Saturday, June 16, 2007

Take the Money and Run

Cecelia stood beside me frantically pointing at the sky. “It’s going to rain,” she said anxiously. “I am leaving now.”

I looked behind me and saw thick black clouds racing across the sky towards us. She was right, it was definitely going to rain.

“Just wait a few more minutes Cecelia,” I said with mild amusement at her obvious alarm. “Your money will be ready very soon. There are only a few people left to receive their loans.”

“No, I have to go,” she said. “You collect the money and I’ll get it from you tomorrow.”

I was amazed at her anxiousness to leave. She had waited for weeks for this loan, but when faced with the choice of getting the loan that day, or escaping the impending rain, she was clearly prepared to leave the money behind.

I told her I could not collect her loan on her behalf; that if she wanted the money, she would have to wait.

Cecelia started pacing underneath the almond tree, a huge beautiful tree located in the front garden of the West Africa AIDS Foundation. Her faced was filled with worry and impatience. Finally the loan officer called her name.

“Cecelia Amaboe,” she called out. Cecelia almost tripped over herself in her hurry to reach the table. She grabbed the bag of money and quickly pressed her ink-covered finger on the page of the loan agreement. The first raindrops began to fall.

Without a backwards look, Cecelia stuffed her money in her purse and took off running. She gave a half wave over her shoulder and left the compound. Two minutes later, as she was running up the street to catch a bus, the skies opened.

After an eight-week delay, the income generating participants were finally going to receive their loans. Early in the afternoon on June 13th, we were all seated in a circle underneath the almond tree waiting for the microfinance institution to arrive. They were an hour late but this time had promised to come with money.

Because of the many weeks delay, many of the participants had all but given up on ever receiving the loans. As people living with HIV, they are used to being disappointed and rejected, and to them, this was another example.

The micro-credit institution’s excuse for the delay was complicated and difficult to accept. They told us they’d had to open a new account at a new bank and that this took weeks to complete. Then they explained that once the account was set up, the money for the loan, which had been given by a special government department, had mistakenly been sent back. Retrieving the money from the Ghanaian government was another long, bureaucratic task.

When the loan officers finally reached The West Africa AIDS Foundation, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. What mattered to everyone was that the money had finally arrived.

The loan officers sat at the top of the circle behind a wooden table with a stack of papers and bags of cash. One by one, the participants were called to the table. If they could read and write, they signed their name. If not, their thumbprint showed their identity.

The loan officers reminded them of the importance of paying back the loan.

“If you don’t pay back your loan on time,” one loan officer said, “You will start paying interest at 1.5% a day,” he said sternly. “And if you still don’t pay, we will come to your homes to find you. If that doesn’t work, we have the right to broadcast your name on the radio.”

I looked at the faces around the circle. All eyes were on the loan officer. They listened to every word. Their expressions told me that having their names broadcast on the radio for not repaying the loan would be the ultimate shame.

The loans were broken up into two types - working capital loans for business materials and supplies, and equity loans for equipment. The participants were allowed to take the working capital loans with them as none of them were larger that $400. The loan officers would hold on to the equity loans and go with the participants to buy the equipment directly.

I offered to take the equity loans for the bakery group and two other business owners to speed up the process. I could go with them to buy their equipment. With eight businesses and two loan officers, I was worried about how long it would take to buy all of the equipment.

The loan officer handed me the money. He gave me 25 million cedis in 10,000 denominations. I did a quick conversion and realized I was carrying about $3,000 in $1 bills. I filled half a small garbage bag with the cash.

As the final few received their working capital loans and the downpour began, everyone ran for cover. There was no power in the main office building, so we all sat with our bags of money in the dark waiting for the rain to let up.

We looked around for a taxi, but none could be found. Once the rain hit, I knew the taxis would be in high demand. I worried about carrying this much cash with me on the bus, but also couldn’t wait around all night for a taxi to appear.

The downpour slowly turned to a light rain, and I gathered my things to go. A few other participants covered their hair with plastic bags and we all headed for the door.

Within minutes we were soaked. The bag of money was so heavy I kept shifting it from one arm to the other. Finally I gave up, and put the bag on my head. We ran up the street towards the bus stop. Esther wore a green plastic bag on her head, Rebecca had a black bag covering her hair, and mine was covered with a bag of money.

Thankfully a bus came by just as we approached the bus stop, and we jumped in. We had our money, but were completely soaked. Cecelia was likely home by then. She was probably right to take the money and run.

- Janet


Anonymous said...

Hello Janet and Mark,

I just spent an hour reading the missed Diary of J&M. We were away for a while (getting married) and I just caught back on your trip. I definitely has now slowed down for you guys. I really appreciate all the efforts and the quality a narrative text that you send us. Looking forward to hear from you soon.
Patrick Sohy

Anonymous said...

Janet and Mark,
It is hard to imagine what these dear people have to do just to survive. You certainly are both so caring I am sure they must appreciateyour warmth and understanding.
Love, Mummy and Daddy

Anonymous said...

Happy Anniversary to you both!

All the best,

Becky, Michael, Sunny and Lawrence