When I first began working in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill, my initial impression was horror that the country was being run by a bunch of 20-somethings. At 23, I was solidly within the median age range and even felt old when I saw peers walking around with short skirts, finding myself thinking “how inappropriate!” It didn’t take me long to become accustomed to the age range of Hill staffers and soon it even made sense to me that they’d all be so young. The hours were grueling, the work was exhausting, and without energy, enthusiasm, and a youth-like belief in our country a person could not be sustained to carry out his or her tasks.
On my first day at one of BRAC’s branches I had a similar moment of shock at the young faces of the staff. In all of the books I’ve read about microfinance and all of the anecdotes I’d heard through the Fellows Blog and other avenues, I had created an image in my head of a wise, 50-something person distributing loans to the poor, compassionately working to help them lift themselves out of poverty. While the loan officers I’ve met are certainly compassionate, they are not at all 50*. At the first branch I met exclusively 20-somethings. Thinking it might be an anomaly, I visited a second branch only to find more of the same. So far all of the loan officers I’ve met have been young, energetic, driven 20-something women. As one of those myself, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these women and seeing what brought them to this job. The more I learn about them and their work, the more I understand why I was so wrong to have been surprised.
Much like Capitol Hill, the work of a loan officer requires massive stores of energy. Arriving at work at 7:00am daily and leaving no earlier than 6:00pm, a loan officer spends, on average, the first 5 hours of every day walking on dirt and sand roads, up hills and over streams to meet with her clients. When she returns to the office, she fills out mountains of paperwork documenting the transactions that took place in the field. As MFI branches are often located in remote locations–even those branches around the city–loan officers frequently have long commutes in the overcrowded daladalas to and from work each day. It is not uncommon for them to spend more than an hour and a half in each direction.
One loan officer mentioned to me that she is getting married in November and when she does, she is not sure she’ll be able to work at this job anymore. She says her husband won’t want her working such long hours, and as she starts a family she will have to be home more than this job allows. Worried that I would judge her for this assertion, she quickly added that “You don’t know Africa–it’s different here than America. My husband will not want me to work so much. I want to start a family.” She is right that I have a lot to learn about Africa, but the idea that the job would not be conducive to starting a family does not make me look at Africa’s culture as chauvinistic. On Capitol Hill I encountered much of the same thing (now, whether or not the Hill’s culture is chauvinistic is a different matter). When visitors would marvel at the youth surrounding them in the office my simple explanation was that we have to be young–that if we had families we could never do all that is required of us here. For a loan officer, the same is true.
Meeting these loan officers, the dual purpose that MFIs serve has been illuminated to me. The women (BRAC employees almost exclusively female loan officers–this may differ at other MFIs) are bright and ambitious. Some have finished their A-levels and are preparing for university while others hold Bachelors degrees. All of them care about Tanzania and want to stay in the country but the universal chorus is that finding a good job in Tanzania is difficult. Some of them came upon their work not necessarily out of a deep-seeded passion for microfinance but more practically as a means to make a living and have a good job. They all agree that their positions with BRAC are good for them and they’re happy to have a stable income with a respectable organization. While the power of microfinance may not have been their first reason for coming to BRAC, their investment in and compassion for the women they serve is obvious. BRAC, then, is not only providing poor people with access to capital, but it is creating jobs (several hundred throughout the country) for Tanzania’s brightest young women. As it does so, BRAC is promoting the country’s stability and future success from multiple levels of affluence, helping women from all backgrounds work to earn a living.
*Note to all of the 50-somethings reading this: I am not calling you old. Please take to heart my image of you as wise and ignore any other possible readings of this post.
To see BRAC’s currently fundraising loans, click here./>