Saving and Thriving - I think
KIM WILSON | SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2011 AT 8:38PM
Development practitioners often heap all kinds of activities on top of savings groups. Let’s face it, savings groups work or at least appear to work while so few other development interventions do. Health projects fade into oblivion as lackluster beneficiaries tire of showing up at meetings that are good for them. Agriculture projects die on the vine as participants receive yet another sapling that they are teased into caring for. Water projects erupt into blows between those living high on the watershed and those living in its basin. But, savings groups with or without handholding and with or without funding seem to chug along, making them a bulls-eye for a range of development activities.
These thoughts in mind and with accompanying skepticism, I ventured with my companion, Mabel Guevara, to a tiny, hilly community in El Salvador. We were there to observe a diet-plus-savings group fusion. Braced for the usual dog-and-pony show about how successful the effort was, we realized our thinking had been off. How did we know it was off? Easy …
We had stumbled into the wrong place. We were directed to one hamlet, but had accidentally wondered off the path to another. We ended up in a dirt-floored kitchen in humble bricked home. An exuberant group of women were making a local soup and pupusas (pupusa is a kind of thick, rough tortilla).
All chatter halted when we entered the kitchen. In fact the women glared at us, were silent. This was not the reception we were accustomed to. After a few awkward moments, we realized this group was not expecting our arrival. We apologized for barging into what looked like a lively party and began to depart. When the women realized our mistake, they were most forgiving and asked to return once we had visited the savings group that we were supposed to see.
We did return to Savings Star two hours later. About half the members had stayed on to greet us. They told us how they met at 11:00 in the morning each month, held a cooking class, communally enjoyed the product of the class – a noon meal – and once dishes were washed, convened their savings meeting. At about 1:00 pm they would return home with leftovers to test on their children. If the children and later their husbands liked the recipe and found the food delicious, members would think about cooking the recipe again. And again.
One of the members had been and was still being trained on food preparation by Dr. Sonia, a medical doctor on staff at CRS. This volunteer faithfully attended these trainings, later spreading what she had learned to her own group, Savings Star, and to many nearby (there were four in the village). Savings Star members reported that they could use simple ingredients found in their local market or that could be grown easily in their backyard gardens. They contained vitamins and nutrients absent in daily soup and pupusa recipes.
So convinced were members about the benefits of cooking together and including new ingredients in their food, that they started planting their gardens differently. In the world of development, this is huge. No one changes their behavior, ever, despite what program designers and social engineers would wish for, or report to donors. Usually, everyone returns to their same old behavior once field workers leave or a project dries up. Or, in this case, once members become fatigued by meetings without subsidy.
But, these folks were unpaid – all volunteer, not a staffer among them and not a handout to be seen.
At the behest of the group, we visited the plot of its guerilla gardener, a prominent group member. Experiencing the civil war as a child and displaced because of it, she now focused on her huerto, a little parcel of gold, as she described it, outside her kitchen. While those present claimed that she was a garden warrior before the cooking classes, they pointed out changes since the classes. Where before she had only one clump of chaya to mix into the animal feed, she now had thicket of it; she chopped and blended the chaya – rich in vitamin A, iron, and calcium - with corn flour to make greenish pupusas. She had plump orbs of guayaba ripening on supports strung among papaya and mango trees, and rows of carrots, cabbage and lettuce, all for her own soups as well as the communal soups that group made in class. In the understory of her fruited vines, still with plenty of sun beneath, she had planted various herbs and spices like local basil and oregano.
This member put cooking ashes, eggshells, and peelings into her compost heap and turned them into the soil. She folded brittle stalks and fallen pods of her harvested beans into the soil as well. While she had honed these practices over many years, what she reported had changed since her cooking classes (incidentally, we did not ask what practices she changed – the news bubbled forth), was the way in which she tightly laced her various crops to pack in more flavor and more nutrition. She shared the food with others during their cooking-savings meetings, but she also inspired members to take similar steps in their own gardening.
Any new seed she had purchased for shared benefit had come from the pocket of the group fund or from passing the hat of individual members.
Leaving the Savings Star, we found it hard to imagine its savings activities without its diet and cooking activities. And, while this sample of one leaves the reader wondering if such a nice story could be found elsewhere, trust that Mabel and I found similar tales in many of the hills nearby. Does adding a diet and cooking piece making savings groups more expensive? Yes! But, does it make groups more relevant, entertaining and powerful for women? Yes as well.