Bout It

November 20, 2008

The women in these banks are about their business.

Tonight I visited with the Las Americas communal bank.  They are thirty women strong and have a history of being behind in payments.  Mind you, this isn’t all of them, but some three or four women have fallen behind this currrent cycle.  In order to stay in good stead with Manuela Ramos, the members of the communal bank have withdrawn money from their communal savings account to cover the amounts owed by the delinquent socias.  But now the non-paying bank members owe their debt to their fellow socias.

As is often the case when a socia has had a financial or familial problem that causes her to default, these defaulted socias have retired from the bank and no longer attend the meetings.  How will the remaining socias recuperate their outstanding savings you ask?

By rolling up en masse on the former socia’s house!  That’s right, ten socias and the loan officer and me in tow sidled up to not one but two ladies’ homes tonight.  They are polite during their unannounced visit, of course, but it is also obviously intimidating to have a dozen women roll up in your house to ask you when and how you plan on satisfying your debt (which you no longer owe to Manuela Ramos but to your neighbors’ savings accounts).

Carmen, the loan officer, tells me that one of ex-socia is “fresh”- she literally said fresca! – and it reminds me of my grandmother scolding me for my bratty attitude.  Nevertheless, the pressure is on, and by the end of our visit the woman agrees to settle up by the end of the month.

Now, I don’t want to promote the picture that these women are descending on one unfortunate woman whose life has been derailed financially for some reason or another while they heartlessly swarm round her and harangue her for her misdeeds. No, it’s nothing like that.  The point is that the delinquent socia – “fresh”, repentant or otherwise – sees and understands the number of people that depend on her.  There’s no opportunity for out of sight out of mind: here we are and yes we know you’re in a tough spot but so are we and when will you bring back our money?

With the “fresh” ex-socia, the bank members leave triumphantly, but at the second woman’s house it is a different story.  She is uncomfortable upon our arrival and she seems torn between indignance and shame.  Her family is struggling and she explains to all that she is having trouble week to week with her husband’s sporadic work and several mouths to feed.  She is one of many perfect examples of what happens when misfortune befalls people on the border between stability and poverty.  An illness, a robbery, a death, or even more lives – in the form of babies – can tear down what these women have worked so hard to build up.  The socias don’t want to embarass anyone here; the shift their feet and uncross their arms. And yet, they say gently to the woman, no matter what happens to any of us which Lord knows what could happen to any of us, don’t we still bear that same responsibility to one another?

I interviewed a woman today who tells me proudly that she still made her payments to the bank even though she was incapacitated for several months.  During this period, her small grocery store folded while she was in the hospital battling typhoid – and yet, she still found a way to satisfy her debt obligations.  She plans to restart her store in January once she has rested and fully recuperated.  For now, she is attending meetings as an ahorrista or “saver” and joining the home visits to make sure her fellow socias honor their debts just as she did hers.

And so goes the process.  Each holding the others accountable through thick and through thin.  I find myself vacilating between  thinking debts should be forgiven or paid based on the individuals’ situation.  But I suppose more and more I realize that being steadfast, as these women are, is the only way to keep themselves faithful and the bank intact.



  1. Jenny, I love hearing all these stories! It’s so exciting for me to hear about successful work happening in Peru (albeit with difficulties).

  2. man, talk about peer pressure. to be between a rock and a hard place. you know rennie, these women somehow know what to do and figure it out. and the loan officer has seen and heard stories and excuses galore, legit or not. you are a reporter/journalist..listening to their individual struggles and successes, keeping your mind open and in turn sharing them with us. it is hard to not form an opinion and offer solutions.

    You look so happy and content. Blogs are funn, so jenny. I miss you hope i see you soon out on the west coast. Happy Holidays!
    Lauren P

    PS You look beautiful! I am jealous of your tan

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