Monday, June 17, 2013

The More I See, the Less I Know

           I feel as though I’ve overcome so many obstacles with the women’s soymilk cooperative that I could be an Olympic hurdler right now. And the challenges continue…
            For the past month, the cooperative has been in a state of flux. We sadly lost our store before I left for Rome, when the owners of the building wanted to charge us 30,000 francs in rent per month after previously agreeing we could use the building for free (we only make 15,000 francs in profit a month, and they refused to negotiate). I was pretty bummed about it: the store was a gathering place where the community could come together. We had a steady stream of customers, and I loved interacting with them. But we had to accept it and move on. 


            For the past month, we’ve been looking into selling the soymilk to nearby schools that have a lunch program. The soymilk is the same price as tea (100 francs a cup), which many of the schools already give to their students, and cheaper than cow’s milk (300-400 francs a cup), which many of the schools want to give to their students but they can’t afford it.  

            Challenge number two billion in this project came a couple weeks ago when one of the nearby schools’ lunch program directors—I’ll call him Theophile--- asked if we could donate some soymilk for his students to try, and then if they liked it, he would give us a contract and buy the soymilk every week. There are 250 secondary school students, so we were very excited about the prospects. I discussed it with my two counterparts, and we agreed that the women would make 60 liters of the soymilk for free to give to the students as a trial-run. So we made the soymilk and lugged it all over to the school—about 45 minutes walking--- to give to the students.
            The students really loved it, and I came back to the health center excited that we would soon gain a weekly contract with the school. My counterparts exchanged uneasy glances, and one explained that Theophile is really untrustworthy. He had ordered a bunch of cow’s milk from the health center, and then refused to pay. Another time, Theophile ordered several kilos of vegetables from the health center’s garden, and after they were picked, refused to honor their contract. Sure enough, when I called Theophile to secure the soymilk contract, he backed out. I was a upset that no one told me this man was untrustworthy in our meeting before we donated 60 LITERS of soymilk to them, but we did the only thing we could do: move on, again.

           An opportunity finally came when the soymilk cooperative gained a contract with the preschool (gardienne) in my village. This means that they’ll buy soymilk for the kids every week. I met with the director, and she asked me why we didn’t bring soymilk last week, and I said that we didn’t know she wanted it the week before. After more discussion, I learned she’d ordered soymilk from my counterpart, who never bothered to tell me. Sometimes I just want to yell, “CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON HERE??!!?”

My brother Paul helping us carry soymilk
            And then challenge number two billion and one also came this week. I was very excited because the women in the cooperative finally earned enough money to buy each woman a pig (a decision they had all voted on). The women were ecstatic. I visited their homes to make sure that they had constructed a pen for the pig, and then gave them the money to buy a small pig, which they will then raise and sell for a profit. I didn’t see how anyone could see this as a negative thing. Well, yet again, apparently I see things differently.
            It has become more and more apparent to me in the past few months that my vision of the cooperative is very different from that of my counterparts. My two counterparts, I think, see the women's soymilk cooperative as more of a charity than a social enterprise. Rather than using the cooperative as a sustainable business to provide benefits to its members that will continue after I’ve left, my coworkers keep pushing to give the soymilk away for free, or just to give the soybeans away to members of the community.

                I don’t know if this difference is coming from my American, more business-minded mentality (and I’m saying this having studied political science and peace studies in college!) or the fact that so often international non-profits and NGOs foster a culture of dependency by donating goods and materials with no strings attached, but it’s so, so hard for me to swallow. I feel like I’m trying to do what’s best in the long term: giving people jobs rather than handouts, fostering a business that can operate without me for years to come rather than giving out soymilk for free to people that need it now, but that will quickly dry up in only a few months without more donations, leaving people in the same positions they were in before.

            So I’m left again with this terribly confused feeling: in many ways, I feel that the cooperative has been doing great things. We’ve done community soymilk demonstrations that have educated over 1,000 parents on soymilk making and nutrition, lifted every cooperative member’s child out of the red (extremely malnourished) zone, delivered a nutrient-rich product to a population frequently lacking a cheap source of protein and iron, and provided the women with a source of income (the pigs). The women are committed to the project and often walk two or three hours one-way to make the soymilk. But it kills me that there is this tension between what my counterparts want and where I see the project going. They are an integral part of my work here, and I deeply respect them. I am worried that if I continue with my vision of the project, I will burn bridges with one or both of them, which is obviously something I want to avoid at all costs.

                 And all of this honestly makes me question the whole project: am I some sort of evil capitalist who is denying soymilk to children who need it for the sake of profit for its members? I receive zero financial benefit from the cooperative, and we give away as much soymilk as we can without losing money, but I still feel guilty that there are children who need our help that we can’t give any soymilk to. I try telling myself that I can’t help or please everyone, but guilt is a feeling that I’ve never quite managed to escape, like the mosquitoes that buzz outside my mosquito net at night.

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