First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

In Mali, a promise of empowerment

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Photo: Zeenat Potia / Oxfam America
Photo: Zeenat Potia / Oxfam America

My initial impression of the village of Sirakoro, Mali, was an explosion of color. The women were dressed in bold prints, often with twirled head scarves, and yet their dazzling outfits contrasted sharply with the mud brown backdrop of their village. On the surface level, to my untrained eye, the poverty in Mali was different from the stark, in-your-face urban poverty that I grew up around in Mumbai, India. Here the struggles seemed subtle to a visitor, but were equally if not harsher. No running water or electricity, scarcity of food, and lack of adequate schools—to name a few.

I traveled to Mali recently to attend a conference on Saving for Change, Oxfam’s innovative microfinance program that empowers women through small, rural, community-based autonomous savings and lending groups. Saving for Change is now reaching 300,000 women, in almost half of the 10,000 villages in Mali. We went to six different remote villages and had the opportunity to see the savings groups conduct their meetings, and to talk with individual members about their experiences.

Despite President Obama’s assertion last week in his speech during the Millennium Development Goals Summit that the delivery of medicines to Mali is improving the health systems there, the UNDP statistics on Mali continue to be humbling. The overall illiteracy rate is 73.8 percent, with women faring much worse, and the average life expectancy is 48.1 years.

Yet, here we were witnessing change in difficult circumstances. The savings groups are comprised of about twenty women, and they sit around a circle conducting their business orally, often repeating the amount that each woman contributes, since no written records exist.

In the village of Samako, in the Koulikoro area, Fatumata Dumbiya told me that before Saving for Change, if her child got malaria, she could go around the whole village and not be able to find a single dollar, but now she has a safety net, and this gives her a sense of immense calm. Over and over again, I heard stories of women starting small businesses, having enough money to pay school fees for their children, and of improved relations in the family due to a small monetary cushion. It was apparent that Saving for Change had not only created access to capital, but it had also increased the women’s self-esteem. In fact, quieter women who didn’t speak up before were now being fined, albeit a token amount, for talking too much in the groups.

I came away from Mali inspired by the women, their entrepreneurial spirit, and the solidarity that emerged from the groups. I was also equally struck by Oxfam’s partners in our technical unit, the animators (as they are called) who go from village to village training the women to form the groups. The passion and dedication that they brought to the cause was palpable. Eventually, Saving for Change is designed in such a way that the groups are self-sufficient, and the animators can bow out, truly fulfilling the promise of empowerment.

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  1.'Jeffrey Ashe


    Beautfully written and puts what Saving for Change is accomplishing in these villages within the larger context of what still needs to be done. Reading how your describe the brilliant colors of the women’s clothing with the drabness and poverty and the hope that SfC has helpded them achieve on their own was inspriing.

    Jeff Ashe


    Zeenat, what a positive, inspiring report. I think your story is testimony to the good that comes about when the right intentions get fuelled by the right tools and reach the right people at the right time. The photograph you put up says it all! Thanks for all the good work.

  3.'Toni Elka

    Thank you for this peek into an economic development and women’s empowerment project. More such blogs please. The small facts, like a formerly quiet woman paying fines for being to talkative, bring this meaningful work to life! I’ve never heard the term, animator, it’s so descriptive of the energy transfer. Where did it come from?. And the picture is just wonderful. Thank you Zeenat!

  4. Zeenat Potia

    Thank you all for the kind words.

    @Toni: The word animator actually comes from the french animateur, and it’s what folks who traditionally do this kind of work are called in French speaking Mali. I love how you refer to it as ‘energy transfer’ because that’s exactly what it felt like to me, seeing them in action.


    Yeah why are U.S. political people kicking back, & celebs are the only ones working to find resolutions to the problems happening in Africa right now?I just saw a picture of George Clooney talking to Pres. Obama on what he’s seen. There are people who believe that movies and video games can make kids do negative things. If Clooney got Americans to see Uwe Boll’s film “Attack On Darfur” I think he would have more people doing positive things like standing up against the reoccurring violence in Darfur.


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