Greetings everybody from a very wet Lilongwe, Malawi where the rains have started in earnest. It is my seven-year-old daughter Lucy’s job to check the rain gauge after every downpour and it is the one chore that she gets excited about — Lucy is very detail oriented.

After every rain, the rubber boots go on and out she goes with her notebook and pencil to record  the rainfall. At breakfast this morning, I watched her work through her notebook for five minutes, adding up the figures, checking and re-checking her calculations, until she proudly announced that we had had 108 mm or 4.25 inches of rain in November. She further informed us that this, according to her note book, is the best start to a wet season in three years and so we give thanks. (We had another 38 mm over the weekend!)

In September, I travelled to Lundazi, Eastern Zambia with volunteer Mike Jette, who has walked alongside us for many years and  assisted World Renew in teaching and rolling out the village savings & loans association (VSLA) concept across the region. We had just finished a three-day training for community volunteers from programs in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia and were now headed to assist our partner, The Presbyterian Church of Central Africa, with a mini-evaluation of their VSLA program, looking at the finer details of the methodology in action.

As we travelled around from program to program, it became clear that none of the groups were exactly following the methodologies that had been taught, but rather had adapted them to suit their own individual needs and context. I was concerned. This is not the way they were taught; why were they not following the training materials as we had laid out?

But Mike gave me a “slap across the face,” as he often does. He provided a timely reminder about why we are here. World Renew is all about helping people to make the best decisions for themselves and for their community and then empowering them to take action. We want them to be innovative, to respond to their needs in their own way, to take ownership over their challenges and resources. We give them the tools, training, and freedom to do that and that is exactly what each of these communities have done. There I was, in contortions over the fact that my very precise and perfect methodology had been amended in favour of some modifications by the community to better serve the community!

Here is what Mike wrote about the same experience.
“I have been teaching and training the village savings and loan model since 2010. But this was the first time I got to see VSLA in action. While none of the groups operated exactly as taught, every one of them was transforming their members and their communities. In short, I was blown away … [they] exceeded my deepest hopes.”

And here are just a few of the testimonies we heard when we asked “How have VSLAs benefited you?”

  • “Before, if I had money, I would spend it; now I save it.”
  • “I used to beg for money when I needed it. I don’t have to beg now. My husband asks me for money!”
  • “I’ve been able to start a business.”
  • “I was able to buy one metal sheet for my house with each loan. I have now replaced my grass roof with a metal one.”
  • “I was able to buy a bicycle.”
  • “I now have money for school fees.”
  • “We have money for seed and fertilizer.”

This is a small sample but hopefully you get the idea. I was especially touched by how much the women felt empowered by belonging to their groups. I wish I could describe the joy evident in each face. The success of the groups in these rural areas is contagious and people are clamoring for more.

I am still trying to process my initial reaction to the communities’ adaptations to our program.  Is it that everybody who knows something about VSLA says “don’t mess with the system” or is it my pride (groups are not following MY methodology)? It is probably a bit of both.

I will continue to work through this but the transformation of lives is evident, real, and overwhelming. Far more important than the finer details, like the number of shares people are allowed to buy or a universal group contribution, is the fact that communities have taken ownership in the concept of village savings and loan associations, adapting to the benefit of their communities. They are facing their challenges together and working together to overcome in their own way — a way that honours each other, acknowledges their resources, and is set in the foundation of Jesus Christ.

A blessed Christmas to you all,

Ruairidh Waddell

Country Consultant
World Renew Zambia