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Where Credit Is Due

Karen Schaefer

“Will you join our club, Mama Karen?”

My friend, Mama Komunte, approached me with this offer shortly after I’d set up house in the village of Mzumbe in Tanzania. Quite the entrepreneur, she had introduced herself to me even before I’d officially moved in. During a brief site visit taken halfway through Peace Corps’ in-country training, she had offered me twice-weekly Kiswahili lessons at her home after school, for a small fee. She was in her 40s, about 10 years younger than me, a mother of four, friendly, ambitious—and nobody’s patsy.

“What club is that?” I said.

“It’s the Mzumbe Women Workers’ Club.”

“And what do you do in your club?” I asked, assuming it was a social club, something like the “Women Who Read Too Much Book Club” that I had abandoned when I departed for Tanzania.

“We take dues,” Mama Komunte replied.

Several seconds beat by as I waited for her to elaborate. And? I thought. Surely the purpose of the club was not simply to take dues. But nothing followed. When it became clear Mama Komunte had no further explanation, I asked, “So what will you do with the dues?”

“We will give them to one of the club members,” Mama Komunte said, as if this should be obvious.

“You will give them to a club member,” I repeated. Clearly, I didn’t get it.

Mama Komunte looked at me as she might a not-too-swift child. The newly formed Mzumbe Women Workers’ Club, she explained, had 13 members, 14 now—she indicated me—all of them teachers or staff at Mzumbe Secondary School. Dues were 2,000 shillings a month. Each month a different club member would receive the lump sum of the one month’s entire club dues.

This baffled me. “But you will only be getting your money back,” I said. “You could simply save your 2,000 shillings for 14 months and pay yourself the same amount.” Was I missing something? Though I had been a high school teacher most of my adult life and knew virtually nothing about business or investing, like most Americans, I had the innate belief that the whole idea behind money was to make it grow.

“Yes, but you don’t understand,” Mama Komunte continued. “It’s not possible for us to save money. If it’s in the house, someone will spend it. Our husbands will find it and use it to buy beer or we will need it for school fees or medicine for one of the children. This way, once in a while, we will have some money to buy something nice. Maybe a pretty tablecloth or a new set of dishes.”

Still, I couldn’t leave it alone. “But you will make no progress,” I protested. “You should use the dues money to make more money.” True, I hadn’t a clue how this could be done, but, even though I was now apparently a member of the club, the whole thing struck me as pointless.

“Come to the meeting tomorrow afternoon,” Mama Komunte replied. “Tell us how. You are American. Americans know how to make money. We Tanzanians don’t know that. Mama Karen, you must teach us how to be businesswomen.”

The next afternoon, after the last class of the day, all 14 members of the Mzumbe Women Workers’ Club gathered in the staff room. The first order of business was to appoint officers. Mama Komunte, who had taken it upon herself to run the meeting anyway, was named president. Mama Kihombo, the chemistry teacher, became the club secretary. The school’s bookkeeper was appointed treasurer. Dutifully, we all handed her our 2,000 shillings. She recounted it just to be sure. There, in a pile on a scuffed wooden desk, lay 28,000 shillings—close to $50 and nearly a month’s salary for an Mzumbe teacher. Now it was time to determine who would be the lucky first recipient. Mama Kihombo, as secretary, wrote the numbers 1 through 14 on slips of paper, carefully folding each one before dropping it into a small basket. One by one, each woman withdrew a folded slip from the basket. Mama Macha, the school librarian, the first to draw, squealed with delight and held high the number two—next month, the pile would be hers. The high spirits spread as women who drew low numbers beamed at their good fortune and those who drew high numbers laughed at their ill luck.

When the basket reached me, I shook my head. It just didn’t seem right to take their money. Logically, of course, I understood it was my money, too, but I had seen how hard these women worked for so little reward. Comparatively, even on my Peace Corps stipend, I possessed a small fortune.

“No, no, Mama Karen,” everyone insisted. “You have to take a number. You are a member of the club. Everyone must take a number.”

I knew I had no good argument, and reluctantly, I complied. A roomful of eyes fastened on me as I unfolded my slip of paper and held up what I’d drawn—14, the highest possible number. The room pealed with laughter, mine mingling with the rest; I’d be the very last to receive the cash.

Fourteen months passed quickly. What with preparing lessons and teaching classes, studying Kiswahili, winnowing rice, planting a garden, making friends, I thought little about the windfall due me until shortly before one of our monthly meetings when Mama Komunte re-minded me that my turn was next.

My dilemma resurfaced. I didn’t want to take the club members’ money, and it still felt like their money to me, even though, by then, I had paid into the club exactly the amount of dues I would receive. But there was nothing I needed for my house, and anyway, in another year, I’d be leaving Mzumbe and would only have to get rid of anything I purchased.

That night, I thought about it. I knew Mama Komunte would never accept my outright refusal of the money. So the next day I approached her in the staff room during the morning tea break with a proposal.

“I’ll take the money,” I told her. “But then I want to put it in a savings account to keep for the club members so that when they need some money to buy medicine for a child or for some other emergency they can take it from the savings account.”

Mama Komunte lit up. “That’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “Then they will pay back the money to the savings account with interest.”

I hadn’t thought about interest. I hadn’t even thought about paying it back. “Well,” I said, “I guess so.”

“Yes. That is what we will do. That way, we will have more money later for more women to borrow when they need it.”

So Mama Komunte rode the daladala (local bus) into Morogoro and deposited the 14th month’s dues in the brand-new Mzumbe Women Workers’ Club Savings Account. It all worked surprisingly well. During the next few months, several club members borrowed small amounts of money and faithfully paid it back with small amounts of interest.

And that might have been the end of it if an announcement hadn’t arrived one day in a packet of correspondence from the Peace Corps office in Dar es Salaam. I took the flyer with me to the next Mzumbe Women Workers’ Club meeting.

“The Friends of Tanzania* are offering grant money to women’s groups,” I announced. “Up to 300,000 shillings. All we have to do is think of a business to start.”

Everyone put their minds to it. We talked about it during tea break. We talked about it when we met crossing the school grounds. We talked about it when we saw each other in the market. But nothing seemed practical. The librarian, Mama Macha, already had her hands full frying the mandazi (donut-like snack) she sold to students during tea break. Besides teaching chemistry, Mama Kihombo raised chickens and sold their eggs in the market in Morogoro to augment her meager school salary. Our club treasurer kept a family cow and sold milk and yogurt. Mama Komunte stitched and embroidered colorful antimacassars (cloth) that she sold for wedding gifts. The school secretary man-aged the village restaurant. The grant deadline was fast approaching, but each woman, it seemed, already ran a small business in addition to her school job and was heavily burdened with work, chores, and family responsibilities. There was no time for another business.

“I know what we will do,” Mama Komunte proclaimed at the next club meeting. “We will do what Mama Karen has taught us.”

I was startled, unable to imagine what that could be.

“Our business will be a credit union,” Mama Komunte continued. “We will put the money we receive from this grant from the Friends of Tanzania in our savings account. With that money we can build up our businesses. For instance, one day when Mama Kihombo wants a new chicken house, she can borrow money from our credit union to buy the materials. Then she will have more chickens and more money from the eggs she sells, and she will pay the money back with interest. Our credit union will get bigger and bigger as our businesses get bigger and bigger.”

For several afternoons, Mama Komunte and Mama Kihombo huddled in the staff room and wrote the grant. When it was finished, they handed it to me to proofread and mail off to Friends of Tanzania, in time, we hoped, to meet the deadline. Two weeks before my departure from Mzumbe, we received word. Our proposal had been funded.

The last I heard the credit union was going strong. In a letter from Mama Komunte, I learned that, with their growing funds, the Mzumbe Women Workers’ Club had broken ground on a new preschool for the village children. They named it, she told me, Karen Kindergarten.

*Returned Peace Corps Volunteers often join or form a “Friends of…” group for their country of service. These groups stay involved with country projects both abroad and in the States.

Karen Schaefer (Tanzania)

Karen Schaefer served as a secondary school mathematics teacher in Tanzania from 1996-1998. She joined the Peace Corps following a career as a high school mathematics teacher. She and Mama Komunte continue to seek ways to improve maternal healthcare in the village of Mzumbe.

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