Monday, March 18, 2013

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

          Last week was a very, very good one. For starters, the women’s soymilk cooperative sold out of soymilk in less than 2 hours on Wednesday! Emboldened by our success, we decided to make more soymilk and add an additional day selling at the market on Saturday. And we sold out in just 2 hours again, and still had customers in the store wanting to buy some. I was elated. I really, really feel like the women have stepped up their game. They elected a president of the cooperative, and they now arrive early in the morning to come make soymilk, with very little supervision from me.

The cooperative in action! 
What changed between this week and the last one, when we only broke even? We decided to go big or go home. Translation: I asked the priests if we could borrow the church’s microphone on market days to advertise the soymilk and its benefits. Ask and you shall receive, indeed. And the guy who does the advertising for us is pretty hilarious as well; he says things like, “Give soymilk to your children and they will become fat like Americans!” Secondly, we started selling bread along with the soymilk. Many Rwandans love to eat bread and hot tea, and since we serve the soymilk hot in mugs, we thought they’d like bread and hot soymilk as well. And third, we put up a bunch of signs advertising the soymilk and its benefits. The approach seems to be working. The women and I are all very excited about it, and people sometimes come up to me when I’m walking around the village during the week and ask if they can buy soymilk or show them how to make it.

So given how well the soymilk has been selling, I thought everyone was happy about our success and everything was fine. Silly Peace Corps Volunteer! Why would success come that easily?! On Saturday morning, Sr. Agnes, who works on the soymilk project with me, wanted to talk. She explained that she and my other counterpart Felix think I made “a big mistake.” Earlier in the week, after we made a profit from the soymilk, I paid each of the women their share of the proceeds. My counterpart Felix said that it was “against their culture.” Come again? He repeated that I shouldn’t give money to the women and that I don’t understand Rwandan culture. He recommended that I buy sugar or something and give it to the women as payment. I thought he must be crazy (and a huge chauvinist as well). I asked him if HE was paid in sugar, and he just laughed.

Our little store
As it turns out, I apparently know nothing about Rwandan culture after living here for 10 months. Sr. Agnes explained that I shouldn’t give money to the members of the cooperative, because they won’t spend it on their starving kids but will go buy banana beer with it. She actually saw one of the women in the cooperative going to a bar after I gave them the money, despite the fact that she has a severely malnourished child. I was incredulous. How could a woman watch her own children literally starve to death instead of buying them food? Sr. Agnes explained that, sadly, many poor women in my village have the mentality that children are replaceable. If a woman has eight children and can’t feed them, if one dies, she is more or less apathetic because she still has seven mouths to feed. Sr. Agnes said that I do not understand their mentality because I am rich, educated, and American, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a life with few choices forced upon me. I don’t have to decide between buying health insurance or sending my children to secondary school. I don’t have to pick which of my children can have food today. I have not lived through genocide. I don’t have an abusive husband. I’m not an alcoholic. The entire thing shocked and saddened me. But she was right: there are so many things that I do not know.

President of the Cooperative, Julliette
Sr. Agnes continued that they had tried giving the mothers some food supplements (like Plumpynut, a sweet peanut butter type product with lots of vitamins), but some of the mothers had been caught selling it so they don’t give it to the women anymore. The injustice of the whole system made my heart ache, especially for the children. And I assume that it’s not every single woman, but the few spoil it for everyone. Sr. Agnes said, “If you continue to give money to the members of the cooperative, you will increase their income, but you will be doing nothing for their malnourished children.” I was upset that my two counterparts never—in five months of planning this project---mentioned that paying the women might be a bad idea, and that they waited until I had already paid the members to tell me that they weren’t happy about it. But I knew that being upset with my counterparts wouldn’t do anyone any good, and that our goal is still the same: to help the kids who currently are in the red zone (extremely malnourished) get to the healthy zone. 

So the solution we’ve come up with has several parts: instead of payment in money, the women will get the soy “fiber” that’s left after making soymilk (we usually have several pounds of it) to cook for their families, they’ll be able to take soymilk home with them to give to their kids, and the profits from the soymilk will be put in our savings account. Each month, the women will agree on how to spend their money together, whether it’s buying chickens so that they can get eggs, or fertilizer to increase yields. Sr. Agnes and I proposed this plan to the women, and they voted to approve it. Here’s hoping the hard part is over and our success continues.

The President of the Soymilk Cooperative after we sold out of soymilk 
On a more personal note, I have to thank all of you for being so supportive of me after my last blog post. It was not an easy week by any means, and your emails, messages, and phone calls really meant a lot to me. I’m truly blessed to have such an amazing group of family and friends. 

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