I’m accompanying a group of European and US Oikocredit investors, members and staff to a village in the northwest of Cambodia. It is my first time to meet the Khmer, the people of Cambodia. All I know about Cambodia is from the movie, the Killing Fields, which tells one man’s story of how he survived the bloodiest period in this country’s history.
Now I am here and impressed by the kind spirit of the people I meet. “Cambodian people would never start a business for charging mobile phones like you see in other countries.” I’m told, “because they would always help you and charge your phone for free. They also never tell a lie.” 14 million people live here. How can they all be so kind and honest?
Twenty of us pile into a specially rented bus, lunch bags clutched in one hand and extra water bottles in our bags. It’s 8am but already swelteringly hot and on our pale faces gleam the first drops of sweat. The heat is like a sauna. Inside the air conditioned bus, a smartly dressed, young Cambodian lady shyly takes the mic and introduces herself as Sam Samnorn, the provincial branch manager of VisionFund Cambodia, a microfinance institution that’s recently received a deposit taking license.
I later find out she joined VisionFund right after high school and worked herself up from loan officer to branch manager. She manages 41 staff members and a portfolio of over US$ 2 million. That’s what I call women empowerment!
The bus bumps over unpaved, red roads that will turn to deep, thick mud in the rainy season. On both sides of the road, I see dry rice paddy fields and rural homes with walls of thatched palm leaves and in the yards: thin dogs, low round hay stacks, scrawny chickens, young children, open kitchens, laundry on the line, and surprised looks on faces when they see this bus filled with white foreigners pass by.
We finally arrive in the small village of Snor. There in a roof-covered patio area, next to the local primary school, thirty women, some with babies and toddlers, are waiting for us. Another young lady, the World Vision social worker, is lecturing the women on the benefits of education. During the revolution in Cambodia, being educated often meant trouble for you and your family so people had to pretend to be uneducated to survive.
Four banners with various pictures, one of a graduation cap and some text in Khmer, stand as assisting props but look more look like advertising banners to me.
The only man, old and thin, with sunken cheeks, sits in front facing the group. He’s the village chief, and it’s not the husband who co-signs the loans with these ladies but the chief. Before the actual loan disbursement process begins, we’re split into groups and I’m with the group that’s taken to the home of Tith Lean, a tiny woman who’s obviously nervous to see such a large group arrive at her doorstep.
Four strong beams at least three meters high hold up a sturdy and well-built wooden house. Her husband built it with a loan from VisionFund to pay for the wood and corrugated iron for the roof. She sees our faces frown with concern.
“Such a nice house. How can this obviously poor family afford it? What if they can’t pay back the loan?” We sit in the shade beneath the house and begin our questioning.
“What is your dream?” We ask.
“That my children get a good education.” She replies.
“How big is your loan?” “What is the interest rate?” “How many other loans do you have?” “Where do you get your household income from?” She patiently answers all our questions and even starts to relax a little. Her husband also comes closer but stays in the background. She’s obviously the designated talker of the two.
When we’re reassured that she won’t easily become OID (over indebted) and could in fact be making a living for her family by borrowing US$ 350 equivalent at 2.5% with monthly repayment. She pays no commission or additional costs. There are no compulsory savings withheld and her family produces 10 bags of rice, raises chickens and pigs to sell. And that the meat sells at US$ 4 a kilo, we are reassured. And we too can relax. There’s time for a photo and off we go to our next borrower visit.
Interesting read! Thanks Kawien