By Courtney Kemps, KF8 Peru
Earlier this week I accompanied Maribel, director of Manuela Ramos’s Pucallpa office, and Liz, one of the loan officers, to an informational meeting for a new group of borrowers that turned out to be more of an adventure than any of us had expected. We rose early Monday morning to take a long wooden boat from Pucallpa’s port up the Ucayali River to a tiny town called Nuevo Paraiso (New Paradise). It was Manuela Ramos’s first visit to New Paradise, a town populated by indigenous Shipibo-speaking people who had heard about the possibility of receiving loans from Manuela through a radio advertisement put out by the Pucallpa office last year. The town of New Paradise, consisting of a series of wooden homes which line a single wide dirt road, is accessible only by boat and will soon be the furthest community served by Manuela’s Pucallpa office.
The adventure began with the harder-than-expected task of simply trying to figure out how to get to New Paradise. Liz and I walked up and down the mud banks of Pucallpa’s incredibly dynamic, chaotic port asking which boat would take us there. Each person we questioned pointed us in the opposite direction of the one we had asked immediately before. After half an hour of this, we finally managed to find the right boat. Once on board, every time the boat stopped at some point along the river we had to ask if we had arrived at New Paradise. Four hours after embarking we pulled up to a completely nondescript riverbank, unmarked by anything that would indicate a nearby settlement. Upon leaving the boat we discovered that we still needed to walk 45 minutes through a series of banana plantations to reach the town.
Our meeting finally began around 2:00 pm after an announcement over a loudspeaker had gathered about 40 interested women in the town’s main square, comfortably shaded by a group of very large mango trees. Maribel began an animated presentation about what Manuela Ramos would do for the new group of borrowers and what the MFI expected from them in return. Early on in her presentation Maribel asked the audience what they understood by the verb “to invest”. After a minute of shy silence followed by some additional encouragement from Maribel, a dialog began. Maribel used this dialog to segueway into a discussion of the secret to succeeding in any business: working very hard.
The people of New Paradise are almost exclusively banana farmers, although they also grow some corn and beans. Each day long wooden boats like the one that brought us to the town make the trip downriver to Pucallpa laden with heavy cargoes of bananas from the townspeople’s plantations. Before and after the meeting, Maribel asked detailed questions about harvesting cycles, land use, earnings, and how the townspeople are finding markets for their produce. In the course of her questioning, Maribel learned that many of the townspeople are also receiving loans from ADRA, another microfinance institution serving Peru. The next steps in getting this group of borrowers started with Manuela will include placing a call to ADRA and then assessing each potential borrower individually. Maribel needs to check with ADRA to make sure the townspeople have been able to pay back their loans so far—she doesn’t want to overload them with additional credit from Manuela if they are already struggling with their current loans. Next week Liz will return to the town to conduct individual borrower assessments. If all goes well, the women of New Paradise should have their first loans from Manuela Ramos sometime next month.
After our meeting ended we quickly returned to the spot where our boat had left us in order to catch a ride back downriver to Pucallpa, which the townspeople had assured us we would be able to do. For the last two and a half hours of daylight we frantically waved our fluorescent orange life jackets up and down, trying to catch the attention of the few boats cruising toward Pucallpa down the wide, brown expanse of river. As darkness approached and no boat stopped, we realized that we were going to have to spend the night on the riverbank. Although we were all quite dismayed by this situation, failing to find return transport did give us the chance to watch a small group of pink Amazon River dolphins languidly hunt fish near the shore in the hour before sunset.
Fortunately, Don Javier, an elderly fisherman who lives alone in a small, partially open-sided wooden hut hidden among banana trees about a hundred feet from the riverbank, offered to put us up for the night. He appeared quite happy for the company. After a dinner of boiled green bananas and a delicious fish from the river, the three of us squeezed under Don Javier’s one spare mosquito night. It was a very tight fit, but certainly better than sleeping outside where swarms of mosquitoes buzzed like a small army. The lack of electricity and the threat of mosquitoes kept us under that net for 12 long hours of darkness (the sun sets at 6:00 pm around here). We were very fortunate to flag down a boat headed to Pucallpa at around 8:00 the following morning.
I hope this little story gives an idea of the dedication of Manuela Ramos’s Pucallpa staff to bringing their programming to harder-to-reach communities. To learn more about Manuela Ramos’s microfinance program, click here. To view a list of Manuela Ramos’s current fundraising loans on Kiva’s website, click here./>