Blade and Baleadas

When we arrived the whole family was waiting for us. Laura Isabel Luque, her sister Karina Luque, and Marina Eliza were in the kitchen cooking. The smell of cooked steak, with its herbs and spices, filled the air. As we approached several children greeted us, a lady sitting outside on her sewing machine got up to shake my hand. The three women in the kitchen quickly stopped what they were doing to greet us at the door.

Ana Lucia Galo, Eduar Isidro Reyes and I had lunch at Karina’s house on Saturday, September 21st. We are the La Ceiba team in Honduras. Laura and Karina invited us for lunch a week earlier. When I received the invitation, I was excited but skeptical. Part of me thought the lunch was planned with another motive. I thought perhaps the women wanted to receive larger loans than we had given.

Walking into the house, one cant help but feel comfortable despite its cement composition. The first room in the house is a large one that acts as the living room, the kitchen and the dining room. The walls are decorated with Winnie the Pooh pictures with Spanish sayings. The sayings contain a message of love and family. “What would you like to drink?” Laura offered us water, Pepsi, coffee or juice. “Coffee please.” Ana and Eduar asked for Pepsi.

Laura has worked with La Ceiba since January of 2013. She is a close neighbor of Elizabeth Discua, Maria Carcamo, and Tania Carcamo, all successful La Ceiba clients. Laura is a single mom with an eight-year-old boy. She has a L 1,250 ($62.50) loan with La Ceiba. In nine months, La Ceiba never asked how Laura pays her loans, and in that time, Laura received 11 loans and paid all of them back ahead of time. I was concerned because she originally asked for a larger loan than we could give her. Why does she want a larger loan? What kind of income does she have? Why does she keep inviting me to lunch?

“Lunch is ready.” We sat around the small wooden table adjacent to the living space and the kitchen. Despite its size, the table accommodated the six of us comfortably. Karina served us. We were having mini baleadas. On our plate we had four small handmade flour tortillas placed under diced steak, onions, tomatoes, lime and cilantro. It was a colorful display and a modest serving. We bid “salud” to the food and to our hosts and enjoyed the rich taste of the fresh ingredients.

Karina is a new La Ceiba client. I knew very little about Karina and her finances. Despite my efforts not to do so, I couldn’t help but observe Karina’s house from a lenders perspective. That is, the material things in her house served as indicators of economic wealth. Karina has a television and a fully furnished home. These are signs that Karina and her family have a high economic status. I didn’t want to take advantage of the invitation into Karinas home so I put those thoughts at bay.

“Santisima madre!” Everyone in the room chuckled at Ana’s outcries. We sat down to watch the movie of the day on TV: Blade: Vampire Hunter with Wesley Snipes and Jessica Biel. It was a bloody and violent movie. Every time a vampire was mercilessly decapitated, Ana would yell out in shock. “How is your family?” Laura asked in between decapitations. “Fine,” I responded. Where is your mom from? How did you learn to speak Spanish so well? Did you enjoy the food? Laura and Karina kept asking questions about me. They wanted to learn about me and my family.

Microfinance institutions (MFI’s) are taught not to trust clients. Its never stated explicitly but our operations, our products, our requirements all function under the assumption that clients, poor clients, are risky investments. And, since they often are not included into a formal credit scoring system, the MFI has to gather that information on its own. To do so, loan officers employ methods that seek “accurate information.” For example, loan officers might show up 30 minutes early to a meeting just to catch a client and their business off guard. A loan officer might show up unannounced to see how things are run when a client isn’t expecting her lender to visit. Loan officers will ask research-tested questions that seek to reveal the character of a client and afterwards will ask neighbors questions to verify information.

Eduar told the room a story. One day he was dropping off Laura’s loan. They met in front of Laura’s house. Eduar read the loan contract to Laura and handed her the check. In the exchange, Laura mishandled the check and dropped it in the mud. Eduar poked fun at Laura for being careless to which Laura responded, “I remember the first time you gave me my loan, you were so nervous you couldn’t speak!” Everyone laughed at the friendly banter. I felt as though I was in a locker room with my team, exchanging inside jokes after a hard fought game. “How are your friends at the University?” Laura already knew several of our La Ceiba students. Laura told me to tell the students hello and to invite them to baleadas.

“Santi, you all are invited to baleadas next week too!” Laura made sure to invite us all back to her sisters house. It was our cue to leave but I still hadn’t gotten asked about a larger loan or for a favor. In fact, for the duration of the reunion, we never once talked seriously about loans or finances. The topics of conversation were focused on friends and family. We were getting to know each other simultaneously. We were learning about each other’s history, our customs, our likes and dislikes, we were becoming friends. For that afternoon, for two hours on that Saturday, Laura, Karina and Marina were my friends and not my clients. They fed me, they cleaned up after me, they took care of me and I had nothing to offer them accept my good graces and my friendship. It was a genuinely good time, and I didn’t need to ask a neighbor to verify that.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 25th, 2013)

 

Tania Maricela Bobadilla Carcamo

Tania Maricela Bobadilla Carcamo, 28, is from La Ceiba city. Eight years ago Tania settled down in Las Brisas where she still lives today. Tania followed her sister Maria Carcamo to Las Brisas, whom married a man from the town. For two years Tania lived with Maria and her husband. During that time, Tania worked at the nearby pool hall. Maria’s husband was the owner and he needed someone to help manage money and sell drinks. Tania learned how to budget, save money for the business and manage operations, all while serving drinks until late at night.

During her time at the pool hall, Tania met Nelson Discua. Nelson proved a gentlemen, he walked Tania from the pool hall to her house every night after work. They married and Tania moved in with Nelson and his family. Tania remembers those as uncomfortable times, “I didn’t get along with Nelsons mom very well.” Tania wanted to move out. Luckily, Maria’s neighbor happened to move out. Tania and Nelson moved into the new home, it was an improvement but Tania was not satisfied. The land belonged to Marias brother in law. They didn’t have to pay rent but they couldn’t stay there forever.

La Ceiba met Tania in 2010. At the time, Maria was already working with La Ceiba. Maria explained to Tania how La Ceiba loans worked but Tania remained skeptical, “I thought it was propaganda of some kind.” But, Maria and another good friend, Suyapa Santamaria, convinced Tania that La Ceiba loans were real. Tania reluctantly accepted her first loan of L 575 ($28.75).

With money from the loan, Tania invested in silver with the intention of selling to residents in her area. Her operation was mobile, she went house to house and over time she developed a strong client base. Additionally, she set up a credit system of her own. Tania allowed clients to pay for her silver in parts. That is, they paid for some of the silver at the point of sale, and paid the rest in monthly installments for two months. This system worked well for Tania because, as she recognized, it gave clients a flexible method of payment where they might not be able to pay large sums all at once. Tania recognized other benefits. She never had worrisome amounts of cash at the house and if sales were slow the next month, she could rely on payments due from the previous month to cover costs.

In less than a year Tania received and paid five loans and worked her way up to a loan of L 2,500 ($125). As her loans grew, so did her income.

Tania’s plans changed a few months ago when a family member left the country. The family member left behind two businesses that were unmanned and in bad shape. Tania, along with her mom and two sisters, jumped at the opportunity. The family could benefit from a group endeavor where everyone involved received a steady income. So, Tania left the silver business and prepared herself for the new challenge. The two businesses were a chicken restaurant, and a food stand at the local school.

Tania’s mom is the boss, everyone works equal hours, and everyone splits the profits evenly. After three months on the job, sales have increased. Additionally, Tania increased her savings and covered all her home expenses.

Tania estimates that the food stand makes between L 2,000-2,500 ($100-125) a day while the chicken restaurant makes L 8,000 ($400) a weekend. However, their success is not without its challenges. Two weeks ago the food stand was robbed. One morning, Tania’s mom opened the stand only to find the door broken open and their products were gone. They had nothing to sell that day. Tania happened to be eligible for a L 5,000 loan with La Ceiba. The loan was large enough to replenish most of the inventory and Tania paid back the loan ahead of time the next week.

With her new income, Tania and Nelson, who works in a factory, are able to take a step towards Tania’s dream. Together, the couple saved enough money for a down payment on a plot of land. The sight is nearby in the neighboring town of Primero de Enero. They are paying what is left in installments and are on schedule to finish the payments by February of 2014.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 20th, 2013)

Marlenia Urbina

Monte de los Olivos is a difficult place to get to. It’s a small town composed of 24 houses and a community center. The town is located about three miles from the closest paved road. To get there you have to park in Villa Soleada and walk on a dirt road lined by a palm tree farm. After a 10-minute walk through the shady grove, you can find the town of Monte de los Olivos.

Until she moved to Monte, Marlenia Urbina, 42, never lived in what she considers a safe or stable community. Her life is marked by instability and friction with her parents. Two years ago, Marlenia settled down on the small plot of land that is now Monte de los Olivos.

The move to Monte came about after a long struggle. Before living in Monte, Marlenia lived in a community by a riverbank. The land was not hers and the government seized the property where she lived. Marlenia, her husband and her four daughters, were forced to move but had nowhere to go. So, Marlenia and a group of over 30 families went straight to the Mayor’s office. They organized sit-ins and protested in the streets until finally, the Mayor granted the group a few acres of land behind the existing town of Villa Soleada.

In January of 2012 La Ceiba held an interest meeting with all the families in Monte. Marlenia describes her initial reaction to La Ceiba’s loans as that of “disbelief.” “The interests are so low! I couldn’t believe that there was no collateral. We thought it was part of a plan to take our land.” Marlenia tentatively accepted her first loan of L500 ($25).

Marlenia owns and operates her own pulperia, or convenience store, out of her home. The pulperia provides Marlenia with consistent income. It is one of only two pulperias in town. Marlenia depends on her pulperia to pay for the water bill, her daughters school expenses, unexpected expenses like sickness costs, any debts she may have, and whatever is left over Marlenia invests in her home and her pulperia.

Marlenia says that her loans with La Ceiba were initially unsuccessful. She used her loan to help a family member but the family member never paid her back. Marlenia was afraid La Ceiba would not work with her anymore. Eventually, through income from her pulperia and support from her husband, she was able to pay her loan. Marlenia worked her way towards a larger loan of L750 ($37.50). This time Marlenia decided to invest exclusively in her pulperia. Marlenia bought several products to sell including 18 “ristros.” Each ristro has 12 bags of chips. Marlenia sells each bag of chips for L5 (25¢). As a result, Marlenia says that her sales have steadily increased.

In addition to her pulperia, Marlenia is the head of a group of entrepreneurial women in Monte. Together, they develop business ideas and execute them. Their activities include the production of artisanal crafts and hair products. They also work together to find new markets outside of Monte, specifically in the city of El Progreso.

Marlenia says she learned a lot from La Ceiba’s financial literacy class. One of the concepts the class covered was that of savings. Marlenia learned how to organize her finances and save towards a specific project or item. Marlenia is currently saving her money to invest in one of her group’s business ideas.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 17th, 2013)

Elizabeth and Melvin Discua

She wanted a 10,000 Lempira ($500) loan. We were there to promote our loan service but before we could say much she asked for a 10,000L loan. We were startled. Many new clients asked for larger loans than we could give them, some ask for L5,000 ($250) others for L2,000 ($100). None had asked for L10,000. From the very first interaction, Elizabeth Discua stood out.

In January 2013, La Ceiba Microfinance Institution spoke to Elizabeth in her home in Las Brisas, a small community in northern Honduras. We explained to Elizabeth that we could offer a L500 ($25) loan and that she could work her way up to L10,000 over time. She accepted and went on her way. We did not realize at the time that L500 would not do much to help her in what she was planning next.

After our initial meeting with her in January, we did not know much about Elizabeth. We knew she was living by herself with her two daughters. We knew that she had a husband who did not live with her in Las Brisas. We knew her friends and family called her “Betty.” We knew that she was calm yet direct, quiet yet confident. That she had the demeanor of a lady on a mission, a reserved and polite lady on a mission. But her mission was a mystery to us and we didn’t want to pry.

Over the next six months Elizabeth was very active. She paid her loans at an astounding pace. She asked for a loan term of one week, and she was paying ahead of time. Elizabeth flew through nine loans, totaling L3,750 ($187.50), in less than six months. No other La Ceiba client has paid that many loans nearly as quickly as Elizabeth did. In fact, some clients work through nine loans in two or three years. Elizabeth did it in six months. What’s more is she could have paid and received even more loans if La Ceiba’s service could keep up with her. After Elizabeth paid, the organization would take a few days, sometimes a week to deliver her next loan.

Soon, the entire organization was asking itself: How could this be possible? How is Elizabeth paying her loans at a seemingly astounding pace?

Finally, in April 2013, having arrived in Honduras a few days before, I stopped by Elizabeth’s house and made a remarkable discovery. Elizabeth’s husband was home and there was a bakery operating out of their house. Her husband! He had come back to Honduras after spending eight years living in New Orleans and promptly founded a bakery. It was clear that this was not a small operation. The bakery had three part time employees, they were selling bread in over 6 communities to 100 pulperias (convenient stores), they were making over L3,000 ($150) a day, and they had plenty of room for growth. Where one question was answered, Elizabeth was planning the bread business with her husband when we saw her in January and using the profit to pay off her loans, others arose. How did Elizabeth and her husband start a successful business apparently out of thin air? Who was this man who was gone in January and now making 200 units of bread each day in April?

Something else became apparent as well: Elizabeth and her husband were close. Whenever I spoke to either of them about the other or about the business, they spoke passionately and kindly. They were invested in the business and in each other, and they had a plan.

Melvin Omar Diaz Rodriguez and Elizabeth Discua Maradiaga were born and raised in Las Brisas de la Libertad. Las Brisas is a 15 minute ride from El Progreso, Yoro in Honduras. It is a small and rural community of roughly 1,000 people, surrounded by palm tree farms on the north and south borders, a highway on the east border and Villa Soleada, a similarly small community, on its west border. Las Brisas is a relatively typical Honduran town. In the middle of town is a large soccer field equipped with floodlights for night games and bleachers for spectators. The town has one small bar, one church, a high school and elementary school, several small home businesses ranging from convenient stores to food vendors.

When Melvin and Elizabeth were born in the 70’s, the landscape was a bit different. Most of today’s businesses and institutions did not exist. There was however, a bakery. Melvin’s aunt owned and ran a bakery out of her home in Las Brisas, not far from where Melvin lives today. Growing up Melvin helped with the family business. He weighed flower and butter, he delivered bread and he learned all there was about the art of baking. Melvin went to elementary school up until 6th grade at which point he dropped out to work at the bakery. “I didn’t like school, I wanted to make bread with my aunt,” explained Melvin. But, before Melvin left school something happened. Melvin met Elizabeth. They were in the same class together. Elizabeth left such an impression on Melvin that he had set his heart on two things at the age of 12: own and run his own bakery, and marry Elizabeth as soon as she finishes school. Melvin married Elizabeth at the age of 18.

Melvin’s second goal would have to wait. The next several years of marriage proved difficult. Shortly after marriage, Elizabeth and Melvin were still living in a family home; there was no room for a bakery. Economically the couple struggled to find work. There was no money to start a business and no land or house to call their own. Together they came up with a plan to resolve one of these challenges. They would build their own home and build room for a bakery. The cheapest way to obtain a home is not to buy an existing one but to build one yourself. This is very common in Honduras. And so Melvin and Elizabeth built their own home from the ground up. This meant that Elizabeth and Melvin had to work to make a living and simultaneously buy construction materials like cement blocks, cement mix, metal bars, etc., and they had to put in their own labor to erect the building. In 2003 they finished their home, a one floor two bedroom home.

Elizabeth and Melvin had enough land and property left to build additions and extensions to their home. Slowly but surely they did exactly that. By 2005 Melvin and Elizabeth built several additions to their house including a porch and two rooms. One of these rooms was built for the bakery. Melvin started to save up funds to buy equipment for his bakery. The same year Elizabeth gave birth to a girl. However, soon after the birth of their daughter, Melvin had to leave the country.

Melvin’s father was involved in a security organization in Honduras. In 2005 Melvin’s father received a death threat from an anonymous source. The threat implied Melvin’s family and he was forced to leave the country. Melvin’s destination was New Orleans where he had a brother. It was not a good experience as Melvin recalls, “I lived in a part of the city that was very poor and not safe. I worked long days in a restaurant. I did not like it.” Elizabeth remembers Melvin’s struggles too, “He was lost. He was in a very bad place and I was worried about him.” As time passed and Melvin struggled to stay motivated in New Orleans, it was Elizabeth who reminded Melvin of his goal. Elizabeth insisted that Melvin continue to save his money for the bakery. Indeed, in eight years, Melvin saved up enough money to buy an industrial grade mixer in the US and ship it to Honduras, an industrial grade oven in Honduras, furniture and tools specific to baking, and had enough money left to start operations as soon as he returned to Las Brisas.

And so in March of 2013 Melvin returned to Las Brisas ready to work. The bakery Melvin had dreamed of since he was 12 was so close to becoming real. “Panaderia Las Brisas” attracted its first customers, not by marketing or advertising, but by the smell of baked bread. Several pulperias within smelling distance followed their noses to the bakery where they saw then tasted and negotiated over bread. The bakery expanded at a rapid pace. Between March and June of 2013, the bakery had customers in seven communities: Las Brisas, Nunez, Waymitas, Mezapa, La 28, La 29 and Burro. In each of those communities there were between three to 20 convenient stores that were selling bread from Melvin and Elizabeth’s bakery. Demand was so high that Melvin had to hire an assistant. Melvin is grooming his assistant to take over day-to-day operations so that Melvin can supervise daily operations and take care of long-term projects. Elizabeth keeps her eye on the finances of the business and helps buy ingredients whenever there is a shortage. The bakery employs two part time delivery boys who deliver bread on their bikes, and the business owns a truck that is used for larger deliveries. Currently, Melvin and Elizabeth work 12 hour days, sometimes more, just so they can meet demand. Even so, they often have to turn people away because they sell their bread so quickly. “It is a good problem to have,” says Elizabeth. They both recognize that there is room for growth.

La Ceiba’s role and involvement with Elizabeth has changed since January. From April to June, La Ceiba was able to deliver loans to Elizabeth more quickly. In June, Elizabeth finished her last repetition of L1,000 ($50). After deliberation, a decision was made to extend to Elizabeth a L4,000 ($200) loan. She would be the first person ever to skip steps in our loan ladder.

We asked Elizabeth for her thoughts on our service, “My experience with La Ceiba has been good. The loans I received helped buy flour, oil, and sugar. It is useful when there is a shortage of ingredients or an unexpected cost.” Elizabeth and Melvin are looking to buy another truck. They bought one at L25,000 ($1,250), but it was in bad condition and they returned it. They would rather receive a L10,000 loan from La Ceiba, but for now they are making due with a L4,000 loan.

Melvin and Elizabeth’s success highlights their need for capital. In El Progreso, credit, loans and mortgages are difficult to obtain. Banks will charge high interest rates on loans or ask for proof of formal employment before granting a loan. This proves problematic in an economy that is composed largely of informal work or self-employed business people. There also exists an informal lenders market. This market is comprised of individuals who will extend loans without asking for proof of employment. However, these lenders charge upwards of 80% monthly interest. What’s more is that these lenders will ask for collateral or come to your home with the intention of taking land property or wealth if a client cannot pay.

La Ceiba found a niche in this environment. There is demand for loans and credit and the alternative services either wont extend loans to residents in Las Brisas or, if they do, they charge unreasonable interest and ask for collateral. La Ceiba does not ask for collateral nor does it ask for proof of employment nor does it charge a high interest rate (15% annual interest). We reduce our losses by extending small loans as a first step. If a client is able to handle larger loans they can work their way up towards that amount. We take chances on people and their stories. We don’t employ a risk analysis formula. We include anyone who lives in the community, is 18 years old, and is a woman.

Extending loans to individuals who are outside of the formal financial sector can be risky. We don’t know if Elizabeth will be able to pay back a L4,000 loan and if she doesn’t we have no collateral to mitigate the loss. What we do know is that Melvin and Elizabeth worked hard to get where they are, and they did it almost entirely without the help of La Ceiba. La Ceiba has a role in extending credit where it is not easy to obtain, but we are not the reason Elizabeth and Melvin are and will continue to be successful, that much is up to them. We just hope our service doesn’t hold them back.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

 

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Maria Martha Rios

When they first moved to Villa Soleada with their family, Martha and her husband Moises were unemployed and they couldn’t afford tuition to put their kids in school. Three years later, three of Martha’s kids are full time high school students, a fourth is employed, and the oldest is a successful doctor in northern Honduras. Moises works part time as a welder and has clients within the community. Maria Martha is an Esfuerzo de Amor (EDA) artisan whose signature work is her coconut earrings. Together they are an important part of their community and a big part of their family’s financial and academic success.

Moises describes how he got the idea for making coconut earrings, “I was in the market one day and I saw a design I had never seen before.” When he got home he told Martha about the earrings he saw and how they were made out of brittle seashells. Martha suggested they use a unique material: coconut. Combining Martha’s creative touch and fashion sense, with Moises’ handcrafted ingenuity, they invented a product that was unique, maintained a simple yet attractive style, and was of a high quality.

In January of 2013, EDA and Martha agreed to a one-year contract. Moises had to use borrowed materials to make the first earrings. His boss allowed Moises to borrow a drill for a week during which time he and Martha made over 40 earrings and many bracelets. After the January purchase, Moises bought his own drill using money he saved up from work along with money that Martha earned from EDA. After subsequent sales, Moises was able to buy two more drills with specific abilities. The new drills gave Moises a wider range of ability to carve new designs and increase his productivity.

The new assets give Moises the opportunity to work on his own within the community. In El Progreso, it is not uncommon to hire someone for only a few months out of the year. Strict labor laws and low demand push businesses to do so. Thus, Moises will find himself with no formal work for several months out of the year. Now, Moises has the means to offer his services to the broader community. Equipped with his drill and handyman intellect, Moises makes the most out of the slow months.

Martha didn’t spend all her money on Moises’ tools. The rest of her funds went towards academic costs for her three children who are in high school. She was able to pay three months worth of school for each child. The rest of the money she saved for unexpected expenses, usually for school materials and clothes.

Martha not only sells earrings but started selling food out of her home as well. She makes 150 tortillas every morning, of which she will sell enough to invest in more tortillas. There is enough money left over to pay for her youngest son’s soccer academy. Martha’s son caught the eye of a professional scout in Honduras. The scout was so impressed that the team he worked for invited him to train with the youth academy five days a week for a year. The academy, however, costs a monthly fee, which Martha and Moises could not afford. Martha used money left over from EdeA purchases to start a tortilla making business and, so far, she has been able to cover all her sons costs.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 6th, 2013)

Knocking on Doors

January 9th, 2012. Reagan National Airport, Washington DC. I was waiting to board the plane. It was 4am but I wasn’t tired or sleepy. On the contrary, I was wide-awake, anxious and worried even. I tried to calm down by envisioning myself working hard and accomplishing my goals for the week. As if for a movie reel titled “Santi goes to Honduras,” I came up with an absurd scenario where in a single day I would teach a class, my students would leave happy and smarter- more knowledgeable- and finished the day by scoring lots of goals in the afternoon soccer game. It didn’t seem to help. I reviewed the itinerary in my head and thought about my tasks and responsibilities. In the boarding area where we were waiting, there was an eerie and awkward silence. I wanted to get on the ground already!

The night sky was transitioning into dawn. It reminded me of the many all-nighters I had pulled to finish progress reports and class plans in preparation for this trip. There was nothing left to do except brace myself for the ride and hope that all the work I had done during the semester would pay-off.

Every year in January or December, Dr. Humphrey and a group of students take a trip to El Progreso, Honduras. We are the La Ceiba microfinance group from the University of Mary Washington. In 2012 a team of eight students and Dr. H embarked on their trip to Honduras. This group had redesigned and would oversee a series of organization programs ranging from financial literacy classes to two loan programs.

This was my first year working with La Ceiba and my first visit to Honduras. I had heard stories from past trips- about the tough conditions, the visible poverty, the crime and violence- but none of this worried me. Having visited countries that were considered dangerous and underdeveloped, I considered myself a world traveler. I relied on those experiences to quell the doubts that emerged on the trip. I thought I could assimilate myself into Honduras smoothly, without missing a beat. And for much of the first day on the ground, it worked.

El Progreso isn’t particularly pleasing to the eye. Buildings are made out of concrete and built at right angles, reflecting a simple and frugal preference. Roads are unmarked, filled with potholes and doused with trash. Cars are ragged and rusted. They look as though they could break down at any moment. Looking out from the bus, I didn’t feel flustered or worried. It wasn’t until I got off the bus that I lost my cool.

I was tasked with teaching a financial literacy class during the course of the week. So that clients would attend, we had to promote the class by knocking on doors and handing out fliers. I approached it as a small task, an inconvenience before the big event. I had worked on the class for months. I had done endless research and looked through reports from prestigious microfinance institutions. By the time we were there, I was looking forward to teaching and didn’t want to waste time knocking on doors.

We split up in the community of Monte de los Olivos to get the task done more quickly. I was on my own, expected to knock on 14 doors and tell whoever would listen about the class. As I walked up the street of the community, I felt a knot in my stomach. Suddenly, knocking on doors seemed difficult. I was uncomfortable. Everyone spoke a Spanish that I was unfamiliar with. I thought, perhaps I wasn’t welcome to their community. Why didn’t I prepare a script or a speech? The reports I read didn’t say anything about this! What if they kick me off their property? What if they don’t understand me? I was feeling insecure. Fear was sinking in.

As I hovered at the entrance of one persons home, debating if I should even be there, I heard a voice. “Santi, take the initiative.” Dr. H was standing beside me. He had a serious look on his face. I hoped he was talking to someone behind me but he was looking at me right in the eyes. There was a long pause. I stood silently, hoping for further direction or explanation from Dr. H… anything that would pass the time. But, he didn’t say anything else. He stood patiently and expectantly.

I turned slowly and walked towards the door. I knocked timidly… no answer. I turned around and saw Dr. H standing in the same spot, no change in his facial expression. I gave him a look of “are you sure about this?” He didn’t react. I knocked again, louder this time. No answer. With every passing second, I felt more and more insecure. Maybe I could go back to the hotel, tell everyone that I felt sick. No, the hotel was 15 miles away and no one would believe me. I tried to devise another escape plan.

The door opened and a woman appeared. She was small and skinny. A child, eight or nine years old, stood behind her. The woman had a confused look on her face. I tried to compose myself. “Err… si… hola.” I stumbled through the introduction but soon found the words and sentences I was looking for. Hastily, I told her about the class and handed her a flier. The woman smiled and thanked me. The conversation lasted only 30 seconds. She was calm, non-threatening, and I could understand her Spanish! Ok, that wasn’t that bad.I turned and looked for Dr. H but he was gone, checking in on the other students.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that such a mundane task required so much mental effort and caused such a reaction within me. Today, I interact with the woman on a frequent basis. We talk to each other normally, sometimes we joke with each other and she even introduced me to her daughters and husband. I’m not sure if she considers me a friend but at least now we work well together and our interactions seem natural and genuine. It’s difficult to understand how or why I reached such a place of comfort with her.

In part, the work I do is about process. Little things can add up to create a larger more significant body of work in contrast to the big impact event I envisioned before. I believed that my great big project, the financial literacy classes I prepared with so much effort, would be the only means for change. But, its about what happens before and after as well. Those seemingly insignificant, 30-second interactions are just as important as the two-hour class.

In subsequent interactions, I no longer feel so uncomfortable so as to spew a few lines and run off to another task. Now I feel comfortable enough to talk and listen and learn about her and her family, her history and her life. When we stop and listen, we learn about each other. But, I didn’t want to interact with her in a way where I was overreaching or misinterpreting my presence in her community. After all, that is her community not mine. And so goes the lesson of that first interaction.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org

(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on August 26th, 2013)