More problems with Bendicion de Dios

November 5, 2008

On Monday, I also accompanied Dalila the loan officer to a bank meeting in the neighborhood of El Porvenir.  We’re sitting in the living room of the defaulted señora’s house on damp, rickety sofas.  The walls are leaking despite the bright blue tarps lining the corrugated tin roof.  There’s an old handheld boombox that’s hung up tow nails on the wall.  A new refrigerator stands in one corner of the room and a rickety shelf supports a DVD player and a small television.  The other bank members eye these things suspiciously as they file in for the meeting.  The whole scene is somber and moddy; before the meeting even starts, I can tell the women are quick-tempered and prickly.


In February, almost nine months ago, Zulma was crossing the Ecuador/Peru border with goods she had purchased for store in Trujillo.  She was detained by customs officers and all of her merchandise was confiscated, leaving her empty handed. With no products to sell, her business failed, she had no income and, subsequently, defaulted on her loan.  Because the bank’s status is based on all members making on-time payments – no one in her group has access to capital currently.


Strangely – even though the meeting was held in Zulma’s house – Zulma refused to enter the room.  Her mother sat in the living room representing her while Zulma cloistered herself in her room just a few steps away from where the rest of the group was meeting.  For a long time the family has been saying that they will try to pay the debt, but it’s been seven months since everyone else has paid off their loans and the ladies no longer believe them.


The meeting was called in the first place to vote on a possible solution, but because so many of the bank members are irritated and disillusioned, only 8 of the 30 members have come to participate.  So instead of being able to take action via bank vote, the women turn instead on the girl’s mother and demand payment.


They accuse the family of not wanting to pay, of not taking responsibility for their debts, of not making the necessary sacrifice for the benefit of the group.  The mother is indignant and says she will pay at the end of the month, but it is of no use – they’ve heard her excuses for several months now.


And in a strange and awkward twist: I’m here to do my interviews on the progress of their loans.  All of the women I’m talking to have finished paying their loans months ago and are currently waiting to find out when they might be able to access their working capital again.


One woman tells me that she has been a member of the Bendición de Dios bank for two years and has been able to grow her business significantly through Manuela Ramos.  Early in the year she had expanded her fruit selling to the Sunday markets in nearby Andean mountain towns.  She had increased her loan amounts six-fold over two years with the bank; she and her husband were doing so well that they were considering buying a small truck to help transport the fruit she sells up to the Andes.


But here in November, her life has been turned upside down.  Her husband died one month ago and she is reduced to almost no working capital.  This has taken a toll on Teolinda’s business and she says she has difficulty supplying her fruit stand now that she doesn’t have access to the loans like she used to.


I spoke also with Zulma who tells me she has been sick for two months… Her mother is outside claiming she’s been incapacitated for four or five and how can she pay the loan if she’s paying for Zulma’s medicine.  Last month when I attended the bank’s meeting, the mother claimed she would be paying a significant portion of the debt at the end of the week – this was in mid-October.  Zulma herself is dejected and reticent; she’s only 20 years old and she’s up against some adamant women twice her age.  No wonder she wants to hide here sick in her room to let her mother fend off her attackers.  She complains to me that she never missed payments before and that the bank members are no longer united to help one another.


I can see why the women are frustrated with Zulma and her family: the excuses they are giving do not add up and with all of the problems the women have in their own lives, it is pissing them off to hear the mother leading them on.  Why can’t she sell the TV, the refrigerator, the DVD player for goodness sakes?  Zulma’s mother denies that they belong to her and says they were gifts to Zulma’s sister who owes the bank nothing at all.  It’s getting contentious, but we’re nowhere close to any kind of closure.


At last, Dalila adjourns the meeting and tells me afterwards she thinks the only solution is to file a legal claim to the debt which amounts to $245 USD. As we were leaving, the girl’s father steps in and offers to pay S./20 ($7)  per week until the debt was satisfied.  That would mean the other women would have to wait eight months before they could apply for new loans.  For their sake, Dalila says, it would be better to take the legal course of action because that – believe it or not – will be a faster process than the trickle of payments offered by Zulma’s family and who knows if they will even keep their word about that.


It was a bitter scene, mostly due to the fact that no one trusts Zulma or her family.  With their savings and future capital frozen, the women have no sympathy or tolerance for the 20 year old girl locked away in her room.  Never mind that she had no control over her ordeal with the customs officers, these women have ordeals of their own and the bottom line in a communal bank is: no matter what happens, for the sake of the others, you must find a way to pay.


One comment

  1. Your drawing is phenomenal. Had me laughing out loud in my cab on the way to Delaware.

    Shame about Paco’s cousins, but people gots to eat I suppose.

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