By Nicki Goh, KF9 Senegal

Last week, I took my first field visit to the southern Casamance region of Senegal. Separated from the north of the country by the Gambia, the large Diola population of the Casamance region is primarily involved in fishing, rice cultivation and tourism. However, many SEM borrowers have other types of business: they sell vegetables, make clothing, rent bikes and bake bread. They make their livings providing new goods and services to their communities all thanks to loans that they have had from SEM and Kiva lenders.

Borrower visits: it's a hard life...

I went to meet some of these borrowers last week on the idyllic island of Carabane a 30-minute boat ride from the Casamance mainland. (It’s a beautiful place, I really did luck out on this Fellows Placement ;) ) During my interviews I asked them to tell me about any difficulties they have been having repaying their loans in the last few months. And from many of the groups, I got the same response: “Winter is a hard time to try to run a business!”

Now, anyone who has seen the way that businesses in the UK and other parts of Europe and the US have come to a stand-still this Christmas could be forgiven for thinking that it’s maybe a problem of climate or a slow-down caused by the festive season. However, in this predominantly Muslim country Christmas is celebrated by just a minority of the population and the winter sun is still bringing us temperatures of at least 27 degrees C (80F) so snow storms certainly aren’t the problem here.

In fact it’s all about rice. The final 3 months of the year are the months for harvesting rice in Senegal. And as someone who has been here 3 weeks, I can testify that rice is definitely an important staple of Senegalese cuisine, commonly eaten at least once if not twice every single day. From October to January, these villagers in Casamance need to harvest enough rice to feed the whole community for the rest of the year. As it is not commercialised elsewhere this rice is not a source of income for these families, but by harvesting it, the families can at least rest assured that they will have food for their families for the rest of the year.

And so, women (and some men) wake every morning to take a boat to the opposite side of the island to go to the rice fields. Apparently, social norms here dictate that any woman who opts not to work in the fields for the rice harvesting risks being considered lazy by the rest of her village community. Something to which no-one here wants to be subjected. What is interesting is that each day, the workforce will choose a different person’s field to work on and will all go together to work that same field. This means that each woman could work for days helping others to harvest their land before seeing any yield from their own. And it’s a long, tiring process, this harvesting rice business. Not wanting to gain the ‘lazy’ tag myself, I thought i should lend a hand to my colleague’s brother and sister-in-law who were working their land during my visit (see my slightly pathetic attempts in this video!)

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Many hands make (not-so) light work!

Collaboration is the way of life in Senegal, especially out in the villages in the Casamance region. Life is all about community and sharing experiences. Family members live close to one another and spend evenings with neighbours chatting and sharing food and tea. At mealtimes, the whole family will sit around a large bowl of rice (invariably with fish) and eat together, tearing off bits of fish from the middle and passing them around to each other. SEM’s decision to offer only group loans may well be driven by this understanding of the culture. When a group receives a loan it is divided between the members with the constraint that each and every member is responsible for ensuring that the full amount is paid back. And so, in this way, people share the good and the bad times, the productive periods and the difficult ones.

I had one meeting with Marie, a group member who is unfortunately very unwell and has not been able to work for the last few months.The other 4 group members are working extra hard to meet repayments so they can have more chance of benefiting from more loans in future. Getting another loan to return to her business at a later date is the only hope that Marie has to replenish her and her husband’s savings which have all been spent on her recent medical treatment. She is lucky to have the support around her and told us how grateful she is that her friends can now help her out of this difficult time.

If you’d like to support in this collaborative act of lending please consider another of SEM’s loans or consider joining the “Supporters of Senegal” lending team.

Nicki Goh is a Kiva Fellow working with Senegal Ecovillage Microfinance in sunny Senegal. She is not yet a fully-trained rice harvester and so is looking forward to seeing the women of the Casamance get back to their normal businesses in the New Year! I hope you all have a very happy and healthy 2010!

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