A spotted sow stirred from her slumber, grunting an annoyed warning at a hen with her brood of peeping chicks that scratched and pecked a bit too close for comfort. Three lanky dogs, obviously from the same parentage, dozed and scratched alternately, oblivious to the circle of chattering humans that surrounded them. Squatty trees that canopied the clearing provided welcome relief from the oppressive Nicaraguan sun. But the peasant villagers that gathered this Saturday afternoon were not here for shade or socializing. They had serious business on their minds. This was the weekly meeting of their community trust bank. Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs, twenty-seven members — all women — were here to report on their week of business activity. At a wobbly folding table their elected treasurer collected payments on the small loans they had corporately guaranteed for each other. They considered with banker-like scrutiny several new loan requests from their members, loans to expand a fruit stand, to invest in another sewing machine, to purchase a larger cart for hauling produce. On a flip chart tacked to a tree they tallied up the personal savings each had deposited. Three years of careful investing in their various grassroots enterprises, three years of conscientiously repaying their small loans, had earned them the confidence of Opportunity International — a faith-based micro-finance program. They were now poised for larger loans that could move them one more step up from the dirt-poor existence their families had always known.
Clustered outside the circle of chairs were six men, their uncomfortable silence revealing that they were not regular attendees at trust bank meetings. They waited patiently for a spot on the agenda. Hearing a lull in the discussion, the elder of the group raised his hand and asked for permission to speak. He did not have to introduce himself. Everyone knew his name. His gray hair identified him as one who had outlived most of the others in the village. “You know who I am,” he began in a soft voice. Heads nodded in the affirmative. “You know how many years I have tried to get water to our village.” More head nods but the women were not giving him eye contact. “Why will no one come to my meetings anymore?” Most of the women stared at the ground. A couple of them rolled their eyes at each other. It was obvious that the women had heard this speech before — many times — and none of them seemed particularly interested in hearing it again.
For twenty years the old man had been trying to get water to the village. And for twenty years hope in the village had soared, then plummeted with an endless series of successes and setbacks. Year after year the old man pushed and cajoled township officials, state representatives, aid agencies and anyone else who would listen. And his accomplishments were actually quite noteworthy. He had gotten a well drilled, a well with an ample supply of pure water, and had secured a pump strong enough to fill a large water tank, which he had also procured. He had rallied the men of the village to lay pipe to every home, complete with meters, no less. He had persuaded the regional utility company to run electricity to the village, enough to light each home as well as run the water pump. But one hurdle after another had stalled the project and there had been long delays. And now, once again, he had encountered an obstacle. How many times these women had heard this same story they could not count. But it was obvious from their body language that they were not about to get their hopes up again. The old man was getting very gray and most of the villagers wondered — at least to themselves — if he had the energy, the competence, to ever finish the task. There was gossip that he had mishandled funds, rumors that further eroded confidence in the old man. There were reasons why no one attended his meetings anymore.
“All that is needed is to replace the two inch pipe in the well with three inch. And exchange the pump for one that will run on our electricity. Then we will all have water.” The men beside him nodded their support but the women remained stone-faced. More costly missteps. There would certainly be no more government grant money available for this mismanaged project. An engineer in Managua, the old man continued, had offered to draw up a plan as well as a proposal for more funding but he required $100 up front and there was no money to hire him. A long uncomfortable silence.
Finally a female voice broke the silence. “How much are you paying for water?” The question came from a newcomer in the circle, a blond haired gringo woman who had just moved into the area from the States to serve the village as a community developer. The women knew well the cost of filling a 50 gallon drum at the closest water station four miles away. But there were too many variables to give a precise cost estimate of the time involved in hauling the drums on oxcart or horseback to and from the station — rain, muddy road conditions, the availability of a school-age child old enough to make the trip, village men who would do it for a price. “Would you be willing to pay some of that money for water piped to you homes?” Suddenly every eye was focused on the gringo lady. There was indeed money for water in this village. The women had just been calculating it. Perhaps there was no need to wait for another outside grant to fund the project. The women had earnings from their businesses. And savings!
“What would it cost to finish the water system?” the blond haired woman asked the old man. He fumbled with some figures on prices for additional pipe and the cost of adapting or exchanging the water pump — numbers that elicited no confidence from the women. Finally, he admitted with a sad humility, “I don't know my numbers.” Of course, how could one who had never gone to school be expected to calculate mathematical formulas required for an engineering project of this complexity? Linear feet of pipe, electrical estimates, transportation costs for material, engineering consultants. It was amazing that he had gotten as far as he had with the project.
“But the women here do know their numbers,” the blond lady declared. All eyes were again on her. “What if the men and women were to join together and form sort of a water commission to make decisions and handle the money?” Villagers were now leaning forward in their chairs. A new possibility was dawning on them. Perhaps they had among themselves the capacity to hire reliable consulting expertise, develop a realistic budget, implement a workable plan, and both manage and maintain their own water system — and fund it themselves! The very thought triggered a collective adrenalin surge.
“Let’s just get the doggone thing done!” real estate developer friend David Allman whispered in my ear. We had been sitting for two hours in the oppressive heat on the periphery of the circle observing the process and listening through an interpreter. The progress seemed agonizingly slow and inefficient. My gosh, it had taken them twenty years to get to this point! At this rate it might take them another twenty to get water. A simple project like this could be knocked out in less than a month! Get a civil engineer down here, assess the situation, order the materials, write a check, get it done. It was a no-brainer!
“Oh, no,” our community developer warned us as we rumbled away from the village in our hired bus. “Do it for them and it takes away their ownership and responsibility. A loan, perhaps.” The progress could certainly be accelerated, she admitted, by the infusion of some outside capital — a loan that could be repaid through water bills, not a gift. And the involvement of a community organizer would help to facilitate the process. If we could help them identify a reliable engineer to assist them in getting the proper materials and equipment, that would be a big help. But never do it for them. When the people do for themselves, that’s when they become truly empowered. They’ll collect their own water bills and have money to operate the system, money for maintenance and repairs as well. If the system malfunctions, they won’t just sit on their hands waiting for some outsiders to come and fix it for them. And they might even be able to convince the township officials to supply the electricity for the pump. After all, they are taxpayers.
The old man may become the village hero yet. But it will not be as a result of a group of compassionate capitalists with big hearts and ample bank accounts coming in and taking over his project. It may happen in his lifetime, however, because a few resourced friends have the patience to listen carefully, the sensitivity to offer support wisely and perhaps even anonymously, and the God-given wisdom to leave the dignity of the village intact.