Sara Leister is a Programme Management Officer for VisionFund and 2016 has seen her travel across continents to ensure the robust implementation, measurement and evaluation of VisionFund projects.
As the year draws to a close, Sara reflects on a particularly special day she spent in the field with VisionFund Senegal…
Have you ever had one of those days that is so memorable you know you’ll recall it for life? I was lucky enough to have one recently in Mbafaye, a village in rural Fatick, Senegal, and the setting of ‘One Day’, a short film VisionFund released in September to showcase the work of our women loan officers. I travelled to Mbafaye to attend the village ‘premiere’.
Sunrise: My day starts early in Dakar. This is my first time in West Africa: I have spent the past two years in the U.S. helping to raise funds for our microfinance work in Senegal and have long anticipated this opportunity to meet our staff and the clients we serve. When Jean Tchiapi, VisionFund Senegal CEO, picks me up I am relentless with my questions as we head to Fatick: What is our most popular loan product? Agriculture. When is the MFI most in need of funds to meet client demand? October. Why do clients pick us over competitors? Transparency, financial education and client service.
Afternoon: We arrive in Fatick and head to the branch to meet Fatou Diagne, our acting head of operations for Senegal. She warmly welcomes us and introduces us to Mbayta, the star of ‘One Day’.
Mbayta is remarkable: she is a loan officer in Senegal, where social norms discourage women from driving the motorbikes required to do the job. VisionFund works hard to encourage women just like Mbayta to apply for loan officer positions as so many of our clients are women. Mbayta has had the courage to take on the role and the boldness to help local women access the financial services necessary to grow their businesses and incomes so they can provide better lives for their children. I try to think if I have ever gone so far outside my comfort zone to help others and support my family. Instead I remember the one time I attempted to ride a motorcycle and the burn it left on my leg when I lost my balance and crashed.
Sunset: I have spent the afternoon with our staff and volunteers setting up the One Day screening. My favorite part of the set up: teaching a few children the joys of playing with punch balloons, which we then strung up for some festive décor.
The crowd warms itself up, taking turns dancing while the DJ plays music; everyone in the village must know we are having a party! I spend a few minutes with Mbayta and Marie, the star client in ‘One Day.’ Marie has brought her youngest child to the celebration and he watches with wide eyes from her arms. Marie moves me: she is quiet, a bit demure, yet I can feel her sense of dignity. She tells us how microfinance has enabled her to earn more, how her seven children now eat better and go to school. I am in awe of her resilience, poise and ability to overcome the challenges of poverty.
Night: The screening begins with a short recognition ceremony to thank our stars Mbayta, Marie and Binta. The 100-strong crowd cheers loudly before pausing and turning to see a flood of children making a late arrival. It seems a few children have gone to fetch 50 more friends, including the local football team. They run (or in some cases, race donkeys) into the courtyard, joining the crowd and causing a swell of singing as everyone goes wild in honor of Mbayta. Everyone falls silent as we start screening the film, cheering when they see the stars from their community light up the big screen.
Later: A few days later I have an opportunity to sit down with Fatou and learn more about how we work with women like Mbayta and Marie. In Senegal, over 80% of our clients are women. They use microloans to raise animals for resale, process local crops to increase their value and run small commerce businesses. These days, she says, most commerce is run by women: “Just check each local market,” she tells me.
Fatou herself is an inspiration to me. She has been with VisionFund Senegal since it began as a World Vision microfinance program, working her way from sponsorship officer, to loan officer, to branch manager, to acting head of operations. She is an advocate for our female clients and staff. The percentage of female clients we serve in Senegal has increased by 8% this year alone, in large part due to the branch Fatou opened in Kaolack this January attracting women clients, and she has intentionally developed the women on our staff to equip them for future management roles.
My day in Senegal will stay with me for years: seeing a new part of the world, playing punch balloons with children and, most impressionably, meeting the amazing women we serve and our staff like Mbayta and Fatou. I have seen God’s love and grace at work in this community and am so thankful for the opportunity to see VisionFund’s mission in action.