By Katherine Mueller, IFRC
At the age of 66, Mary Chitsilu is as feisty as ever. Living up to her name which is said to mean ‘silly’ in the local Malawian language, it is Mary who is at the forefront of a dancing and singing group of women in a small village in Mwanza district. Her energy seems limitless, and it serves her well during the current food insecurity crisis.
This part of southern Malawi has been hard hit by the on-going El Niño-induced drought. Yields are down by up to 60 per cent, particularly among the staple maize crops, but millet and sorghum have also been affected. Across the country, an estimated 6.5 million people, or 39 per cent of the population, are in dire need of emergency food assistance. With the potential of a La Nina weather phenomenon to bring heavy rains in the coming months, food challenges for tens of thousands of families are expected to continue well into 2017.
But Mary, and her neighbours in Ilemba village are better able to cope with the lack of food, and higher prices for the food that does exist, because of a grassroots savings and loans project. “I’m feeling very, very good. I’m a happy woman,” she says, while taking a break from sweeping the front entrance to her new brick home.
Introduced by the Malawi Red Cross Society, with support from the Finnish Red Cross, the project brings together women in the village who, on a weekly basis, each contribute 1,000 Kwacha ($1.37 US dollars) to a communal pot, along with 100 Kwacha (.14 US cents) which goes into a welfare fund. The women then borrow from the communal pot, with the understanding they must pay back the loan with interest in the coming months. The women, trained on how to manage the money and keep the books, pay close attention to ensuring their records are accurate. To date, no one has reneged on a loan. One woman borrowed funds to install cement floors in her home. One opened the village’s only shop. Mary built a new house.
“My old house was in very bad condition, built with mud and packed with grass. I had problems with ants. Last year, they ate my entire roof,” says Mary. “The house was about to fall and kill my mother. I decided to join the savings and loans group so I could start constructing a better house.”
Over the course of five months, Mary borrowed 250,000 Kwacha ($343 US dollars) with which she burned bricks, hired a builder, and purchased iron sheeting for the roof. She also bought food for her elderly mother. “I was able to pay back the loan because we used to have small tangerines in this area which I would sell in nearby villages.”
Today, with the new house constructed, curtains hang in the windows, and potted plants line a pathway for visitors to her front door. Money she would have spent on making repeated repairs to her previous thatched roof or mud walls, is now used to ensure she and her mother are adequately fed – even during times of consecutive failed harvests.
“This loans group means we don’t need to wait for men to help anymore,” says Mary. “Us women are now more independent and we sleep without any problems,” she adds before dashing off to lead the women’s group in another round of dancing and singing.