Volunteer Review: Micro-finance in Senegal – Maximilian Wieland
My name is Maximilian W. and I am 17 years old. I was the first micro-finance volunteer here in Senegal, and was thus a big part of setting up this fine undertaking. My two weeks stay here in St-Louis, in the north of Senegal, has been absolutely incredible, and a truly life-enhancing and augmenting experience and my job as a micro-finance volunteer had a big role to play in creating such a remarkable experience.
Before my departure to Senegal and upon setting down in Dakar late on a Saturday night, I was naturally a bit anxious and apprehensive about the weeks to come. The negative tinge to apprehension was quickly subverted however when Cheikh from Projects Abroad met me outside the airport, and took me for a burger in his favorite restaurant.
Over a cheese burger without the egg, he told me something that would remain an important consideration and explanation for many things throughout my stay. Cheikh said, “You know Max, people in Europe and America they don’t smile like we do here. Life is to be enjoyed, and not to be lived unhappily and constantly in pursuit of frivolous matters.”
Arriving in St Louis
I arrived in St Louis on Sunday afternoon, and was introduced to my host-family, Family Fall. My host-family was fantastic to me and staying in a house-hold which constantly invites half of the neighborhood round for food and drink was an unprecedented experience.
I was so excited and enthusiastic to start on the micro-finance project, so that when the time had come on the Tuesday, I was in the office like a shot. I met Ousman, my boss and partner, and obviously Moctar, the country director and the man heavily behind the project. We talked about the weeks to come, and set up a plan, which would see us select four Talibé beneficiaries, two from each Talibé center.
The Micro-finance Project
We had truly embarked upon the journey of setting up a micro-finance institution if you like. From the brand-new little micro-finance office in the Projects Abroad centre, Ousman and I coordinated the upcoming steps, and held a speech at both centers, telling the adult Talibé of the opportunity which was now up for grabs. It was a delight to see the faces of the Talibé living in grueling poverty, listening to an opportunity of a life-time being presented to them. We informed them of the procedure, which was a basic lesson on accounting on the following day, followed by a 90 minute test, and then an interview.
We prepared the lesson, held it twice, once for each group of candidates, and then had the big test that afternoon. That night all I could think about was which Talibé was able to truly shine in that test, and go one step closer to clinching a way out of poverty and economic independence. In a way I wanted all of them to get the loan, but we had to choose four at the end of our selection process, which progressed by correcting the tests on the following morning, and staging interviews with all candidates. The test was rated out of 20, with one candidate achieving the full score. The interviews were however truly remarkable.
We had prepared the questions on the first day, and now it was time to test the pertinence of the business plan of each Talibé. The motivation, ambition and sense of hope in each and every one of their eyes was magnificent, and every one of the Talibés had thought of a sensible micro-finance venture, which were very viable on the whole. I distinctly remember one Talibé coming into the office to have his interview with the biggest smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, merely delighted at the opportunity he now has.
Ismail Sy went on the talk to us about his proposed business of selling second hand clothes from Europe, and he needed the loan, and the assistance provided by the Project Abroad team to make his business succeed. In the past he was only able scrimp and save and buy one small bag of clothes and thus not make a very large profit. When we calculated the money he would be taking home if he conducted his business well, we came up with 40,000 CFA a day, a huge step forward for Ismail. I was so pleased to be involved in shaping and realizing his dreams and ambitions; genuinely remarkable.
All of the candidates had the unperturbed optimism which Cheikh had told me about at the beginning of my trip, that all-withstanding smile which means they are willing to try hard and succeed, with the thought in mind that everything will be ok. We selected our four final candidates after evaluating all the interviews, and ended up with four very promising young entrepreneurs. We sat together with each one of them one more time and calculated cost, evaluated the location of the business, came up with schedules, and had the Talibés sign a contract, stating that they will pay back the loan.
Thus by the end of a fascinating two week stay in a country which I have embraced with my heart and soul, I have instigated the process by which I will change four young people’s lives. I have contributed to their smile reaching further across their face, to them gaining economic independence and I have led them to the path, that elusive path, which will one day lead them out of poverty, and allow them to live a life of dignity and health. The one thing I hope all of the Talibés retain is that unblemished optimism, and the unrivalled commitment they have to values of peace, love and respect.
I have befriended countless numbers of people in the streets, who are so grateful of the work I am doing to improve the lives of the street children. I have had countless great nights out with other volunteers and locals who take the optimism and laughter from the day, and turn it into vigor and rhythm at night. I will definitely return to this life-changing cradle of smiles and life, in an attempt to visit the young men I helped this summer, and see the progress they have made.
It has been a great pleasure to be the first micro-finance volunteer in Senegal, and I would urge anyone to embark on the same journey, and let Senegal and the great people change you forever, and teach us a lesson about what happiness is.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.