THE BLOG
01/18/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Art in the Midst of Land Mines, From 'Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories'

Venture is a rich and readable collection of true microfinance stories. It is written for anyone who would like to better understand the realities faced by the the aspiring middle class in the world's least developed countries, the range of factors that affect their prospects for working their way out of poverty, and how microfinance can impact their lives.

The entrepreneurs featured in this book are all members of Zidisha Microfinance, a web-based crowdfunding platform that allows low-income, computer-savvy entrepreneurs in developing countries to share their stories and negotiate microloans directly with individual lenders. As the world's first person-to-person lending service to eliminate intermediaries and connect individual web users and entrepreneurs across the international wealth divide, Zidisha is uniquely positioned to offer an undistorted depiction of the variety of individual stories and circumstances that come to play each time a microfinance loan is disbursed.

Each story paints an unforgettable picture: A 70-year-old goat farmer who relocates his home to better care for his ailing father, carrying the sticks and metal sheeting it was made from across the mountains on his back. A plump, beaming detergent saleslady who lives in a home no larger than an ordinary bathroom but has adopted five orphans. A cancer survivor who supports herself and two children by pounding millet for $1.58 per day. An irrepressible lady who supplies half of her neighborhood with much-needed IVs and other medical supplies by day, and by night checks into the local cybercafe to chat with Facebook friends on the other side of the world. A young man who has no arms but insists on working to support his able-bodied parents out of filial duty. An accounting student who pays for his university tuition by purchasing a taxi and splitting proceeds with a hired driver. A bright young lady who renounces college to care for her orphaned siblings and overcomes gender stereotypes to launch a thriving construction business.

At its heart, "Venture" is a tribute to the remarkable community of Zidisha Microfinance entrepreneurs and countless others like them -- a tribute to their grit, ambition and indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming obstacles. We hope this book will help translate the statistics about poverty and the opportunities afforded by microfinance into human terms, and inspire readers to reach out and connect with their counterparts on the other side of the international wealth divide.

Story 15: Art in the Midst of Land Mines

Alassane Diop hails from the Casamance, a region in southern Senegal that has been devastated by decades of separatist conflict and one of the most impoverished places in West Africa.  He runs a workshop that hires and trains his neighborhood's unemployed youth in the art of batik, a craft that uses wax and contrasting dyes to create vibrant designs on cloth. 

Alassane learned the art of batik from his mother.  "From a very young age this trade fascinated me," he recalls.  "I was always moved to see her put so many colors on a single piece of cloth."  Unable to afford education beyond high school, Alassane returned to his childhood pastime and opened his own batik workshop.  From there he and his assistants turn out a bewildering assortment of brightly dyed bed sheets, blankets, table cloths, shirts, and pants.  Alassane used the earnings from his workshop to support his parents while continuing to grow the business.

Alassane used a loan of $780 from Zidisha to repair his workshop's leaky roof, allowing work to continue despite the heavy downpours typical of Casamance's rainy season, and increase his stock of cloth and dyes so that he can take more orders at a time.  Regarding future plans, Allassane said, "Eventually if all goes well I hope to buy some land and have my own house. To make this happen I will have to work long and hard."

Despite his isolation from Zidisha staff and partners in Dakar, Alassane made repayments reliably until disaster struck: his mother whom he supported with his business earnings fell gravely ill. He used all the profits he had saved from his Zidisha loan to pay for her health care, taking her to a hospital in Dakar where she finally passed away.

Alassane is a talented writer, and regularly posted comments on his loan profile page to educate lenders on life in the Casamance. His writings, some of which are reproduced below, suggest that he was involved in anti-government protests during the turbulent 2012 election - a dangerous activity in the lawless Casamance, where human rights abuses are still rampant. In February 2012, his comments stopped abruptly. Ever since then, all attempts to locate Alassane have failed.

Alassane's Words:

I've spoken about Zidisha to my friends, to lots of people. We are a country with a majority of young people, brave, industrious young people who can't find a place to work. Many companies and factories are closed. People either remain unemployed or risk going to Europe in small wooden boats: you can imagine the dangers.

I once told people that I know "don't be discouraged, don't go to Europe, it's risky. Stay here, there's lots of potential to make a living here - with our rain we grow and sell produce, we can fish. With my Zidisha loan, I will invest in dye-making. I will one day buy a car to start driving a taxi as well, they make 10,000 francs CFA [$20] a day. And after that I will be able to buy my own house - even though I will have stayed in Senegal and worked. So stay here and believe in yourself."

This year has been far too difficult for me. I almost lost my eye at in an accident at work. I recently lost my mother, a month ago. While she was ill I had to bring her to a hospital in the capital and pay all her hospital bills. All these costs were covered by the savings that I made through Zidisha. Thanks to Zidisha my mother could live a little longer.

All of this almost too overwhelming to talk about. I now have another life and refuse to give up. I will continue to fight, for my mother, and to respect my payments with Zidisha.
I started working again, and am saving. I will keep in touch...

I am the kind to think a lot, I have ideas all the time, work plans in my head, but the funds are still lacking, and the day that I saw Mack, an intern with Zidisha who came to see me at my work place to talk to me about Zidisha, I said to myself: My God that this isn't a dream. At the end of a few weeks, [Zidisha staff member] Steve called me to congratulate me because I was going to be financed, it was very good, apart from it, my work reflected a new ambition, it was going to become more professional, this money permitted me to do repairs first of all, I bought gloves, goggles, masks, basins, and a workshop, all the necessary material was there. This permitted me to have the stock all the time and every time a person wanted to see or buy something there they always had multiple choices available, I did fashion shows on tour. Financially, it was better.

With my finances I help my family from time to time pay the bills to buy food, I had had an accident with work, I almost lost my eye, it is thanks to the funding from Zidisha that I succeeded in saving my eye, my mother was very sick, I paid for the medicine and her hospitalization until the day she died, I had a profound thought; if I had not had money, she would have have passed away earlier, I paid the last months of tuition for my brother who had to pass the baccalaureate, the test before entering university, he found that financially it was expensive but I could not leave it one month to his exam, finally, he passed and in the commencement speech he thanked Zidisha. Today I can but thank all those with good intentions who have the confidence and the firm belief like us as well, we have the firm will to prosper in our work, a gesture that is small for you but makes a dream a reality...

Your loan has allowed me to scale up my production to the point where I can market my wares to tourist lodges in the villages. Everything is going well and my batiks are popular. However, I only make the trip to Ziguinchor city on Thursdays, and this week there was a band of rebels committing armed robberies on the road to Ziguinchor, so we had to turn back. I intend to try again this Thursday to travel to Ziguinchor to deposit my repayment...

I've finally returned from my trip, and all is well. Diembering village is a tourist site, and doesn't have much in the way of internet access. They have pretty campgrounds and tourist lodges, a good seaside and very pretty jungle. The delivery of batik that one of the tourist lodges had ordered was a success. Everyone liked my batik, and I was even able to make contact with new customers in other villages. The order I delivered this time consisted of dying all of the tourist lodge's sheets, pillow cases, tablecloths and cloth napkins with batik designs. I just had to come once a week to take care of my family and other business.

I was fortunate to have other very rich experiences: the people of the village came to see my artwork, and we talked and they told me about their lives. During school vacations the village regains all its children. Their livelihood comes from farming, fishing and raising animals. The natural surroundings are green and abundant because it rains well. All the youth of the village farm rice and corn, and they are able to harvest enough to feed them throughout the year. They make baskets from palm leaves and sell the baskets, and this allows them to have a bit of cash to buy school supplies...

I would like to talk about the uniqueness of my region. You should know that Ziguinchor is the victim of a rebellion called MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance). This rebellion has been around for almost thirty years and now people criticize and denounce it but it is still there. They are mostly in remote areas and attack people traveling--they rob cars and make all the passengers get out to steal their goods. The unfortunate ones are killed in cold blood. After these actions the rebellion returns to the bush. It is in this atmosphere that I still live. I've seen a lot of people killed, houses burned, women raped, and people who are taken away and never return...

I'm not afraid to say that this [my Zidisha profile page] is a way for me to denounce the rebellion that has made us endure suffering and losses, a way for me to share my troubles with anyone who wants to hear it. When I was a student, I wrote to the President to let him know that we need peace, not to destroy this beautiful natural region. There are clashes between the army and the MFDC (Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance). There are talks and plans to stop the conflict, but the MFDC remains.

Because of the presence of rebels on the road, everyone wanted to travel by boat to Dakar and that is why a boat called the Diola overloaded and capsized on September 26, 2002. I don't know if you heard on the news, but there were more than 2,000 deaths and only around 60 survivors. As you can see, it is awful. Traveling by airplane is best but it is also the most expensive.

Have you heard about Senegalese people who take canoes to go to Spain? Hundreds of thousands of young people have lost their lives at sea. All of this has a direct impact on my work, because as you all know, everywhere I go, I am a witness to all of this awfulness. I am a young person who believes in myself. I am not tempted by foolishness; I make a living by the sweat of my brow. This comment is like a drop of water in the ocean...

In this moment we are living in a very tense situation. I am doing my batik in between students throwing stones who have been on strike since October and police with tear gas. A fierce battle is raging between students and government forces, to the point where a student was killed by a bullet. It is because the presidential elections are in a few months so nothing works. All sectors have been on a strike against the government because of the cost of living, imagine that today there is not transportation, no bread, no fish--everyone is on strike because the cost of gasoline is too expensive, the professors are also on a strike for months because they have not been paid.

I am writing all of this quickly because I am doing many things at once. I will take the time to tell you all about the tranquility, also the sides that are not negative. Ziguinchor is a beautiful region full of life, it is paradise on earth. I am telling you all, I am showing you all, and now you all know...

Regarding the presidential elections, the whole population is rebelling against a third term of president Abdoulaye Wade who is 86 years old. Can you imagine? He is the oldest president in the world. He had written on the constitution that his term would have stopped in 2012 but, a few months before the elections, he says he is candidate. So he is breaking the constitution of Senegal. His candidacy has been accepted by the constitutional council that he elected himself, so, because they are all friends of him, they could only accept his candidacy. They are five magistrates to whom he offered 5 million francs CFA [$10,000] and cars: This is pure bribery...

Senegal is mismanaged, life is too expensive and people do not eat enough - that's leading to the loss of our values, and that encourages young people to take a boat to Spain, which is practically a suicide. Things that cost 10 francs CFA [$0.02] a few years ago, now cost 250 francs CFA [$0.50]. The old woman who sells peanuts in front of her home, she needs 500 francs CFA [$1] to feed her children and she pays 200 francs CFA [$0.40] per day for taxes, when are her children going to starve?

No sector is functional. For example, the education's budget represents 40% of the total country budget but, let me say to you all, there are empty schools this year. Indeed, since October, the pupils have not studied fully during a month; there are strikes every time. Teachers goes on strike because they don't get their salaries, the new graduated students (from high school) are not orientated to universities...

Besides, in my region in the South, it's even more complex, because there are rebel infiltrations during riots of the people. That explains why people are dying--the police are shooting with real bullets... That's why, madam Zidisha director, I can't go out every time I want. The only way to contact you is with my phone, so I don't want to lose it...

The particularity of the southern regions is geographical and cultural. You must know this region is bordered by Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, the Republic of Guinea, and the Atlantic Ocean at west. Every ethnic group from the subregion and from West Africa is present. So, the cultural diversity is very strong. It is a wild and green area. The nature gives us all. But, today the conflict has made its own enclosure: every Zinguinchorois on the same line is fighting for a definitive peace in order to give back the smile and the real identity to the Casamance, to make people stop starving, to make justice be done, to stop the sacrifices of youth, to create jobs, no more land mines, that everyone can earn a living in peace...

I live in a very tense political climate... The electoral campaign started a week ago. The candidates are going everywhere with their thousand supporters but their arrival in Ziguinchor is a major problem because of the rebels presence around here. This past Saturday, the President came in the south of our region but in a helicopter. I never saw in my whole life so much military and law enforcement personnel. The scene in front of me was just like a country at war. The phone lines were down, nobody could dial out or receive any calls and I could not take any picture for fear of being arrested...

The school year is invalid. Since the beginning of school year the students did not have any grades or test or evaluations. It's been four months that they are not in school.
Everywhere tires are being burned, the traffic is intense and impossible to beat. We are constantly breathing the smoke of bursting grenades. The army does not hesitate to shoot in the crowd...

I hear some noise outside, it is getting dangerous. I need to leave until it is safer. Talk to you later.

Long live democracy!

You may view more comments and photos of Alassane's business at his Zidisha Microfinance profile page.

From Chapter 15 of Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories by Zidisha Microfinance.

Next time:A warm-hearted mother opens a one-of-a-kind barbershop in Kenya's rugged highlands...

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