummed the call and response melody I had just learned. Clinging onto my assumption that self-interest motivates people to act, I asked my host sister what the payoff was for her presence in the field. "Other than the delicious lunch?" she joked half-seriously. She then explained the implicit bargain made when she volunteered a day’s labor in her neighbor’s field. In the future when she was in need, the owner of the cotton crop harvested today would return the favor. The same went for everyone else who had attended. It turned out that the social solidarity I had observed was rooted in the villager’s indebtedness to one another. Why I had instinctively felt bad about the chicken incident my first day in the village suddenly clicked. Like those who had volunteered for the workday, the women’s group president had been trying to invest in her future. Embedded in the gift had been a contract; in accepting, the development organization would have agreed to continue its work in the village as repayment. In refusing, we had sent the message that our work relationship was on unsteady ground. Flipping forward through the pages of my stay, I also saw why my host mother had insisted I go with her to the fields that hot morning a month before. She had been playing diplomat, knowing that if I publicly volunteered my labor the women would feel obligated to contribute to my toubab (white person) version of a cash crop. After all of my petty fuming, my host mother had helped me cultivate the gift-exchange relationships that made my interviews so successful. Through a web of reciprocal favors that was continually being spun, these villagers managed to find ways to put self-interest to work for the common good. Now that was a grassroots enterprise worth writing home about.
Back on the Road Again
Packing my bags to return to Dakar a few weeks later, I came across a photo of the women dancing in the fields that reminded me of the greatness of the lessons I would carry home with me. The individualized paradigm of income with which I had arrived here had obscured the villagers’ essential lesson; their wealth was not in the coins in their pockets. Rather, it was contained in their knowledge of what it meant to be a team player. Microfinance loans, along with any other development project, could only be understood in this context of social solidarity. While my research supervisors were concerned with how small loans generated personal income, women borrowers valued sharing whatever money they received with their family and friends. It was a choice between accumulating individual income and building community wealth.
Development turned inside out for me. Back in the West there was an excess of material resources that, incidentally, bought our harvested cotton at an unthinkably low price. But despite the fact that many of these women were living on much less than $1 per day, they were not needy victims by any standard. Instead, their quality of life was unquantifiable and harder to explain. I was ashamed that I had ever entertained the notion that the villagers were "backwards." Subsistence farmers certainly had their challenges, but their system for sharing was the most progressive and productive around.
Though my hopes for microfinance were still dampened in the face of broken infrastructure like roads, I focused on the positive. The microfinance project I had come here to study employed young people like Mariama, the village animator. It also created opportunities to travel for people like me. While I was still unsure of the exact financial benefits for women participants, such projects opened doorways for people from different backgrounds to work together. Perhaps the women said it best when they presented us with the gift we did not appreciate—they valued the program and wished for it to be a part of their lives. At least one thing was clear; I would not have traded my experience for all of the world’s riches. That kind of empowerment is simply not for sale.
To this day, the women’s song echoes the message that debt orders social reality and that everyone has something to contribute. Yet some days I worry that what I am doing to repay my teachers is not enough for the harmony they nurtured in me. On other days, this frustration acts as a productive force that pushes me forward. So, in solidarity with Niemenike, its brave women and their struggles, I write this knowing that words can only go so far when unaccompanied by action. Still, words are a beginning as I search for my next opportunity to act.