The Widows

Arriving at the meeting early, 2:00 was my completely American error. It was scheduled from 2:30 – 5:30, and I considered beforehand that I should really show up at 3:00. But, it was my first time with this group, and what if I missed something important? The meeting began when everyone showed up – at 3:30.

As I sat in the dirt parking lot, I sipped on my frozen water bottle. I knew that even though I had completely frozen 1.5 litres of water, it would be melted and drunk before the meeting was over. Also, just holding it keeps me from overheating. The station nurse showed up at 2:30 to sit with me and wait. She wanted to attend, but had to leave by 3. She had forgotten her water (the nurse!) and we sat taking turns holding and sipping mine, sweat quietly dripped down our backs and temples.

After Nicole left, another very seasoned missionary arrived whose husband had worked in building what is called the Dorcas Widows Home. She sat with me and talked about her hopes for a village south of us. She had started a health clinic in this village many years ago and trained one of the villagers to be able to continue on. She is in the middle of battling breast cancer but is here to check on how things are going in the village.  Her trainee would take the responsibility to train his replacement, and the village would need someone to learn basic nursing when he was too old to carry on. Her mentee was killed in a motorcycle accident two years ago. At that time, his two young adult daughters decided to carry on his work. They, because this is a subsistence society, operate on a volunteer basis and will never be paid by the villagers or those who come to them for help. They are running the clinic, providing aide during baby delivery and keeping a small medical dispensary open with malaria meds and other medications that would not be available without the clinic. They are the stop gap between life and death. May God help and bless their efforts.

She is very happy that these young women have decided to keep the clinic open. There was doubt in the village on whether to use the clinic once the missionary was gone. Though the “real” nurse isn’t there anymore, over the past year, people have come to realize that the services these young women have learned are life-saving.

As she finishes telling me her hopes for the immediate future, widows and their children begin to arrive.  Micro-lending and very informal but valuable employment networking goes on here. Many of the women, including two of the three leaders, are wearing the exact same bright yellow complets. They had them made a few years ago to signify their membership together in this group.

The leaders of Dorcas Widows are Lucia, who is French, Greek, Canadian and American; Christa, a German woman who is retiring this year; and Mantou, a Nigerienne who is a widow. When a widow needs a home visit, Mantou goes. Lucia and Christa go sometimes, but the face of this group is Nigerienne.

Normally, the widows come alone – this is their once a month meeting that provides support and encouragement. But, today there is a medical team from Castle Rock, Colorado (Go Colorado!) present. They are here to offer medical checkups – something no one here could afford if they weren’t a part of this group. If there is time, the team will do checkups on the kids. In the meantime, there is a small contingent of volunteers giving the kids a painting class that teaches in French a message that God created the world, that He sent Jesus to pay for “les péchés,” and that He loves us. Jesus’s message to love each other and treat others as you would like to be treated ends with lots of glitter being passed around to give the paintings a special touch. The glitter is this crazy kid magnet. I have been with the widows for much of the meeting, but I wandered over as the first group of kids finished their paintings. They touch the glitter with damp hands and touch their faces. A few of the girls ask me if I have a “portable” to take their picture. No matter that we are glistening with sweat, now they sparkle! As I snap a few pics, one of the girls laughs softly and DUMPS glitter down my hair and back. Wow, I rake my nails across the back of my neck and come away with fingernails full of glitter and sweat. The girls laugh and I smile. Boy, am I funny!

When I was first introduced to the idea of coming to this group, Lucia really had to educate me. In most societies, the marginalized people are women, children, or handicapped. This is true in Niger. When a woman marries, most often by age 15, her husband is much older than she. He is at an age where he can afford a dowry. By the time she has borne their children, he may have reached life expectancy and she becomes a widow. At this point, in a subsistence society wherein she has few skills and little education, she must make a living (rarely possible) for herself and her children or she must remarry. She is no longer 14, so she may become a second or third wife. If she remarries, the children are still her responsibility as they are not the progeny of her husband. But, he will provide shelter for them. Here is where Dorcas Widows comes into play.

I must also say that in most countries where micro-lending occurs, it is a one-and-done philosophy. This model is not effective in Niger. When a widow applies for a loan, she must state what it is for and how she will be able to pay it back. Thus, if she is going to apply for a loan for a sewing machine, she will say that she is learning to sew and could make a living. However, if she also needs a refrigerator, under the old philosophy, she would spend a year paying back the loan on the sewing machine, and then spend another year saving for the refrigerator before she would be able to buy it. In the meantime, she cannot buy anything in bulk to save her precious few dollars so that she can keep her family afloat financially.

It’s as simple as the following tiny example. I buy apples in “bulk.” It costs me 1500 cfa and I get 8 apples. If a woman wants to save 500 cfa (which is about a dollar) she will buy apples at the per apple rate and pay 1000 cfa for 4 apples for the week. So, her family will have less food every time she buys something at the non-bulk rate so that she can one day get a refrigerator. But, if she can buy apples and get the bulk rate, by keeping them in the fridge, she can pay 1500 once for eight apples instead of 1000 twice for 8 apples and have the money to pay back her loan and still have enough food.

In such a society as this, a widow must have a resolve of steel to keep her family together and fed.

About half way through the meeting, one of the women motions to Lucia that she has brought some money to put down toward her repayment. Lucia gets out the folder and finds her sheet. She and the woman bend their heads together. Lucia records the payment and shows her the new lower balance. They hug. Lucia is proud of her, and from across the room, so am I. Other women notice the repayment, and a line forms as women wait their turn to have their payments received and recorded. Later, Lucia shows me how she keeps the records.  I leaf through the pages of micro loans – fascinated at the decisions these women make in spending their loans, and how faithful they are in paying them back, little by little. What would you purchase for a micro loan of 100,000 cfa – $180?

We lost power before the meeting began. So, we’re pretty much all dripping in sweat as the women wrap up receiving their turns to be called to the next room for their physical. The clock is now showing 6pm. It will be dark in an hour – which means the medical exams will have to stop. The doctor who heads the group decides they need help with triaging the children. He asks Lucia to figure out who is the sickest. They will see them first.

I get my first experience helping as I write the name of a young boy that needs to be seen on one of the exam sheets. We have permission for him to be one of the first, and we walk him over to the darkening room. They begin the exam, and I walk out.

I watch Lucia explain to a mother that her daughter has received a prescription for eyeglasses. The prescription has no words, only numbers, so the woman is confused. Lucia explains how to fill it and says when the optician gives her a receipt, she needs to bring it to Lucia who will pay the cost out of the Widow’s Fund. The mother and her daughter hug Lucia. They thought her eyesight was going permanently.

Lucia tells me later that there are many new widows at this meeting that she has never seen before. One of the benefits that the new widows get to observe is that Dorcas Widows has some donors. School started again for Nigeriens this month. School supplies are another once-a-year cost that it takes months to save for. Lucia has an envelope for each member of the group with the name of their children and how much is being given as a gift toward school supplies. The leaders of the group are careful not to give out monetary gifts frivolously, but they want to send a clear message that they value education. Love it!

In a country where 95 – 98% of the people believe in a God who is more capricious than loving – and where life is so hard, to some it feels like God might be more capricious than loving – how do we share our faith?

We rely on your prayers that we would be of use to God here. Would you pray earnestly, pray now?

We show up – daily, weekly, sometimes monthly, in the lives of those to whom we would witness and love.

Lastly, we don’t grow faint of heart at what we see.

There is hope for the helpless, rest for the weary, love for the broken heart – to quote a Third Day lyric.

Thanks for sharing this experience with me.

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