Manos Unidas (United Hands)

October 25, 2008

Yesterday in Chongoyape, a farming town one hour north of Trujillo, I attended the monthly meeting of Manos Unidas, the “United Hands” communal bank that serves the women of Congoyape, Lipote and Saucipe.


Our meeting is starts at 3:00 pm sharp and Mara the loan officer is counting up the vouchers the women are turning in as they arrive—these vouchers serve as proof that the borrowers have gone to the local commercial bank to pay their monthly debt obligation.  My MFI Manuela Ramos has deals with two national banks who will accept payments for them and in return will provide a voucher as a receipt to the socias.


After the roll call, Mara announced to the group that we had all vouchers turned in save one.  Nevertheless, Mara led them briskly through the opening of the meeting and a short business practices session.  She even had them act out a skit as though they were selling fruits to difficult customers!  Everyone played along, although for the most part people chat and gossip and catch up through the beginnings of the meeting.


After the skits and discussion session, the banks books were opened and the treasurer of the group asked for names of women who would be requesting loans from their internal account.


***ASIDE – The communal bank’s internal account consists of the accumulated savings of all of the women.  The internal account is vital because individuals in the group can “borrow” from their own savings at an interest rate set by the communal bank.  In this way the women can tide themselves over month to month when their other sources of income (their businesses’ profits or Manuela Ramos loan) don’t cover their expenses.  Also in this way, the bank earns money for itself by charging interest – albeit by the women paying to use their own savings.***


Almost everyone is raising their hand to draw from the groups internal account when the treasurer asks for new loan requests.  Of the seventeen women present fifteen wanted the maximum they could withdraw.  It will be two months before harvest time in December and this is one of the most difficult seasons of the year when people are saving up for Christmas festivities and school holidays.  The women are allowed to withdraw up to 80% of their savings at a given time which must be repaid at 3.5% monthly interest and must be repaid within the same term of their Manuela Ramos loan.


Mara told the treasurer to take down the names and the amounts requested but also informed the socias that they were short one voucher and that they knew what that meant.  There is one essential caveat to internal account borrowing that is about to make this meeting turn on its head:  ALL vouchers must be turned in for the internal account to release new loans to the socias.  If one person is late on paying, or even if she has paid but has not turned in her voucher, the bank closes without a single loan disbursal.


The women know this rule well, but they assured Mara that they knew the woman had paid, she is running late and she should be here any minute now.  The treasurer went ahead and noted down the names of every woman requesting money; the amounts they wanted ranged anywhere from $30 to $250.  For every name called the process was this:


Señora MaryLou, how much would you like to withdraw?


How much am I allowed?


80% of your current total is… 600 Nuevo Soles, señora ($200).


Yes, that then.  Three months please.


Only one woman wanted 30 soles, less than her maximum allowed.  She requested S/30.00 – the equivalent of $10.


When the list was completed the meeting was an hour and a half in and it was apparent that the woman was dangerously late.  The socias, fearing for their loan requests, moved to action.  They began to search for her telephone number.  They called her mother’s house to see if she had a cellular number.  They peered outside every time a mototaxi drove by to see if she had arrived in it.  They sent a messenger to her home to see where she was and if she was on her way.


At her mother’s house the messenger was informed that she had gone to an Avon sales conference earlier in the afternoon but that she planned to attend the communal bank meeting.  The socias asked the loan officer, “Señora Mara, please wait a while longer, she has made her payment and she’s coming any minute now.”


Mara agrees to wait another half hour but is worried that she will be late to her next appointment in Paiján.  The time passes anxiously with everyone peering at the clock on the wall and whispering to each other about the woman’s tardiness.


But the half hour passes and she doesn’t appear.  Mara and the treasurer start to count the currency in the lock box to prepare to close the bank.  The room is silent and all you hear is the clinking of change and finally, the clank of the lock box shutting and locking.


Mara packs up her things and the women still peek out the windows at the passing mototaxis, hoping that the woman will appear in one of them.  And as Mara picks up her bag to leave, she suddenly does appear!


Here she is, señora! Open back up the bank! Here she is with her voucher!


But no, it’s too late.  It is ten minutes until her next meeting starts and Mara must travel to the next town and she will surely be late.



And the room is in an uproar:  the woman are scolding Mara for her impatience and inflexibility, scolding the woman who came late, complaining to the bank president about what’s happening to them.


Why didn’t you send your voucher with someone else? We’ve been here waiting!


Why, señora, can’t you give us our money? We need it! We can’t wait another month!


Why didn’t you plan ahead, Nancy? This is your fault we are like this!


My father is sick, I couldn’t leave him for long and this other meeting I had was an obligation I could not miss… Here is my voucher here, take it, Señora Mara.


Excuses, Señora Nancy! You must not do this to us!




Mara, por favor, open the bank it will only be five minutes, please señora.


But it is too late and Mara excuses herself rapidly with apologies and a final explanation: Understand my situation señoras; we must all be on time with our attendance and our payments.  What would happen if I stayed to reopen the bank and was thirty minutes late to my next appointment? I’m sorry señoras but I can’t, that is my obligation and you must wait until next month.


The group spills out into the dirt road and there is a crowd around the one late señora who defends herself valiantly.  Surely, they all have problems but she has hers too with a sickly father and her child here in hand that she must bring everywhere with no one to care for him but her.



I am traveling down the road to one of the señoras houses to see her business and the bank president Señora Elvia is walking with me too.  With a sigh, the Elvia tells me this is the first time in eight years that this has happened to her bank.  She had planned to take out money as well but she was stalwart in the meeting, holding firm with the women who complained to her.  In the end it was she that dispersed the group and sent the señoras circling the delinquent woman home.


Elvia and the other señora and I talk about the meeting and the woman’s excuses as we pass the sugar cane fields towards Saucipe.  It is a shame, but the women seem to understand that it must be the way it is.  With nineteen women all relying on each other for 8 years it was bound to happen once, they say.  Still, it will be hard this month, but to that end they seem resigned and accepting of it.  As we go futher down the road the conversation turns to asparagus cultivation and life in Cuyuchugo and it’s really lovely with the setting sun.  I love it, but it’s bittersweet too.  I feel a tinge of regret that Mara couldn’t stay even if it would be an affront to the women I don’t know in the next meeting.  But I suppose like the señoras I should accept the way things are.  They are more stoic than I, and here I am feeling indignant even with my bus ticket back to my hostel and my life … 


Here comes my bus and Señora Elvia is seeing me off and inviting me back the next time.  And off I go and off she goes down our separate roads and I guess that’s how it will be – at least until next month.


One comment

  1. Wow, great story! Will you be at this same meeting with the same people next month?

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