The past six weeks, except for genocide memorial week, the women’s soymilk cooperative has prepared and sold soymilk twice a week at a little store nearby our village market. We’ve sold 30-50 liters of soymilk each time, along with bread, and we’ve always sold out within five hours. We have a regular clientele: mothers coming to fill up a small jerrycan to take home, parents bringing their children for a cup of hot soymilk, and younger men who sit around and socialize on our benches while drinking their soymilk. The women in the cooperative have learned to write in the little notebook that serves as our ledger, carefully marking the liters and cups of soymilk sold and managing the money. They elected a president and made decisions about the cooperative independently. The women have learned customer service, greeting our customers with warm Karibu (welcome), offering them a seat, and explaining the prices. I am so proud of the women and all the work that they have done.
|Our little store|
But I’m even happier because of this accomplishment: three of their children are now in the green zone, and one is in yellow instead of red. Meaning, three children are no longer considered malnourished. They are in the healthy zone, and the other child went from “extremely malnourished” to “malnourished.” This is the best reward for all of our work.
|Odetta, Our President Juliette, Jeanette, and Drophine|
So given our success, I thought we had overcome all the obstacles that were in our way. Wrong. Wrong again. The challenges just keep coming.
On Wednesday, my counterpart Felix said we should have a meeting. I assumed it was to tie up loose ends before I left for Rome. My counterpart dropped two bombshells on me: first, that the community health workers (CHWs) who own the building we use as our store want to start charging us rent, though they had agreed earlier to let us use the building for free. I asked how much money they wanted for rent, and Felix responded that they wanted 30,000 Rwandan francs a month. My jaw dropped. If we sold soymilk in the store every single day, we could pay that sum, but we only use it eight times a month, when the market is open and there’s a steady stream of traffic (it’s a complete ghost town on other days of the week).
I was so confused; I had met with the president of the community health workers several times to discuss the project and our progress. It turns out that some CHWs were complaining to him about how much money we were making and they wanted a piece of it. I wanted to laugh: sure, our store has a steady stream of customers, but we make only 40 cents out of every 200-franc liter we sell, the rest goes to pay for the cost of soy and sugar. And those 40 cents of profit are put in our savings account to fund projects to help their malnourished children (such as buying chickens to get eggs). I tried showing the president of the CHWs our ledger and tried to bargain over the price, but he wouldn't budge. I thought about just paying for the rent out of my own money, but I knew that it would make the project unsustainable. After I leave, I want the women to be able to continue the cooperative independently.
The second bombshell was that Felix wanted to kick some of the women out of the cooperative because their children are now considered healthy (in the green zone). Again, I was stunned. I asked my counterpart why he would even think about such a thing, and he explained that there are other women with malnourished children that want to be in the cooperative. My heart was torn: on one hand, the women whose children were now healthy were the hardest working. They put their heart and soul into the cooperative. Our president, Juliette, walks over two hours through the mountains, rain or shine, to come make soymilk. She leaves her house and her eight children at 4:30 am. We are a team. They make the decisions about the cooperative, and kicking out members would be a betrayal. I also know that people respond to incentives, and if their “reward” for working hard and getting their kids to the green zone is only to get kicked out, it creates incentive for them to relapse, or for new members to not want their kids to get to a healthy weight.
On the other hand, there are fifteen other children who are malnourished who desperately need the help the cooperative can provide, and the goal of the cooperative is to help get children to the healthy zone. We can’t have all of them in the cooperative, at least right now. I'm also worried about going against the opinions of my counterparts, who I depend on for support and advice.
|A happy customer|
All of this came at a horrible time: I’m leaving for vacation, and I didn’t want to rush such important decisions. Sr. Agnes, my other counterpart, and I are trying to look at alternatives to selling soymilk at the store, such as selling it to schools to put in their tea, or selling several liters to other little shops who sell food. It’s sad to think that we might never sell soymilk in our little store again; I really loved interacting with our customers, watching the women greet people and serve them soymilk, and the feeling of community that the store created. And I still have no idea what to do about the latter situation. I want to help as many kids as possible get to a healthy weight, but I don’t want to betray the women who have worked so hard to make the cooperative what it is. I'm trying to roll with the punches, but I wish I didn't have to make such difficult decisions. To be continued after I return…