Phil is in Liberia documenting the work of Foundation for Women (FFW), an organization that strives to continually support and encourage impoverished women, both globally and locally, by funding and creating microcredit programs. A longtime supporter of Phil and his work, Kevin Castner is traveling with him and reporting back to us from the field.
“What God has joined together let no man put assunder.” I photographed this on a poster in a Sinkor living room. Mama Liberia is very religious but the misspelling of the final word, coupled with ‘man’ earlier, also gives an unintended history lesson. Tribalism and greed, fueled by power and testosterone did indeed bring this country ass-under. Now, it is clawing its way back, a few rock piles and charcoal sacks at a time.
We hit a great trifecta when finishing the our last of our interviews while documenting the work of FFW. First up was Monica Flanjay, the center chief for both Fanta Town Matadi and New Matadi. She takes us into her home, down a hallway, and we sit, surprisingly, on part of an old, solid oak furniture set. There is history in this house. It has painted walls with pictures. There are lace curtains shading the light coming through the barred windows, and a TV in a corner. There are real windows, and the rooms have doors. Of course, another part of its history also shows. The electrical sockets are empty and the home is dark; the only light is natural. There is a landline telephone, the only one I have ever seen in a private home. I ask Monica if it works and she gives me the answer I’ve heard from many Liberians on similar topics, “Before the war……”. Monica used her first loan to buy cold water. Now, in the rainy season she sells charcoal. She takes us to her warehouse, tells us she buys 200-300 bags at a time. Her success means she only sells wholesale, doesn’t have to break big bags into little bags. She’s moving up market.
After our talk we thread our way through her neighborhood, which she estimates at 15,000 people or so, and I reflect on the speed of my changing perceptions. Three weeks ago I might have been put off by the dirt, or lack of light, or the rundown furniture and shabby, many times repaired, faded cushions. But after the squalor of West Point the ‘grinding poverty’ I described so long ago when I first arrived now seems middle class, and Monica’s home a veritable oasis. As I am reminded again and again, everything is relative.
At New Matadi we sit down with Angeline Reeves. She was introduced to Foundation For Women by Korpo Zayzay, the center manager for Fanta Town (together the ‘Matadi’s’ have 45 women in the program). Angeline has been in the FFW program for over a year and she describes exactly what she’s done with her loans. She used her first, 6,000 Liberian Dollar (LB) loan to buy dried fish and sell them around her neighborhood. She paid that off and borrowed 9,000LB and got into the timber (‘plank’) business with her fiancé, who lives in the bush. She paid off that loan and borrowed 12,000LB (about $170USD) which she has used to buy inventory to stock a storefront selling fabrics on the local high road. Angeline is a serial entrepreneur.
Next, we drive to Wroto Town. I’ve been here before and it is nice to meet Felicia Shipper again, the center leader. She is bright and articulate, humorous and out-going. She is such a natural leader, in fact, I wonder what she could have done if she had had other opportunities.
All three of these women have used their FFW loans to improve their lives, the lives of their families, their communities, and send all their respective children to school. At least two of them are going or planning to go to University themselves and get degrees. The FFW loans have done far more than just help these women feed their families. The loans have given them self-confidence and helped them to dream (their word) of a better future they can help themselves and their country achieve. These women have every right to be proud.