Monday, July 25, 2011

Douglas College Commerce student helps Zambian women do business

Rosie Hernandez helped open 150 bank accounts for women in Zambia.

By Rosa Elena Hernandez

One Sunday morning I opened my eyes and, right at that moment when you’re trying to figure out whether to get out of bed or stay in, I heard what seemed to be a crowd singing. Absolutely no instruments, just their sweet, mellow voices. It was church day, on my first morning in Kitwe, Zambia, where I’d come on a three-month internship with Douglas College to work as a coordinator for the YMCA’s new entrepreneurship program.

The first thing I did on my internship was visit each of the four YMCA branches to meet my colleagues and get a feel for what they lacked and wished for. Near the first branch, I saw a group of women sitting outside, and I asked my colleague Petronella, “Why are they sitting there?” and she replied, “They are waiting for you, we told them you were coming.” I felt my commitment level go up to the sky. I still didn’t know how, but I was determined to make a difference in their lives.

Most people here are unemployed and, for many reasons, in charge of a big family. As a Bachelor of Commerce student, I figured my first endeavour would be to teach them the tools to start their own small business. But without economic back-up, we had to start from scratch. I visited some banks, since I figured that opening a bank account and getting them into a savings culture would be a solid start. I helped open 150 savings accounts, mostly for women, with no commission fee. We made our first deposit to their accounts a month later, and it is impossible to describe the emotion and the hope in our 151 faces (mine included). Plans to buy cabbages wholesale to resell them in the local market, chicken farms and material to assemble tomato boxes, upgrading a tailoring shop. Projects, realities and dreams.

Next, I went to FINCA, a charitable microfinance organization that offers loans. The chances of getting a loan approved is high, but an internship of three months is not enough time to complete the immense amount of work that still has to be done for my friends in Mother Africa. I have established a solid contact between FINCA and the YMCA, and although I will not witness my friends’ first ventures, I know Petronella, and Ernest, my other colleague, will keep things on track until FINCA is working closely with the entrepreneurs at all the Kitwe YMCA branches.

I leave Kitwe with a heart full of satisfaction. The soles of my feet are now impregnated with the colour of this soil and the reasons to come back are numerous. They start with following up on the dreams of all these women who were part of my daily life and taking them one step farther in their efforts. A couple of wedding invitations plus several friends that kindly introduced me to their culture and welcomed me into their families are strong reasons, too. I believe I have lived the motto of Douglas’ Global Leadership Program: Be the change you want to see. Now, I am part of that change.

Rosa Elena (Rosie) Hernandez went to Zambia as an intern with the Centre for Campus Life's Global Leadership Program. Rosie and her fellow interns return to Vancouver at the end of this month. Be sure to check out their blog.