It is hard to believe that around this time next year, my Peace Corps service will be drawing to a close.  Although a year seems like a long time, and even looks like a long time on paper, you and I both know how the time flies.

With this in mind, I thought it would be useful to schedule a meeting with the women’s association I’ve been working with, Si Teriw, to reflect on the past year and plan for the year ahead.  I invited the head of Peace Corps Mali’s Small Enterprise Development (SED) sector, Macki Cissoko, to portray a sense of formality to the women and to take advantage his superior language skills and business acumen.

Although the meeting didn’t start until an hour after the scheduled time (I certainly hope to have at least one meeting with Si Teriw that begins within fifteen minutes of the scheduled start time!), it was an overall success.

We used a series of tools called Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA) to think through the past year and plan for the future.  The first of the tools we used probed the women to think about things of which they are proud.  Often groups are brought together to think about problems and solutions but are not given an opportunity to reflect on what’s working.  This exercise allowed the women to think about the past year and what made it a good year for Si Teriw.  Among the things they mentioned were:

  • Having regular monthly meetings
  • Making nearly 80 kilos of high-quality shea butter in September 2011
  • Learning to make soap
  • Visiting Kita for the tech exchange with “Si Nafa”
  • Starting a credit program with the shea butter profits

The second activity asked that the women detail the work they do throughout the seasons, so that they can see for themselves what parts of the year are best for holding formations, producing additional products and working together in a large group.

After identifying the times of year that they are able to do additional work – generally during the dry season – we set out to brainstorm wants and needs for the organization.  From this list, we used a tool called Pairwise Ranking to develop a list of their top five priorities:

  1. Baliku Kalan (literacy training)
  2. Baarake minen (purchasing work materials)
  3. Feereli (marketing their products, finding new markets)
  4. Juru wari caya (increasing the amount of money that is available in credit)
  5. Baarake yoro (identifying a workplace they can call their own)

It is very exciting for me to see that literacy is at the top of their list of priorities.  As you have read in this blog, and many of you have heard through numerous stories, the lack of literacy among the women has been a source of great frustration and is something that I think will certainly be a challenge for the women as they expand their business.

Having this list of priorities is incredibly helpful for me in planning out the remainder of my service and ensuring that my time and the available resources are put to the best use possible.  This also proved to be a very valuable exercise for Si Teriw (just as goal setting is for any organization).  By setting out a list of priorities and working toward these goals, the women can maintain momentum, focus on fulfilling their goals and, this time next year, complete a critical assessment and plan for the next year.

After we completed this exercise, one more very important thing needed to be done – we had to collect the first round of credit that had been given to the women.  After all of the women had repaid their loan (only one village didn’t pay back the loan in full and they claimed they would see the woman who took the credit later in the evening to collect her money), we collected the money that the women made selling soap.  Then, we added the savings that had been collected as dues in past several months, and the total came to 120,000 CFA – about USD $240.  The announcement of this total called for a round of applause, as did the presentation of 20,000 CFA, or USD $40, to each village to be re-distributed in credit for another six-month loan period.

Once the money was distributed, we wrapped-up the day long meeting with some traditional singing and dancing.  I returned to my house that evening with a smile on my face and a sense of pride in the association that I’m working with.  Against many odds, they have succeeded in their first year as an organization and they certainly do have a lot to be proud of.  From the looks of their priority list and the success of their credit program, it appears that the year ahead will also bring with it success – Ala k’u deme (may God help them)!