Mercy program gives boost to women in Tanzania

March 1, 2011

African villagers benefit from small loans, scholarships


Through a two-pronged program focused on work and education, a Catholic hospital in southwestern Colorado is helping villages in Tanzania to benefit from the entrepreneurial savvy of what was once a largely untapped human resource there: women.

The five-year-old "Mercy to Mbulu" program uses funds from the foundation at Mercy Regional Medical Center of Durango, Colo., and from the medical center's employees to fuel micro loan and scholarship programs for women in the Northeast Tanzanian districts of Mbulu and Karatu. The efforts are having a profound impact on the recipients and their communities, according to Karen Midkiff, chief development officer for Mercy Health Foundation, the foundation that supports programs at Mercy Regional.

"Together, we're developing leaders, and we're empowering people," Midkiff said. The Mercy Regional benefactors, she said, "feel like peacemakers because we're allowing people to have a new source of income, and in this way we're extending an olive branch to them."

The need for aid is great in Tanzania, which is among the world's least developed countries according to United Nations measures and has one of the world's poorest economies, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. Per capita gross domestic product in the agriculture-based economy was about $1,500 last year, according to the Factbook.

Mercy Regional began its involvement in Tanzania through the hospital's parent company, Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, and another CHI hospital, St. Joseph Medical Center of Towson, Md. Since 2002, CHI and St. Joseph have run a Village Wellness Program providing health care aid in Tanzania. Helping out with some Village Wellness initiatives, Mercy Regional leaders became increasingly interested in doing more.

The XX factor
Mission and Spiritual Care Director Diana McKenna was among the Mercy Regional staff who traveled to Tanzania about six years ago to meet with leaders in the Diocese of Mbulu to determine how best to aid villagers. Ansila Tembo and Sr. Basilisa Panga, two Mbulu women, emerged as resourceful point people in developing the Mercy to Mbulu program.

Tembo is a college-educated mother of four employed by the Mbulu diocese to work on village wellness programs, and Sr. Panga is the health minister for the diocese. Both promote the capabilities of women and they quickly honed in on the need to involve women in Mercy Regional's aid work.

The traditional view in many African villages, Mbulu and Karatu included, holds that the women should raise their children and focus on household labor, especially hard labor like chopping wood and carrying water long distances. The Durango and Mbulu team members that developed Mercy to Mbulu posited that there was much that Tanzanian women could do to expand their sphere of influence to benefit their communities.

Real grassroots
The team of Mercy to Mbulu planners developed the small loan initiative first.

Tembo keeps her eyes open during her regular visits to Mbulu and Karatu villages for women with strong leadership abilities and enterprising spirits. She invites these women — she calls them animators — to join together in cohorts to start small, money-making enterprises.

More than 40 cohorts have sprung up, mainly agricultural-type enterprises. Some women raise goats, chickens, pigs and heifers; some operate mini-farm stands to sell crops; some make mats and baskets from grasses in their village.

Tembo teaches the women how to start and run small businesses. And, they receive the loan, often about $100 U.S. or more, to get their businesses off the ground. While the loan amount may seem miniscule, the money goes a long way in Tanzania, said McKenna. For instance, many of the women have used their funds to buy fencing, food and veterinarian care for their livestock.

Tembo introduces the small loan program gradually, slowly getting a sense of which families are most receptive to the idea of the program and most ready to participate.

The program has gotten some push-back, said McKenna. "Initially, some of the men felt threatened by the women doing this work. But then they saw how it was paying off, and that they could now afford to use the money the women were making to send their kids to schools," and they have become increasingly accepting.

Part of the revenue generated by the cohorts' businesses goes to repay their loans, which creates a pool for new businesses. "This keeps spreading from village to village," said Midkiff.

During her travels to Tanzania, McKenna has heard grateful loan recipients describe how Mercy to Mbulu has expanded their vision of who they are and what they can accomplish. One woman told McKenna through a translator, "I used to have thoughts about who I was, but kept them to myself. There was no one to tell. And then Ansila came and talked about the kinds of things I was thinking about, and I thought, ÔI can do this and that there are other women who feel like I do.'"

Two years ago, the planning team added the Scholarship for Girls Program to Mercy to Mbulu.

In the districts the program serves, 25 percent of women receive no education, and it is uncommon for the remainder to receive an education beyond what Americans would call seventh grade. To help ensure that more women receive secondary and post-secondary education and other training, the Mercy Regional team and their Mbulu counterparts developed the scholarship program. A committee of Mbulu and Karatu villagers select young women with an interest and aptitude for higher education to receive the scholarships to boarding school or university.

The committee screens potential scholarship recipients carefully to ensure they have the right attitude and that their parents support the idea of them getting an education and will invest some of their own money into the girls' education.

Secondary education costs about $1,000 per year, and university education, about $3,500 annually. So far, the program has given scholarships to eight girls for secondary education, and four for university. The program is to produce its first university graduates later this year, and the hope is that most of the graduates will pursue health careers in Tanzania.

The Mercy Regional team gets regular cards and letters from the girls and women, updating their progress. One woman, a university student, said she hopes her education will enable her to improve her community and to educate others. Another wrote that with her father not around and her mother impoverished, she would have had no other way to pay for school fees without the scholarship.

McKenna and Midkiff said Mercy Regional employees generously give to Mercy to Mbulu because they love knowing that they can serve others in the developing world. The program also relies on a stream of grant money from CHI. The system and Durango donors have given several hundred thousand dollars to Mercy to Mbulu over the last three years.

"Our mission at Mercy is to serve as Christ would serve," said McKenna. "We do that in our hospital, and now this is just another way to do that, in Tanzania."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.